Vol. 16 No. 1 · 6 January 1994

Nothing goes without saying

Stanley Cavell reads the Marx Brothers

3994 words
The Marx Brothers: ‘A Day at the Races’, ‘Monkey Business’ and ‘Duck Soup’ 
introduced by Karl French.
Faber, 261 pp., £8.99, November 1993, 0 571 16647 4
Show More
Show More

Movies magnify, so when pictures began talking they magnified words. Somehow, as in the case of opera’s magnification of words, this made their words mostly ignorable, like the ground, as if the industrialised human species had been looking for a good excuse to get away from its words, or looking for an explanation of the fact that we do get away, even must. The attractive publication, briefly and informatively introduced, of the scripts* of several Marx Brothers films – Monkey Business (1931), Duck Soup (1933) and A Day at the Races (1937) – is a sublime invitation to stop and think about our swings of convulsiveness and weariness in the face of these films; to sense that it is essential to the Brothers’ sublimity that they are thinking about words, to the end of words, in every word – or, in Harpo’s emphatic case, in every absence of words.

Marx Brothers films, as unmistakably revealed in these scripts, are extensively explicit about their intentions. Their pun-crammed air, well recognised as a medium of social subversion, also presses a standing demand to reach some understanding – which is incomparably better avoided than faked. Someone is always barking sentiments at the Brothers such as ‘Keep out of this loft!’ to which Chico once replies, ‘Well, it’s better to have loft and lost, than never to have loft at all,’ upon which Groucho pats him on the shoulder and says, ‘Nice work!’ (Monkey Business). (When is to speak to do something? When is to bark to say something?) Groucho’s positive evaluation is an instance of the recurrent reflexiveness in the Brothers’ craft, letting us know that they know that we may fall to imagining that they do not know what they are doing. A repeated example, as if to wake us from this stupor, is Chico’s turning to Groucho with pride, asking: ‘Ats-a some joke, eh Boss?’ Groucho is complimenting Chico not only on countering a dour threat with a serene wipe-out, but on maintaining his responsiveness to a world deadened with banal and unreasoned prohibitions. (Occasionally, as in Duck Soup, Groucho specifically probes to see whether the compliment is warranted, as when he feeds Chico a straight line and says in an aside: ‘Let’s see you get out of that one.’) To me it is a philosophical compliment. So I have been aggrieved to hear Groucho called a cynic. He is merely without illusion, and it is an exact retribution for our time of illusory knowingness that we mistake his clarity for cynicism and sophisticated unfeelingness.

Intention, or the desperate demand for interpretation, is gaudily acknowledged in such turns as Chico’s selling Groucho a tip on a horse by selling him a code book, then a master code book to explain the code book, then a guide required by the master code, then a sub-guide supplementary to the guide – a scrupulous union, or onion, of semantic and monetary exchanges and deferrals to warm the coldest contemporary theorist of signs; or as acted out in Chico’s chain of guesses when Harpo, with mounting urgency, charades his message that a woman is going to frame Groucho (both turns in A Day at the Races). But Groucho’s interpretive powers achieve distinct heights of their own.

The famous packed cabin sequence from A Night at the Opera is simultaneously an image of the squalor of immigrant crowding and of the immigrant imagination of luxury. Groucho is outside, as befits him, ordering exhaustively from a steward (getting food is one of the Brothers’ standing objectives). After each item is ordered, Chico’s voice from within the cabin appends, ‘And two hard-boiled eggs’, which, after Groucho dutifully repeats it, is punctuated by a honk from within, which Groucho effortlessly responds to by adding, ‘Make that three hard-boiled eggs.’ That Harpo evidently accedes to Groucho’s understanding of his honk is variously interpretable. You can imagine that Groucho has some private knowledge of Harpo’s language; or you can see that Harpo’s insatiability, or unsocialisation, signals that he has no language (that is, that he is unable to speak in the etymological sense of being in the state of infancy). In the latter case, Harpo trusts Groucho implicitly to know his wants and to have them at heart, a trust well placed. That Harpo is shown to be asleep during Groucho’s exchange with the steward suggests that Harpo is honking, wishing, in his dreams, and so with the directness of infants, preceding the detours of human desire, a possibility of dreams separately noted by Freud. Originality in speech is the rediscovery of speech. (It is, by the way, not true, as it is said, that Chico can trick Groucho. Groucho has nothing to lose and is not out to win anything for himself. He follows Chico’s elaborate cons out of pure interest, to see, as if to satisfy his professional curiosity about the human situation, how they will come out. One outcome is as interesting as another. Of the other thinkers I know fairly well, I believe only Thoreau is Groucho’s equal in this capacity for disinterested interest, or unattachment.)

