For close to 90 years, the world of pop culture has been influenced by four brothers from New York. Their look has sold millions of “nose glasses” and novelty wigs. Their faces have graced the walls of movie theaters, been spray-painted onto walls, and turned into shirts and posters. They’ve shown up in cartoons, comic books, and album covers. It is impossible to imagine the world without the Marx Brothers, but why has their filmography continued to be so well known while so many of their contemporaries have all but vanished?
The answer lies in their comedy, and how it hits on just about every point of a person’s life. From the day you are born to the day you die, there’s a Marx just for you.
It starts with Harpo, the living cartoon forever trapped in the real world. In conversations, he’s clearly confused because, like a kid, more complex conversations go over his head and bore him. Harpo communicates through expression, like a parent to a newborn; his wide goofy smile and large, warm eyes make children feel secure, and his actions make them feel understood. He contorts his face into odd expressions, puffing his cheeks to insane levels or scrunching it up and gritting his teeth like an angry puppy. He runs around without a care, randomly making choices and quickly losing interest in whatever is going on. In Monkey Business, we see that Harpo is more comfortable around children than he is adults, and while there is no true continuity to these movies, it isn’t like they play different characters in them. The names change, but the personalities are set in stone.
Harpo’s actions are a release for kids. Sure, he isn’t as smart as the adults, but what he lacks in smarts he makes up for in honesty. Harpo doesn’t do anything out of greed or lust or evil intent; he chases women, but on the few occasions that he actually catches one, all he wants to do is hug them. Harpo will fight, but it is a childish style of fighting with a focus on kicking people in the butt and on the rare occasions that Harpo does hurt someone, he is tricked or pushed into it by others. Kids are easy to cajole in this way.
As our innocence fades away with the onset of puberty, we lose our connection to Harpo. We no longer have time for childish things because we think we’re too smart for it now. We enter our teens and with it, we become more rebellious, snarking at parents and teachers with their stuffed shirts and condescending tones. Hair grows on our bodies, and the three or four that pop up under our nose seem like a lush mustache to us. We are teens, and the world revolves around us.
And as teens, we see ourselves in the sovereign of snark himself, Groucho. With his painted eyebrows and mustache, with his never lit but always messy cigar, with his baggy Salvation Army clothes, Groucho Marx is what every teen wants to be, and what too many think they are. He talks fast, demands to be the center of attention, and has a pithy comment for every occasion. His constant use of wordplay and double entendre shows off just how smart he is. Everything Groucho does is an epic adventure, and everything he says is pure gold.
In just about every Marx Brothers movie, we’re shown a Groucho whom people admire even though he doesn’t actually have a clue how to do anything. He is an agent of chaos that the world applauds because he says he knows what’s best with great confidence, and everyone with a stick up their ass is a target for his sharp wit.
Time and again we watch Groucho as he makes a fool of Margaret Dumont. She cares for him as a mother cares for her own annoying teen. In our teens and 20s, we see Groucho as the hero standing against Dumont’s stoic system of etiquette, but as we come into our 30s and create Harpos and Grouchos of our own, we start to feel for Dumont.
Not just Margaret, mind you, but Zeppo Marx as well. Between the two, we are presented with the lives of mothers and fathers. While Dumont is pressed into the more serious role of parenthood, Zeppo still gets to have some fun. Zeppo gets Groucho’s jokes but just doesn’t find them as funny as he once did. In the role of a parent, Zeppo is often put in the position of Groucho’s assistant, taking care of the things Groucho is so clearly incapable of taking care of himself. This is further pushed by Zeppo’s character — he’s the only brother who doesn’t look like a clown and he has the ability to have an actual conversation. If Dumont is the mother of Groucho, Zeppo is his dad who, on occasion, gets caught up in the tomfoolery.
If we’re lucky, we’ll make it through adulthood. We’ll see our kids, or our friends’ kids, go off and become Grouchos before turning into Zeppos themselves. We’ll get to that point in life that so many grandparents hit, the not-giving-a-crap phase. Suddenly you can’t understand what people are talking about, just like when you were a kid, but now it’s because you can’t be bothered to pay attention to all the bullshit. You’re tired of sexual innuendo because you’re too tired for sex. You’ve reached the final stage of your life — the Chico years.
There is no better moment that explains Chico, or old age, than the contract scene in A Night at the Opera. Chico has no time for things that make no sense to him, and he’s even less interested in learning anything. Of every person the Marx Brothers come across in their movies, only Chico ever gets under Groucho’s skin.
When he’s messing with random people, Chico has a devilish smile and a twinkle in his eye. He pushes his politeness to the point that you can’t miss the facetiousness of it. The rebellious teen that dwells in us all is still in him, but he’s found a way to better use it. In Duck Soup, Chico, selling roasted nuts from a pushcart, turns the simple phrase “peanuts to you” into a hard-to-prove but clearly intentional put-down by placing the emphasis on “nuts to you.” It is a beautiful, simple moment that comes with getting older and not giving a damn.
When he butts heads with Groucho, Chico shuts him down repeatedly. Groucho’s sarcasm doesn’t work on Chico because Chico plays the ultimate old man card, playing dumb. If Groucho can’t make Chico feel like a fool, he can’t have any fun with his rebellious ways.
Like the elderly, Chico enjoys spending time with the child of the gang, Harpo. He can easily control Harpo, getting him to do what he wants, and Harpo is more than happy to please his pal. Harpo also acts as the energy for the two; Chico rambles on about nothing in particular while Zeppo runs about making people hold his leg or cutting men’s ties in half. Whatever it is that Zeppo does, Chico has the same basic response: “These kids today. But hey, what’re you gonna do?”
The two of them combined, the child and the old man, are the ultimate battle for the teenage Groucho. He can’t get a one-up on them because Harpo doesn’t get it and Chico has heard and done it all before. He was the kid who had more energy than smarts. He was the teen who rebelled against everything he saw. He dealt with being the adult who cares for the kids. Now he’s the grandpa who teaches the four-year-old curse words.
These four men cover the course of a human life in every movie they made, and in doing so they have withstood the test of time. The Marx Brothers are still relevant today (even if some of their jokes aren’t) because in them we see ourselves.
Derek Faraci lives in Farmington Hills, Mich. He is well into his Zeppo years.