So, this is kind of an easy observation, but nevertheless relevant give the purview of the site and the specificity of the post: most of Grocho’s character names are code for phalli (or, as Steve Jobs markets them, iPhall). Lets see, there’s Rufus T. Firefly, Doctor Hackenbush, Sam Grunion (look it up), Otis B. Driftwood and of course, Professor Wagstaff, (see link below; no pun intended).
Tag Archives: Marx Brothers
Furthering the connections between sound, humor and class is this fairly accedental detail found in J. C. Hotten’s 1860 book, A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words during a discussion of “long and windy slang words:”
Sound contributes to many Slang words – a source that etymologists too frequently overlook. Nothing pleases an ignorant person more than a high-sounding term ‘full of fury.’ How melodious and drum-like are those vulgar coruscations RUMBUMTIOUS, SLANTINGDICULAR, SLENDIFEROUS, RUMBUSTIOUS, and FERRICADOUZER. What a ‘pull’ the sharp-nosed lodging-house keeper thinks she has over her victims if she can but hurl such testimonies of a liberal education at them when they are disbuting her charges and threatening to ABSQUATULATE! In the United States the vulgar-genteel even excel the poor ‘stuck-up’ Cockneys in their formation of a native fashionable tongue. How charming to a refined ear are ABSKIZE, CATAWAMPOUSLY, EXFLUNCTIFY, OBSCUTE, KESLOSH, KESOUSE, KESWOLLOP, and KEWHOLLUX! Vulgar words representing action and brisk movement often owe their origin to sound. (56-57)
Hotten’s text is remembered for deciphering “Mendicant Hieroglyphics” – coded chicken-scratch that English vagabonds marked on bricks and signposts to indicate where there were choice homes to loot and whether or not there was any danger. But the curious element here (and in the book elsewhere) is the author’s none-too-shy approach to writing about class distinction and race distinction. I call it accidental because you honestly cannot tell if he takes the civilized/uncivilized distinction utterly for granted as capital-tee-truth, or if he’s observing just how wordplay and the symbolic universe of language uncovers the false ideology of gentlemen vs. barbarians that reigned high during Victoria.
First he used the term “ignorant” to describe people who construct slang “full of fury.” What does he mean? Does he mean that an uneducated person can see the value in a word that sounds useful despite its being gibberish because he doesn’t understand the difference? Or does he mean that because ignorant people are not educated they therefore have to invent words that sound educated? Both tracts of reason, despite the author’s possible view on class, seem to refute the most racists of beliefs (pointedly those against ‘The Egyptians,’ or Gypsies) by pointing out that invention of language, or seeing a word for what it has yet to become, is far more skillful than the mere usage of pre-existing vocabulary.
Second, there’s this comical scenario involving a “lodging-house keeper” (curiously a woman in the story) who’s so stupefied by fake words that she’s rendered mute, and by mute I mean absquatulated.
Both of these examples detail the possibility that physical sounds, in the form of spoken gibberish, can allow for the breaking open of the critical space needed to perceive exploitative social practices that normally go unspoken – an attractive premise from which to reengage the wordplay in Shakespeare, The Marx Brothers, or Preston Sturges.
Here’s a perfect slapstick linguist paradigm: sound as a physical gag. And here’s a clip from W.C. Fields’ Never Give A Sucker An Even Break to demonstrate the point:
The clip treks far beyond the mere exemplar of a new category of mass produced silliness. Yes, sound is being used as a gag, for what’s stopping sound’s elemental physicality from being adopted into the fold of slapstick? But moreover, the scene is a strong critical manifestation of class consciousness, that pesky Marxist tract that rings truer the longer you live. The whole funny business is mired in an entrenched pitting of working-class sound against the sound of the bourgeoisie (catch the younger kid’s daze?), and ambiguously proceeds with no clear winners.
It’s also an aesthetic drawing-a-line-in-the-sand as well. Mid-thirties Hollywood saw an influx of singing-and-dancing idiots into otherwise purist slapstick routines, including the very best of the Marx Brothers, Chaplin, and W. C. Fields. Thank God the whole mess got under the skin of at least Fields who laments its inclusion in the slapstick feature format on more than one occasion than the clip above.
More on this to come. Is that alright with you, Mr. Pangborn?
This is strange – a silent Marx Brothers film. It’s backwards, or inverse, or both.
The Marx Brothers, like W.C. Fields, Preston Sturges and, to a more argumentative degree, Harry Langdon sound pictures, are explicitly about language.
The very make up of the trio (if you remember, the brothers were four and then they realized that the straight man Zeppo was utterly unnecessary and so threw him to the fishes) is based on speaking to others: The first so full of himself that he needs a cigar to stop his nonsense; the second straight off the boat and struggling to explain his heavy accent; the other, like the film medium that preceded his, without sound.
This clip is from the often confused and occasionally brilliant filmmaker Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys. Put this clip in the former category since it uses Marx Brothers clippings not for their linguist horseplay but for their visual tomfoolery. Why?
Ironically enough, it’s a simple word correlation. The script mentions “No more monkey business” and no doubt the director recognized the line as being the title of a Marx Brothers film (directed by Norman Z. McLeod). So, we have a visual correlation without hearing the verbal musings of the original, only aimless running. It’s a simple and virtually meaningless homage , except they can hide it within a montage of other trundles.
From Frizzboomski, the Anarchist, a 1905 strip posted at Barnacle Press:
The relationship between anarchism and slapstick is inconclusive. Antonin Artaud, the actor and philosopher behind Theater of Cruelty, was the first to spell out the relationship in his 1938 book, The Theater and its Double. Writing specifically about the Marx Brothers, he describes anarchy as “an essential disintegration of the real by poetry.”
Particularly the end of Animal Crackers (clip above) Artaud calls it “a distinct poetic state of mind that can be called surrealism”.
So in the strip above, written by Walter Bradford, we sense a strange tension between form and content. The content is a bumbling anarchist who always lands in a tub of soap only to hear the taunt “Call Again-ski!” to which he replies “Reveng-ski!” In other words, anarchists are idiots who smell bad. But the form of the piece turns the whole world into a random series of botched assassination attempts and comeuppances, bookended by miraculous opportunity and an insatiable need to repeat the randomness all over again. In other words, the aesthetic is an appeal to anarchy.
It’s almost as if Artaud was reading Fizzboomski when he wrote, “There is nothing at once so hallucinatory and so terrible as this type of man-hunt, this battle of rivals, this chase in the shadows…”