Socialist Worker

New chance to decide on the best Marxist

by Martin Smith
Issue No. 1907

AS MARX once said, "One morning I shot an elephant in my pyjamas. How he got in my pyjamas I don't know." As you have probably guessed I'm talking about Groucho, not Karl, who along with Chico, Harpo and Zeppo made up the Marx Brothers. Their slapstick comedy routines and films are sheer genius.

One-liners like, "I never forget a face but in your case I'll make an exception," and, "Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read," made them one of the greatest comic teams of the last century.

The re-release of the Marx Brothers' classic Duck Soup gives all those uninitiated with their work a chance to see them at their very best. But before I go on to talk about Duck Soup it is worth taking a quick look at the Marx Brothers' lives.

Their parents fled Germany in the 1870s, victims of vicious anti-Semitism. They arrived like so many others before and since in New York. Born, as Groucho would say, at an early age, the children were taken out of school to perform in vaudeville.

By the 1920s the Marx Brothers were major stars. Their style of slapstick humour fitted the times-the world was recovering from the devastation of the First World War and prohibition. Yet vaudeville was a dying art form, cinema was its replacement. The introduction of the "talkies" gave the Marx Brothers their big break.

From 1930 to 1933 they released a series of classic films-Animal Crackers, Monkey Business and Horse Feathers. But for readers of this paper Duck Soup is the most interesting.

By 1933 fascism was sweeping across parts of Europe. Mussolini had ruled Italy for over a decade and Hitler had just come to power in Germany. It was Harpo who wanted to make a film that lampooned the Nazis. Duck Soup was the result. Set in a mythical country, Freedonia, the film takes a totally irreverent swipe at war ("We have to have a war, I've already paid a month's rent on the battlefield"), patriotism and religion. One song proclaims, "We got guns, they got guns, all god's chillun got guns."

This film came out seven years before Charlie Chaplin's Great Dictator and was so powerful both Hitler and Mussolini banned it! Groucho was by far the most political of the brothers. Although never a member of the Communist Party, he was part of a Social Democrat discussion group in Hollywood.

When asked by the Communist Party to join, Groucho famously quipped, "I don't want to join any organisation that would have me as a member." In 1947 Groucho was part of a high-powered Hollywood delegation including Humphrey Bogart, Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly who went to Washington to oppose the McCarthyite witch-hunts.

Groucho also used comedy to take on the bigots. One day an anti-Semitic swimming pool manager refused his daughter entry, and Groucho said, "She's only half Jewish. How about if she only goes up to her waist?"

Even in the twilight of his life Groucho was one of the first Hollywood stars to come out against the Vietnam War and he shocked the establishment when he said the only way to get rid of President Nixon was assassination!

The poet W H Auden wrote, "Every society tolerates the comic joker... Witness the popularity of Chaplin and the Marx Brothers. But it only tolerates a very few and furthermore if the joker goes too far they can be whipped." McCarthy got Chaplin and he was desperate to get Groucho.

Only a few years ago the FBI released its files on Groucho. In it they quote Groucho calling the US the "United Snakes of America", they record his attendance at socialist rallies, but the biggest section was on Duck Soup. See this film and find out why.


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Sat 26 Jun 2004, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1907
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