The Marx Brothers as Musicians

Today, the Marx Brothers are most remembered for their wit and slapstick, but they were also talented musicians. The musical numbers in their films used to bore me, but recently I’ve found they add a level of enjoyment lacking in comedies and even musicals today.

The Marx Brothers’ mother — Minnie Marx, a performer herself — saw to it that each of her sons had skills that would serve them well as stage performers. Groucho played guitar but is best known for singing humorous songs. “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” from At the Circus is a classic, but “Hello, I Must Be Going,” is the one that always cracks me up:

Wise-cracking huckster Chico plays the piano. The music hops, his finger work amuses, and he ends with a big smile. I especially like his relatively quiet performance for the children in A Night at the Opera, but his turn as the restaurant pianist in A Night in Casablanca shows off his customary raucous side for more laughs:

I never used to care for Harpo. For a long time, I found his anarchy in behavior and appearance distasteful. Now it’s what I love about his on-screen personality. Philosopher Slavoj Zizek likens him to the id in psychoanalytic theory. He represents the unconscious — thus all the libidinous chasing of women — run amok without the checks and balances of ego and superego.

Harpo played numerous musical instruments, the harp foremost among them. The man who we usually see engaged in the most ridiculous mischief assumes an entirely different persona when he sits down to play. His hands show dexterity and grace and gentle concentration falls across his features. From A Night at the Opera:

I can’t think of many recent movies that actually stop the plot to show actors do a whole number on a musical instrument. It can be jarring to modern audiences, but it’s rewarding once you learn to enjoy it. Minnie Marx prepared her children well for showbiz, and in doing so she bequeathed to us cinematic gems.

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