The familiar, or familial, relation between Groucho and Harpo in the arena of food suggests a relation in their sharing of certain gestures of lechery. If they were really lecherous they would no longer be funny. (Adam Gopnik was making such a point about Woody Allen a couple of months ago in the New Yorker.) Being parodies of lechery, they enact claims on the part of each human creature (‘All God’s chillun’ is how they name them in A Day at the Races) to be loved, for no reason. Harpo would not know what to do if one of the women he chases stopped running; for him the instincts of hunger, of sex, and of the destruction of whatever can be snipped or chopped, seem equal in imaginary satisfaction. Groucho, the opposite of innocent, is a lover, but one who thinks it just as hilarious as anyone else might think it that he should be found lovable. It does both him and Margaret Dumont an injustice not to see that he wins her love and is a faithful husband to it; he courts her as fervently as, and much more persistently than, he does any other woman – he amuses her, shocks her, tells her the truth, expresses contempt for the boring and brutish flatterers in her second-rate world who would deceive her for their private purposes, and with good spirits survives her doubts about him and her faiths in him. How much can one ask for?

I see no good sense in being reasonable in my admiration for these achievements. Thinking recently about the conditions of opera, as mysterious and as initially contrived as the conditions of film, I asked myself why it was, when the Marx Brothers’ thoughts turned to opera, that they proposed (or inspired others to propose to them), in A Night at the Opera, Il Trovatore as their example. In their realm, nothing goes without saying. It turns out, in this juxtaposition, that Leonora’s initial mistaking, as it were, of her love of one brother for that of the other, becomes a fundamental issue: it is to the villainous brother, in the early shadows of the drama, that she declares: ‘My love’. Perhaps she was not wrong about herself that initial time. Then one remembers that the Marx Brothers are brothers, and declare their family resemblance in one of their greatest turns, in Duck Soup, when Groucho and Harpo all but become mirror images of each other; and then one considers that these brothers, famous for their absurdities, may be taking on, as a grand enemy, the famously dark fixations of Trovatore that just about anyone regards as exemplary of the supposed absurdities of grand opera; and so consider that their competition with that darkness, absurd only in its terrible lack of necessity, is to use the power of film to achieve the happy ending in which the right tenor gets the part, the film concluding triumphantly with the opera’s most famous, ecstatically melancholy duet.

Other speculations about their choices of routine keep finding confirmation – these brothers are dashing way ahead of us. Thinking more or less blankly one time of the ships on which they approach America, quite early in Monkey Business and quite late in A Night at the Opera, I think further: of course! The films present America as requiring discovery and as providing a home for immigrants. Then not only am I swiftly embarrassed at having forgotten that the elaborate finale of the first half of Monkey Business is just about the anxiety of needing a passport to enter upon the American streets of gold, but I am soon rewarded by finding Groucho conclude an exasperatingly contentious exchange with Chico by looking at the camera and declaring: ‘There’s my argument! Restrict immigration!’; and rewarded again, or piqued, when – in response to Chico’s and Harpo’s attempt to thwart the woman’s plan to frame Groucho (to compromise him in Margaret Dumont’s eyes) by hanging, so to speak, new sheets of wallpaper over Groucho and the woman seated cosily on a couch, thus concealing them from the entering suspicious one – Groucho pokes his head out of the sticky sheets to observe, ‘I must be a citizen. I’ve just got my second papers,’ that is, the final documents in an alien’s naturalisation process (as if any process could naturalise this alien).

