3/16/15

THE SANITY CLAUSE: A THALBERGIAN-MARXIST INTERPRETATION


By 1934 The Marx Brothers were an act that had gone into freefall. 'Duck Soup' had, unbelievably, been a huge box-office disappointment and Paramount had failed to renew their contract. Zeppo, sick of being fourth banana, had abandoned the act and started a new career as an agent (and a quite successful one as it turned out). Harpo went on tour in the Soviet Union, Groucho toured in the play 'Twentieth Century' and decided he preferred actually being an actor to being a comedian and Chico played a lot bridge. Then along came Irving Thalberg who decided that there was mucho juice left in the act as long as they revamped their style of filmmaking. Instead of hanging absurd comedy routines on an absurd plot (as had been their modus operandi thus far), Thalberg insisted that a conventional plot with romance, pretty songs and intrigue would lure non-Marx lovers into the theater and provide a more suitable backdrop for their madness. The initial result, 'A Night At The Opera', has for so many been considered their best film that it's impossible to watch it anymore with anything but regret that Thalberg was right. One misses the irrationality of the Paramount films and one loathes the romance and pretty songs and intrigue. Having said that, ANATO is still a hell of a great comedy and I've decided to spend the week excerpting the comedy scenes, several of which are among the best things they ever did. Above is 'the party of the first part' contract scene in which Groucho and Chico obsess on the sound of the writing of the contract, as opposed to the content. As Joe Adamson points out in his seminal book "Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Sometimes Zeppo" if we all thought about the way contracts sounded, nothing would ever get signed. (His book, by the way, is not just the best Marx Bros. book but one of the finest and most amusing of all film studies books. I highly recommend it).

Would you like to hear a Marxian anecdote? Okay. When Thalberg and the Marxes first met, Thalberg asked where Zeppo was. Groucho told him that he'd decided to leave the act and now it was just the three of them. Thalberg asked if they still expected to be paid as much as they previously had now that there were only three of them. "Don't be silly," answered Groucho. "Without Zeppo we're worth twice as much."

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