We continue our look at advanced Marxism with a profile of perhaps the most underrated Marx Brother, Chico Marx. (For all intents and purposes, we will consider Zeppo, handsomest of the Marxes, as interchangeable leading man.)
Chico is often dismissed as a one-joke character: a zany Italian immigrant accent waiting for a misunderstanding to happen. That is only true as far as it goes; Chico’s art was much more subtle than one would think.
First, there is the question of Chico’s ethnicity. Is he represented “as” an Italian, or some mad simulacrum of one? I, for one, am never sure. I am reminded of a scene in Animal Crackers (1930), where Chico recognizes a fellow conman in disguise:
Ravelli (Chico): How is it you got to be Roscoe W. Chandler?
Chandler: Say, how did you get to be Italian?
Ravelli: Never mind—whose confession is this?
Chico has often been dismissed as “the third one,” or, more ridiculously, as Groucho’s straight man. What both assessments fail to consider is that Chico could be screamingly funny with the right material. In Duck Soup (1933), Chico is a spy snooping on President Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho). Here is his report to the foreign ambassador:
Monday we watch Firefly's house, but he no come out. He wasn't home. Tuesday we go to the ball game but he fool us: he no show up. Wednesday he go to the ball game and we fool him. We no show up. Thursday was a double-header; nobody show up. Friday it rained all day. There was no ball game, so we stayed home and we listened to it over the radio.
Chico has his best moment in A Night at the Opera (1935). There, he, Harpo and the Zeppo stand-in (Allan Jones) are disguised as famous aviators who travel to America … by steamship. At the reception welcoming our heroes Chico recounts:
Friends, how we happen to come to America is a great story. But I don't tell that... The first time we started, we get-a halfway across when we run out-a gasoline and we gotta go back. Then I take-a twice as much gasoline. This time we-a just about to land. Maybe three feet. When whaddya think? We run out-a gasoline again. And a-back we go again to get-a more gas. This time I take-a plenty gas. Well, we get-a halfway over when what-a you think-a happened? We forgot-a the aeroplane. So we gotta sit down and we talk it over. Then I get a great idea. We no take-a gasoline. We no take-a the aeroplane. We take a steamship! And that, friends, is how we fly across the ocean!
However, it is now time to put down the notion that Chico was Groucho’s straight man once and for all. Very often the verbal highlight of a Marx Brothers film is the duologue between Groucho and Chico. What is amazing about these verbal fisticuffs is that…. Chico usually wins.
We have become so accustomed to Groucho being the genuine wit of the group, and that his verbal dexterity was so powerful that mountains would fall before him, but simply watching the films demonstrates that Chico almost always gets the better of Groucho. And that is because Chico wields his own version of Groucho’s greatest weapon against him: he is impervious to logic.
These set pieces often start on a very prosaic level and become increasingly more surreal and absurd, often because Chico is either taking everything Groucho says literally, or his own brand of absurdity is more impervious. Here, for example, is Chico guarding a speakeasy when Groucho comes to the door. The password to get in is “swordfish,” and Chico lets Groucho have three guesses:
Baravelli: Who are you?
Wagstaff: I'm fine thanks, who are you?
Baravelli: I'm fine too, but you can't come in unless you give the password.
Wagstaff: Well, what is the password?
Baravelli: Aw, no! You gotta tell me. Hey, I tell what I do. I give you three guesses. It's the name of a fish.
Wagstaff: Is it Mary?
Baravelli: Ha-ha. That's-a no fish.
Wagstaff: She isn't, well, she drinks like one. Let me see. Is it sturgeon?
Baravelli: Hey you crazy! Sturgeon, he's a doctor cuts you open when-a you sick. Now I give you one more chance.
Wagstaff: I got it! Haddock!
Baravelli: That's-a funny. I gotta haddock, too.
Wagstaff: What do you take for a haddock?
Baravelli: Well-a, sometimes I take-a aspirin, sometimes I take-a Calamel.
Wagstaff: Say, I'd walk a mile for a Calamel.
Baravelli: You mean chocolate calamel. I like that too, but you no guess it. Hey, what-sa matter, you no understand English? You can't come in here unless you say 'swordfish.' Now I'll give you one more guess.
Wagstaff: (to himself: Swordfish. Swordfish) I think I got it. Is it 'swordfish'?
Baravelli: Hah! That's-a it! You guess it!
Wagstaff: Pretty good, eh?
Chico was the oldest surviving of the Marx children (brother Manfred died in infancy) and the first to pass away. He was born Leonard Marx in 1887 in New York. He was, in many ways, the wild Marx. A gambler and hustler, he never met a card game or a chorus girl he could resist. And though he was a chronic philanderer, his two wives and daughter doted on him.
Though a disaster as a gambler (eventually his brothers had to take his financial matters in hand themselves … mainly to keep Chico from being killed over gambling debts), he was a wonderful manager and schmoozer. He managed the act after mother Minnie Marx died, and his connections at MGM got the team out of Paramount and over to Metro, where they made two masterpieces, A Night at the Opera (1935) and A Day at the Races (1937), under the auspices of wunderkind Irving Thalberg (1899-1936). Between films, Chico toured with a Big Band, The Chico Marx Orchestra, with singer Mel Torme.
The Brothers Marx seem to run true to form onstage and off. When Chico died in 1961, his funeral was held in the Wee Kirk O’ the Heather Chapel at Forest Lawn Memorial Park. A rabbi officiated for a Jewish fake Italian in a replica Scottish chapel. At the funeral, one of the speakers described Chico in terms unrecognizable to both friends and family, prompting Harpo to lean over to his surviving brothers and say, “when I go, do me a favor and hire a mime.”