Until my father died, seventy years after arriving on America’s shores as a young man, and not many fewer than that after naturalisation, he never fully shook the feeling that something might be discovered to be wrong with his ‘papers’. Perhaps helped by this knowledge, I go further into the sequence with Chico that leads to Groucho’s momentary wish never to have been cast together with him. It opens in the Captain’s cabin, where Groucho is so to speak impersonating the Captain.

Groucho: A fine sailor you are.

Chico: You bet I’m a fine sailor ... My father was-a partners with Columbus.

Groucho: Columbus has been dead for four hundred years.

Chico: Well, they told me it was my father ...

Groucho: I’ll show you a few things you don’t know about history. Now look ... [Drawing a circle on a globe.] Now, there’s Columbus.

Chico: That’s-a Columbus Circle ...

Groucho: Now, Columbus sailed from Spain to India looking for a short cut.

Chico: Oh, you mean strawberry short cut.

And it gets still further afield. It is some mimesis of the shattered tiles of facts and interpretations, the urgent implacement of which had to prepare masses of arrivals for citizenship, learning who their new fathers are, the fathers of their new country, and searching to put new and old names to unheard-of objectives. And when Groucho lets it out in disgust, ‘do you suppose I could buy back my introduction to you?’ I again find myself speculating; the comedy is that of outrage, of exhaustion, of the last straw. And again I feel rewarded. I’ll come back to say how in a moment.

The sense of culture as something overheard, and probably as tales or plots of incomprehensible manias, comes out also in those asides of Groucho’s that fill the space of responses to impossible situations and incomprehensible demands.

Woman: But I haven’t any children.

Groucho: That’s just the trouble with this country. You haven’t any children, and as for me ... [Dramatically] I’m going back to the closet, where men are empty overcoats.

Or again, also from Monkey Business:

Same woman: What brought you here?

Groucho [Dramatically]: Ah, ’tis midsummer madness, the music in my temples ... Kapellmeister, let the violas throb. My regiment leaves at dawn!

Or again:

Same woman: You can’t stay in that closet.

Groucho: Oh, I can’t, can I? That’s what they said to Thomas Edison, mighty inventor, Thomas Lindberg, mighty flyer, and Thomas Shefsky, mighty like a rose. Just remember, my little cabbage, that if there weren’t any closets, there wouldn’t be any hooks, and if there weren’t any hooks, there wouldn’t be any fish, and that would suit me fine.

To speak, as I believe is still common, of Groucho’s ‘one-liners’, as if this were his characteristic genre of response, is not helpful, not just because it is so incomplete, even inaccurate, but because what it omits reaches from the closeness to madness, or hysteria, of so much of what he has to say, to the sheer range of reference of his uncontrollable thoughts – from some memory of Russian or Cartesian melancholy about overcoats and empty men, through wisps of operetta, to a string of heroes that the natives seem to name Thomas, for the moment missing a Jefferson but including a figure from the Yiddish theatre otherwise known as Boris Thomashefsky, associated, compulsively if not altogether surprisingly, with some association of Abie’s Irish Rose with the teary mother’s song ‘Mighty Like a Rose’, all sometimes addressed to imaginary characters, here one called ‘Kapellmeister’, later one called ‘Your honour’. This delirium is to be compared, not identified, with Harpo’s closeness to madness, as when, in his frantic search for the frog who has jumped away from his place in Harpo’s hat, Harpo hears a man confess that he has a frog in his throat, grabs the man and prises open his jaws to retrieve his companion. It touches the madness of childhood. And it enacts an unexpected understanding of Wittgenstein’s perception, in Philosophical Investigations, that Augustine, as characteristic of philosophers, ‘describes the learning of language as if the child came into a strange country and did not understand the language of the country; that is as if it already had a language, only not this one’. This is illuminatingly implausible if taken as about the condition of infancy, with no language yet in the picture; but illuminatingly plausible if taken as about an older child, with a certain budget of words, all due for unforeseen futures, hence against an idea of the condition of immigrancy, between languages.

