How many people can you stuff in a stateroom the size of a steamer trunk? At least twelve, apparently.
It is absurd to be serious about the Marx Brothers, as I intend to be. But it would be more absurd to try being funny about them. At their best they are absolute, and this means that A Night at the Opera (Capitol) is funny beyond the power of words to be funny. I think I have never seen an audience laugh so long and so hard. But it was not at words-not even at the words which George Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind had written for Groucho and Chico to say, and I do not forget that some of their puns were the best in years. It was at the three mad brothers themselves, Groucho and Chico and Harpo; at them and at the curious, cockeyed power with which they suddenly endowed all life. An energy was there at which one could do nothing but laugh. One could, I suppose, be terrified or bewildered; but that would be because one did not understand.
Understand what? It is absurd to say, since it cannot be said and since anyone not utterly dead knows what it is. Yet if a theory must be had, here one is. The genius of the Marx Brothers is for parody. They never are themselves. They exist too abundantly to be content with being that-they must go on, by the rapidest of transitions, to being something else. Groucho, in my opinion the bright star among the three, is never anything but the thing he is at the moment pretending to be. Resting one foot on a prostrate tenor, and noting that Chico at his side does likewise, he becomes a barfly and calls for two beers. He does not say: “Ha ha! we look like two fellows in a saloon. Let’s talk like that.” All at once he is talking like that-and in another moment is talking otherwise. For now as he draws a piece of paper out of his pocket he becomes an insurance agent; or as he rides up to the Opera House in an open coach he becomes an elegant and listless gentleman; or as he is wheeled on his great trunk along the passageways of an ocean liner he becomes a traveler through many countries-the staterooms the countries, and their doors his open ports. Set down at his door he instantly becomes what the first person who approaches him suggests to him that he be. He is the wrong thing to all men; and paradoxically enough, by being always this he keeps himself dear in our minds. We know who he is even if we do not know what he is or how to describe him. Like Falstaff he is master of many styles and slave to none. Falstaff is in turn a great lord, a busy general, a confessed coward, an old saint worn down by sighing, a friend abused, a forward liar, a wheedling penitent, a confident rake; nor does such a list exhaust him. He is everything except himself, and at the same time he is the most rigorously defined character in all drama. He is defined by that excess of life in him which makes him delight so endlessly in being others.
Groucho is something like that, and so is Harpo-who knows only the styles of pantomime, since he is mute, but who for an instance provides the great moment of the picture when he becomes an acrobat. The mere sight of the scenery ropes at the Metropolitan is enough; he starts swinging on them in vast curves which keep perfect time with the music of “Il Trovatore” as it rises from the orchestra pit and which keep time also with the ascent and descent of drops behind the tenor as he sings. This last is fitting, for Harpo and his brothers hate the tenor and wish to confound him. He is confounded; another tenor takes his tune; the love story comes out right; and so in one fine lyrical instant, one moment of pure motion toward which all the action of the piece has tended, Harpo swings and swings. Nor is there anything strange about the fact that he does. It is simply his last and best parody-the bit of pretending which absorbs all others, brings the work of art naturally and logically to its climax, and bestows upon it the seal of unity. The unity of A Night at the Opera is something which even these madmen have not achieved before. It is exciting and perfect; a sign that they have at last learned how to use every resource which Hollywood can offer them; and the simplest reason I can find for calling them funny beyond the power of words to spoil the fun.