In a modern comedic landscape that can rely more on shock and awe than sharp wits, it’s easy to forget that some of the fastest-paced, cleverest comedies America ever saw came from the Marx Brothers in the 1930s. The brothers—Chico, Harpo, Groucho and Zeppo—got their start on the Broadway stage, but would go on to release 13 films between 1921 and 1957.
A Marx Brothers movie wasn’t only made up of quick-fire jokes. Films like Duck Soup and Animal Crackers show rich stories that also work in the brothers executing pretty amazing musical numbers. As it stood, they weren’t just comedians—The Marxes were genuine entertainers. Although it’s a subject of constant debate for long-time fans of the extremely talented siblings, we’re honoring Groucho himself (on what would be his 122nd birthday) by counting down our five favorite Marx Brothers films.
The first Marx Brothers film to be released theatrically is also one of their best, the hilarious Cocoanuts. Here’s a film that was sharpened in its time as a Broadway show, and it’s famously known for its loose plot that centers around a resort owner in Florida. But what we do get from The Cocoanuts is a national introduction to the distinguished brothers, their unforgettable banter and equally entertaining musical numbers.
Hammer: Why, it’s the most exclusive residential district in Florida. Nobody lives there.
Hammer: I’m gonna put extra blankets for free in all your rooms, and there’ll be no cover charge.
Hammer: Jail is no place for a young fellow—There’s no advancement.
Here’s one of the best examples of Groucho’s cringe-inducing interplay with Dumont, the unfortunate butt of the joke in seven of the Marxes’ films. The film follows the duo at the last opera night of the season, which leads to a trademark wacky adventure involving confused contracts, police pursuits and thwarted operas.
Mrs. Claypool I’ve been sitting right here since seven o’clock.
Otis Driftwood: Yes, with your back to me. When I invite a woman to dinner I expect her to look at my face. That’s the price she has to pay.
Otis Driftwood: It’s all right, that’s in every contract. That’s what they call a sanity clause.
Fiorello: You can’t fool me! There ain’t no Sanity Claus!
The Marxs’ Animal Crackers was as defined by its hilarious premise as it was for its showman-like quality. And that’s no coincidence; Like many other Marx films, Animal Crackers was already fine-tuned on the stages of Broadway in the ‘20s. This time, the focus is on Groucho as explorer Jeffrey Spaulding, who complicates the recovery of a stolen painting at his own party. But the magic is in the numbers, with Chico and Harpo’s incredible piano and harp solos, “Why am I So Romantic” and the signature “Hooray for Captain Spaulding.”
Captain Spaulding: You’re going Uruguay, I’m going my way.
Captain Spaulding: Well, art is art, isn’t it? On the other hand, water is water, and east is east and west is west, and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce, they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does. Now, now you tell me what you know.
Before Animal House and Old School even thought of poking fun at American college life, there was the hysterical Horse Feathers, the 1932 film that shows Groucho as newly appointed Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff. We see Wagstaff attempt to recruit true pros for the university football team, which results in newly enrolled Harpo and Chico wreaking havoc across the university. If you’re not sold, take a look at the clip below for one of the most beloved comedic football clips on film.
Wagstaff: You know you’ve got the brain of a four-year old child, and I bet he was glad to get rid of it.
Frank (Wagstaff’s Son) Two of the greatest football players in the country hang out in a speakeasy downtown.
Wagstaff: Are you suggesting that I, the president of Huxley College, go into a speakeasy without even giving me the address?
Although some critics would argue that Duck Soup’s pacing make it inferior to other films in the Marx catalog, the film’s incredible one-liners and the brothers’ great on-screen chemistry make it one of their most clearly beloved films. The audience sees Groucho’s spitfire mouth in its prime as Rufus T. Firefly, a newly appointed leader of the struggling country Freedonia, and it’s as much a solid chunk of hilarity as it is a satire of government and politics of the time. Harpo and Chico are incredible in their secondary parts as spies, showcasing their hold on slapstick and physical comedy that’s most pronounced in Harpo’s hilarious, near-blank facial expressions throughout.
Firefly: I’ll see you at the opera tonight. I’ll hold your seat till you get there. After you get there you’re on your own.
Firefly: Not that I care, but where is your husband?
Teasdale: Why, he’s dead.
Firefly: I bet he’s just using that as an excuse.
Teasdale: I was with him to the very end.
Firefly: No wonder he passed away.
Teasdale: I held him in my arms and kissed him.
Firefly: Oh, I see, then it was murder. Will you marry me? Did he leave you any money? Answer the second question first.
Firefly: I could dance with you until the cows come home. On second thought, I’d rather dance with the cows till you come home.