What is this humour? If we take Bergson’s theory of comedy as bespeaking a form of madness, of men behaving like machines, and vice versa, then we can say that the Marx Brothers turn this theory on the world, showing themselves to remain improvisatory, original, in a setting of absolutely mechanical reactions to them (‘This is an outrage’; ‘I’ve never been so insulted in all my life’; ‘Beat it!’; ‘Oh!’; ‘Just what do you mean?’; ‘Hey. Hey. Hey.’; ‘Are you crazy or something?’). Their madness is a defence against madness, and neither is something over which they claim control; it is a struggle to the finish, in which the question is which side will create the last word, or destroy it.

Let’s accordingly go back to the idea of a comedy of the last straw, or rather of a comedy about the last straw, about the sometimes fatal whimsicality with which people announce the judgment that a straw is the last. In Duck Soup, Ambassador Trentino (played by the Caesaresque Louis Calhern) says to Margaret Dumont: ‘Mrs Teasdale this is the last straw! There’s no turning back now. This means war!’ – words Groucho may well be imagined somewhere to dispose of in his own person, if perhaps he decides to take an imaginary slight as directed to his entire regiment. When later in Duck Soup Groucho uses the words, ‘Gentlemen, this is the last straw,’ it is in response to picking up a straw boater with its crown flapping, from among the rubble of war. Then what, if anything, do we make of Harpo, in A Day at the Races, attacking a mattress with a knife, pulling out the straw, and then feeding it to a horse he discloses in a closet. I would like to take this in conjunction with the line of Groucho’s that closes Monkey Business, when after events in an old barn in which a wagon wheel becomes an imaginary wheel of fortune, a cow bell becomes a time bell in a brawl, and a watering can and then a buggy lamp are talked into as microphones, Groucho turns to a pile of hay and starts pitching strands into the air. Asked what he’s doing he replies: ‘I’m looking for a needle in a haystack.’ Now some moments earlier we had seen Groucho rise from under this hay and ask: ‘Where’s all those farmers’ daughters I’ve been hearing about for years?’ and then disappear under the hay again. It strikes me that Groucho’s self-interpretation of looking for a needle in a haystack undertakes to transfigure the coarse genre of farmer’s daughter gags into a search – almost hopeless, with just room for good spirits to operate – for a heart’s needle of pleasure somewhere within the dry medium of this world (like the bereft husband in L’Atalante diving into the river, eyes open for his vanished love).

For Groucho, throwing last straws to the wind, the world as it stands has placed its last straw, suffered its last judgment, a long time ago; yet the world as it may yet be, attested in any event in which genuine interest is shown – like a Harpo craving, a Chico scam, a young woman in love and trouble, the scandalised, ecstatic devotion of Margaret Dumont – exists beyond counts of straw.

Evidently I take the value of the published scripts of these films not to be solely or primarily that of sending us back to the films (the films themselves must do that), but also that of releasing these words and deeds from a confinement to film, or to what we think of as film, or think of as a Marx Brothers film. Released to themselves, these observations are free to join the observations of, say, Bergson; or Brecht, whose Three Penny Opera is no more valid a development of The Beggar’s Opera than Duck Soup is (it needn’t be as good as The Three Penny Opera still to be very, very good); or Beckett, whose two barrels housing the married pair in Endgame make excellent sense, even of the idea of the stowaway, of the four barrels in which the stowaway brothers have set up house below decks at the opening of Monkey Business. And then we are free to think about one of Groucho’s responses to the recurrent idea that a situation he’s created, this time involving his medical practice, is ‘absolutely insane’. Groucho: ‘Yes, that’s what they said about Pasteur.’ No doubt the direct reference is to the celebrated Paul Muni film Pasteur made the year before A Day at the Races; but must one deny that Groucho is claiming his own discovery of a germ theory, this time about the disease of language, about its corruption by communications of a corrupt world? He puts it differently, but not much differently.

