The Wedding Marx

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For our anniversary, Fiona and I ate out and then decided to astonish the world by watching a movie. Yes, a year already. It seems to be lasting. Of course, we’d been together for twenty years before we got hitched. It’s a good system: a lot more marriages would last until death us do part if the couples waited until they were nearly dead before making it legal.

We considered various movies to watch for this special occasion — things that got us both interested in movies in the first place, like KING KONG and Ray Harryhausen, classic science fiction like FORBIDDEN PLANET and THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, classic horror like FRANKENSTEIN etc. But in the end we plumped for the Marx Bros, and the one I proposed was HORSE FEATHERS (1932), just because we’d never watched it together. It’s the Paramount one without Margaret Dumont, which was why Fiona always chose a different one.

But HORSE FEATHERS is very good, even if it doesn’t have the Grande Dame herself. It has Thelma Todd, and it had been so long since I’d seen it that this time I recognised a lot more people, like Robert Greig, the butler from SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, partially eclipsed by his beard, and Vince Barnett standing at a bar with no lines (somebody thought another comedian might come in handy), and Theresa Harris (as a maid, of course) and Nat Pendleton.

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If the faces hadn’t previously registered, the dialogue was mostly etched in memory. Groucho’s address to the college, his address to the class, the password routine, And Groucho’s perfect response to a threatened musical interlude from Chico, stepping up to the camera and telling us: “I’ve got to stay here, but there’s no reason you folks shouldn’t go out in the lobby until this thing blows over.” I actually like Chico’s recitals, it’s Harpo’s that make me tired.

Just watched a documentary on clowns produced by the estimable Lobster Films. It tells the story, at one point, of Harpo’s trip to the USSR. His baggage containing various pistols, daggers, prop bombs and sticks of dynamite (all part of the act) he was detained and interrogated by the Soviet police, a scenario for a play if ever I heard one (to be entitled So You Won’t Talk, Huh?)

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HORSE FEATHERS has a big slapstick football game climax. I hate sport. I am to sport what Richard Dawkins is to religion. And while I admire Keaton’s COLLEGE and Lloyd’s THE FRESHMAN, I don’t like the way the bookworm turns and beats the jocks at their own game. It isn’t realistic, and it’s a betrayal of their identity. So, although it isn’t so very funny, I quite like the way the Marxes just destroy the whole concept of a rues-based competitive sport, racing to the touch-line by chariot and producing a whole series of balls to raise their score.

Marx Bros films usually fizzle out, being predicated upon nothing and defying narrative structure, but this one has a good, if arbitrary ending, with all three brothers (Zeppo may be there, but he’s wisely framed out) marrying Thelma and then aggressively clambering aboard her as the Wedding March blasts out, applying to the rules of matrimony the same freeform approach taken to football.

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 The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection

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7 Responses to “The Wedding Marx”

  1. Groucho ad Thelma really had something going on here and in Monkey Business. He can’t deny her sexy fabulousness yet he knows she’s up to know good, creating a fascinating tension. That all the brothers marry her at the end of Horse Feathers is mot appropriate.

  2. And the ongoing Marxian flirtation with Sternberg’s American Tragedy (also referenced by the casting of Charles Middleton in the trial scene of Duck Soup)!

    Thelma is particularly lovable in Monkey Business. “I want to hotcha-cha-cha!”

  3. Ah, Harpo’s harp was kind of a bane to my enjoyment, it always seemed to stop the film. One day I have to watch the Marx films near my keyboard so I can find out if he really could only play in one key. I suppose he could’ve been dubbed, though.

  4. I suspect it’s real, and he was supposedly self-taught so the one key thing sounds plausible.

  5. A quick search indicates that “college widow” was applied to any college town girl who dated different students as they came and went. More archaically, actual young widows — usually of college staff — who stuck around the then mostly-male institutions and socialized with the healthy young boys. The term fell out of use as co-education became the rule.

    When they call Todd “the college widow” it sounds like “the village idiot”, “the town gossip” or “the class bully.” There’s always a little comedy in treating archetypes as a recognized, quasi-official title.

    Intrigued that it’s not clear whether she’s simply after young men or intent on evil enterprises, such as messing with big-money football. Her wedding to three Marxes may be a comment on the college widow’s alleged sexual voracity as much as Marxian mayhem.

  6. She’s better off with them than David Landau, anyway!

    It seems she’s vamping Groucho on Landau’s orders, but gets to like it, and is hanging out with Zeppo on a purely private basis. But she seems to enjoy her time at the piano with Chico the most.

  7. Zeppo is at the wedding, or rather his stand-in is. Harpo stiff-arms him out of the shot when the other brothers say “I do.” She is clearly in love with Frank.

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