Book Review: Matthew Hahn, ‘The Animated Marx Brothers’—A Look at Humor’s Social Value

Amy Henderson
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Immersed in wintery gloom and headlines of doom, perhaps it’s time for us to take a deep breath and remind ourselves to laugh!   Humor –remember that?!–is the perfect prescription for sanity.

From slapstick to Seinfeld, America’s popular culture has always embraced humor. Composers of the classic American songbook extolled happiness in such songs as “Make ‘Em Laugh”, which Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed wrote for Singin’ in the Rain. Who can forget Donald O’Connor’s romp (left) while singing, “You start off by pretending you’re a dancer with grace,/You wiggle till they’re giggling all over the place,/And then you get a great big custard pie in the face,/Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em laugh, make ‘em laugh!”

I emcee a monthly “Classic Movie Night” program in Washington, D.C., and recently screened the Marx Brothers’ 1932 movie Horse Feathers—and yes, people roared! It made me consider how this totally zany film was embraced not only by Depression audiences, but by people today. “Reality” may be a clouded concept in our polarized world, but “silly” retains clarity and is, dare we say, a “winner.”

Horse Feathers was the fourth of thirteen movies the Marx Brothers made together, following The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, and Monkey Business, and just before Duck Soup’s classic spoof, in which Groucho becomes the president of a tiny country–Hail, Freedonia!

The Marx Brothers grew up in New York, and their mother—a classic “stage mother”—pushed them into performing as youngsters. They were a song-and-dance act until they discovered they had more fun when they made audiences laugh. The Marx Brothers became big stage stars in the 1920s in Chicago and on Broadway in such shows as The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers.

Movies were the new star vehicles by the late 1920s, and the Marx Brothers made a seamless transition to the big screen. Even in the direst years of the Depression, audiences flocked to watch their craziness, and the Marx Brothers soared to Hollywood stardom.

Their fame was given the cultural stamp of approval when TIME Magazine put a photo of Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo on its August 15,1932, cover (left) to celebrate the premiere of Horse Feathers.  The New York Times review of this new movie rhapsodized how the audience in the packed Rialto Theater laughed riotously—“Some of the fun is even more reprehensible than the doings of these clowns in previous films, but there is no denying that their antics and their patter are helped along by originality and wit.”  Groucho was signaled as “the life of this little party.” (Quoted in Mordaunt Hall, “Groucho & His Brothers in a New Film, Filled with Their Characteristic Clowning,” New York TIMES, August 11, 1932.)

Marx Brothers historian Matthew Hahn has written a fascinating new book that explores how their humor played an important role in the rise of celebrity caricature in the 1930s. The Animated Marx Brothers illustrates how the hundreds of cartooned images—“Marxtoons”– exploded their fame far more than their appearance in thirteen movies.

Hahn explains in his “Prologue” that “Animated cartoons containing celebrity caricatures are almost as old as film itself.” (xv) Felix the Cat was the first animated star, appearing in 1923’s Felix in Hollywood. Talking pictures made cartoons ever-more popular, and the ability of movies to make stars well-known nurtured the graphic art of caricature.  Hahn quotes animation expert Michael Barrier’s description of how celebrity caricatures became a popular vogue in the 1930s: “They were everywhere. Magazines and newspapers ran page after page of them. People like Miguel Covarrubias and Al Hirschfeld were very popular.”  Animators such as Joe Grant became known at the major studios for their caricatures, and Grant’s work in particular was featured in such classic cartoons as Mother Goose Goes to Hollywood (1938), which happily exaggerated Greta Garbo’s big feet, Joe E. Brown’s vast mouth, and the Marx Brothers’ “virtuosity.”

Like the art of celebrity caricature, the Marx Brothers’ heyday was in the 1930s. Cartooned imagery was a perfect confluence of art and fame, and one the public enthusiastically consumed in the media of the age. Fame based on personality is what drew people to the movie box office and what they looked for in magazines and newspapers at their neighborhood newsstands. Because it was an art that instantly captured the lively essence of famous celebrities, caricature emerged as a leading expression of the personality-enthralled culture of the Thirties.

Al Hirschfeld was a young artist who helped nurture the rise of celebrity caricature. He earned part of his early reputation by portraying MGM movie stars, as when he drew the poster for the Marx Brothers first MGM film, A Night at the Opera.  His long-time archivist and biographer David Leopold has perceptively written that “The Marx Brothers started to look more like Al’s drawings, rather than the other way around”—Hirschfeld had so definitively captured the brothers that “even the Marx Brothers themselves tried to conform to Al’s image” (David Leopold, The Hirshfeld Century; Portrait of an Artist and His Age, Alfred A. Knopf: NY, 2015, pp. 71, 77).

In his exploration of The Animated Marx Brothers, Matthew Hahn similarly writes that caricatures of the Marx Brothers “were frequently used as a form of shorthand, to inject zaniness into a scene.” (xvi)  His research illustrates how the brothers were depicted from their heyday through such contemporary television shows as The Simpsons. Hahn’s book is a treasure trove for “Marxists,” but even less zealous fans will especially appreciate his chapter on “Theatrical Marxtoons” that documents such classics as “Mother Goose Goes to Hollywood.”

Hahn has conducted exhaustive research, scouring collections of other film collectors and of such museums as the National Portrait Gallery and the National Museum of American History. His research is evident in chapters devoted to “Television Marxtoons,” “Animated Credits and Effects in Live-Action Marx Brothers Movies,” “Marxtoons in You Bet Your Life, Groucho, and DeSoto Commercials,” “Marxtoon TV Pilots,” “Other Marxtoons,” and “Marxtoon Trivia.”  In each chapter, Hahn lists “Marxtoons” chronologically and by title, and provides a concise description of each.

Hahn’s book is a remarkable reference for “Marxists” in particular, but also for anyone interested in film and cartoon history. Most of all, he has added a welcome chapter to our understanding of how celebrity caricature illuminated America’s life and times during the Depression’s darkest hours.

By Amy Henderson, Contributing Writer

Book Review: Matthew Hahn, The Animated Marx Brothers; foreword by Joe Adamson. Bear Manor Media, 2018. Black and white drawings, 195 pp.

Amy Henderson is Historian Emerita of the National Portrait Gallery

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