I was talking about Groucho’s searching for pleasure, another topic about which these films are, if asked, fully explicit. In Duck Soup, after Firefly (Groucho), in song, promulgates the laws of his administration as not allowing smoking, telling dirty jokes, whistling, or chewing gum, he sums it up, still singing:

If any form of pleasure is exhibited
Report to me and it will be prohibited.

From which it does not follow that the Brothers trust any given form of pleasure, any more than they trust any other fixation, any more than they trust; they test. Nor are their films as films exactly or purely pleasurable, any more than compulsive punning is exactly or simply funny. The unpolished air of the film-making, and Groucho’s Brechtian objectivity, are not meant to be winning, any more (if no less) than Groucho’s crawling and meowing on a balustrade.

The broad groan in response to a broad pun is a criterion of real, if a little sublimated, pain. ‘This is no time for puns,’ says Groucho, gasping with them, almost at the end of Monkey Business. Had someone the presence of mind to say this to Groucho, he might have answered: ‘Yes, that’s what they said about Shakespeare.’ No time is the time for puns, since puns stop time, stop the forward motion of assertion, peel back the protective self-ignorance of words. Is this the pain of puns? Their pain is that of, let us say, incessant thinking – thinking among the endless things there are to say, which of them we shall have for ever said, and not said, now. Their pleasure is the illusion that nothing is going unsaid.

And what is the cultural economy, say the relation between high and low thinking, in a society whose as it were popular culture has such as the Marx Brothers in store – what is its art, its philosophy, its politics, its entertainment, its seriousness?

Let us before ending linger once more over an invitation into whose depths of implication I cannot deny Groucho perception, and, as always, without presumption, he is nothing if not tactful. It comes as part of the packed cabin sequence, cited earlier, that royal levee of services, when a woman appears to Groucho with a portable beauty tray hung before her and asks, ‘Do you want a manicure?’ Groucho replies: ‘No. Come on in.’ I take for granted that some will be satisfied to suppose that he means, fixatedly: ‘No, but I want something else you could provide.’ Let us suppose, however, that he has the poise with meaning, whatever command of it accrues from obedience to it, to mean or imply at least also the following: ‘No, but there are lots of others here; perhaps they want what you suggest’; and ‘Nobody really wants a manicure, but if that’s all you’re offering, I’ll take it’; and ‘No, but come in since you’re here and we’ll see what happens.’ All this is quite in character for Groucho. An array of implication, like the disarray of puns, will threaten anarchy, against a demand for autarchy; but both work to make what sense is to be made of a world whose sense is stolen, in which it is to be stolen back. Both show aspects of our victimisation by words, fools of them, but thereby show that there are, still, ordinary words, beyond and between us, whose lives we might imagine, which might share lives we can imagine – not simply signs and signals hovering over a destroyed landscape.

A few years ago, on a walk during a conference break, a French philosopher and I exchanged friendly regrets that we were not, as it were, culturally better prepared to do the promise of each other’s work more explicit justice in our own. He reported that American friends of his had been urging him to read Emerson and Thoreau, which seemed to both of us an unlikely eventuality. I took the implication quite kindly, anyway impersonally, that no one would, or could easily, without insult, urge an American intellectual to read Montaigne and Descartes and Rousseau and Kant and Hegel ... Culture is – is it not? – European culture. Besides, Emerson and Thoreau had read them. Had I then been fresh from reading the film scripts before me now, I might have replied – whether hopefully or not is uncertain – that to the extent he was wondering what was on my mind, hence in that tangle of American culture, an equally accurate access, and one in a sense more efficiently acquired, could be had by a few days of immersion in half a dozen Marx Brothers films. But that would have been, to borrow a self-description of Thoreau’s and of Walt Whitman’s, bragging.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences