Did the Code Hurt the Marx Brothers?

“I sure wish these bean counters would let us be funny again!”

The origin of this post: A few days ago someone on social media asserted with enormous confidence, that “the Code hurt the Marx Brothers” (meaning, if you’re new to such things, that the Motion Picture Production Code, a.k.a. the Hays Code, which began to be strictly enforced in 1934, was what damaged the team’s later films.) I had never looked at the question in quite that way before, and I think most people who think about it don’t.

Thanks to TCM and the Film Forum, I became something of an aficionado of pre-Code films. There are many genres that were deeply affected when the Code started to be applied more severely. Horror became less gory and gruesome. Gangster movies became less crude and violent. Melodramas, which were frequently about pre-marital sex and pregnancy out of wedlock, lost about 3/4 of the kinds of stories they could tell. Musicals with chorus girls could no longer show near-nudity. But, I hadn’t really considered the Marx Brothers’s comedies in this light.

Typically, the blame for the Marx Brothers’ descent is laid at the feet of the studio, MGM, which is where the team started making movies in 1935 after parting ways with their previous studio, Paramount. The coincidence in timing, among other factors, makes it not-so-easy to sort out. Compare the Marx Brothers, for example, with someone like Mae West, who was CLEARLY hurt by the Code, and may be the most obvious example of a star who was. With her, it’s easy to identify. Her act clearly revolved around sexual naughtiness; the documentary record illustrates her struggles to maintain her vision once the Code went into effect; and the change in the tone and quality of her films after the Code is easy to spot. And Mae remained with the same studio, Paramount, the entire time, so it was not a question of changing horses in midstream.

With the Marx Brothers, it is muddier. As with many comedians, (lecherous) sexuality is a strand in their comedy, but it is not the only one or even necessarily a predominating one.  People often attempt to oversimplify them in this fashion, but it won’t do.  The two words — invariably — that occur to me whenever I think of the Marx Brothers are “anarchy” and “crazy”. Nonsense, surrealism. These qualities needn’t necessarily be affected by the prudish restrictions of a moral code, although it is likely that they will.

Another complicating factor is the fact that it wasn’t all skittles and beer PRIOR to the tightening of Code enforcement in 1934. The Code had been in place since 1930, so there was already a loose observance of it under way. So when, for example The Cocoanuts. and Animal Crackers were adapted from stage to screen, cuts and changes were made by Paramount to accommodate the Code. Beyond this, state and municipal local governments had their own local censorship authorities, so the Marx Brothers’ pre-code films were often already being cut prior to screening.

Still: I think there may be something to the claim that the Code was a factor after 1934, or at least it’s worth considering. So over the weekend I zipped through the films for the zillionth time with an eye to this question. Ultimately I realized, a complete, thorough, detailed survey is a much bigger job than I’m prepared (or inclined) to take on. It’s some scholar’s Ph.D. dissertation waiting to happen — that is, if it hasn’t already been written. But looked at cursorily, loosely, I think I managed to get a good feel for the kinds of things that are missing from the films after Duck Soup.

Stolen silverware cascading from Harpo’s coat in “Animal Crackers”. After the code, his character would need to go to jail for that, learn his lesson, and start an orphanage for deaf-mute juvenile pickpockets

The Code recommends care in depicting “theft” and avoiding “sympathy for criminals”. Presumably because of this, Harpo and Chico change drastically after the Code. Especially in the early pictures, the pair had been depicted as compulsive, shameless thieves and pickpockets. They rob the money out of the cash register in The Cocoanuts. Harpo lifts personal items off of unsuspecting victims so often it’s almost like his signature, part of the rich fabric of the human interaction in the films. He is Dickensian in this regard. This is missing from both characters in the MGM films or at least both dramatically reduced and justified. In the MGM films, the occasional swindle occurs, but usually against Groucho, or it’s done by the brothers to somehow help the hero and the ingenue. At worst, they skip hotel bills, and that sort of thing. But they are not forever swiping things without consequences as in the earlier films.

Similarly, another recurring motif that vanishes after the Code is the recurring spectacle of Harpo chasing women. “Rape” is proscribed by the Code and though most of us would never describe what Harpo will do when he catches the girl as “rape” (I picture a hug, a Fox Trot, and the kind of kiss you might receive from an affectionate St. Bernard), we are dealing with the bane of all comedians: literal minded people. Pedants and bureaucrats. Even the suggestion of something untoward is gone. Harpo chasing down women is gone.

“Perversion” is also verboten, again ruling out Harpo material: like that strange scene in Animal Crackers where Mrs. Whitehead (Margaret Irving) first suggestively points out that Harpo “loves a horse” and tells him “I like little boys like you” and then proceeds to put the moves on him despite the fact that he has told her that he is “Five years old”. And then there’s that scene in Duck Soup, where the shoes at the foot of the bed suggest that not only has Harpo gone to bed with a woman he has just met (forbidden) but also the horse he has been riding (perverted!) What would THIS Harpo have been about if we had encountered him in A Day at the Races? The movie has 50 horses in it!

Groucho, the most verbal of the team, is also much affected. He makes suggestive jokes constantly in the first five movies, within the larger context of his nonsensical jokes. One that had been filmed but didn’t make it to theatres at the time (though it has been recently restored), is the line from his opening song: “I think I’ll try and make her.” But a couple of very suggestive lines remained in that film, as when he refers to Margaret Dumont’s “magnificent chest” and when he says “we took some the pictures of the native girls, but they weren’t developed.” This the kind of dialogue he would never get to say after the advent of strict Code enforcement.

Homosexuality was also considered a “perversion” at the time; and depictions or suggestions of it in Hollywood films decline sharply after 1934. Some of Groucho’s lines and coy come-ons with the gangster Alike Briggs in Monkey Business push that line for comedic purposes; you don’t see him doing that kind of thing in the MGM era; nor do you see him imitating a cat in heat as he also does in Monkey Business. 

Surely this was Zeppo’s favorite movie

Situations that are by definition Pre-Code, not to be found later: everything to do with Thelma Todd! The College Widow who romances (and then marries) all four brothers simultaneously in Horse Feathers! The gun moll who frolics in and around her bed and closet with Groucho in Monkey Business while her husband is out of the room. In both movies she never seems to be wearing anything more than a slip. Rachel Torres performs a similar function in Duck Soup, although to a lesser degree. Vamp characters like Todd and Torres for Groucho and His brothers to chase and leer at are missing (for the most part) from the MGM films. Things are much more wholesome.

“Sedition” is another forbidden topic — Horse Feathers and Duck Soup are strongest in this quality, in both the spoken lines and the musical numbers. “Whatever it is, I’m against it!” he sings in the first film. In the second film he sings blithely about getting his share of political graft. The studios tried not to imply that politicians and officials took graft when the Code was enforced, or at least, when they did, the characters were duly  sent to jail.

Some of these changes may have been a by-product of MGM’s strict adherence to storytelling principles. Or else they were imposed by the Hays Office. Personally, I think the culprit was left-handed moths. Or else it was the Code — and two pair of pants! Groucho gives us more than a hint of whom he blames in At the Circus, “There must be some way I can get that money back without getting in trouble with the Hays Office!” It’s a funny line, but back in the day there’d have been no need for a line — he just would have gone ahead and been offensive.

For more on comedy film history please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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5 comments

  1. Some of the issue, too, was that by the time they hit MGM they were already in their 40s and starting to wear out. Many of the movies after Duck Soup were made to help Chico cover gambling debts, otherwise the other brothers had made good money and were ready to move on to other things.

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  2. That is an interesting idea, but I still blame MGM more than they code. Groucho proved all through his career that he’s funny and could still be funny within the code. Consider You Bet Your Life. The code doesn’t explain the soul-sucking way MGM destroyed Buster Keaton. Louis B. Mayer was so infatuated with portraying idyllic Andy Hardy world, that the anarchic world of the Marx Brothers unsettled him.

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    • oh yes, my post about how Mayer and MGM killed comedy is here: https://travsd.wordpress.com/2014/07/12/louis-b-mayer-no-friend-to-comedy/ Watching “A Day at the Races” the other day I was like “This is just like a Mexican Spitfire movie”. But I think it’s far more complicated than we make it. If the the team had remained at Paramount, their style still would have been cramped, as happened to West and Fields. And I don’t concede that Groucho is very funny or witty in “You Bet Your Life.” He’s too old and tired to properly tell if he’s hampered or not by standards and practices. In the dozens of episodes of YBYL I’ve watched , he generally gets off one limp, not very witty line per episode. It’s about 90 percent dead air, while uncomfortable contestants squirm as he rolls his cigar around in his mouth

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  3. MGM has a lot to answer for. The Marx Brothers, Keaton, and don’t forget, Laurel and Hardy. They just didn’t know how to deal with comedians who couldn’t be pigeonholed.

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  4. You’re right! I just saw “What! No Beer?” (1933) the other day, a pre-code Buster Keaton and Jimmy Durante film and was pleasantly surprised. It was laugh-out-loud funny and very recognizable as a Keaton film (frequent collaborator Edward Sedgwick directed). Even Durante was amusing. But, what I especially noticed is almost everything funny in the dialogue or slapstick would have not been allowed past the censors a couple of years later: double entendres, accidental and innocent groping of women, mocking police and politics, profiting from crime, etc.

    You may have a point. The code may well have inhibited seasoned comedy performers so much that they just couldn’t cope. The thing that especially disgusts me about the code is its rigid support of the class system and the status quo. So much of the code was about not subverting public officials or institutions. The working class must have faith in their leaders and trust that they are all honourable and ethical. It wasn’t just about nudity, violence, and swearing. And where goeth slapstick if you can’t kick a cop or poke the mayor in the eye?

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