My Picture Doesn't Look Like Me

The ability to create parody comes along with a functional awareness of identity. Because the Marx Brothers can adapt to a variety of roles, they can lampoon many types of identities. Sometimes their parodies are successful, and sometimes they are not. By looking at their takes on Eugene O'Neill's Strange Interlude and gangster stories, we can see what makes a parody successful.

from
Animal Crackers
Spaulding: Pardon me while I have a strange interlude...why, you couple of baboons!...what makes you think I'd marry either one of you!...strange how the wind blows tonight...it has a tintity voice, reminds me of poor old Moslin...how happy I could be with either of these two if both of them just went away...
from
Strange Interlude1
Darrell: I have a friend who has a wife...I was envious at his wedding...but what has that to do with it?...damn it, my mind won't work!...it keeps running away to her...it wants to mate with her mind...in the interest of Science?...what damned rot I'm thinking!...

In Animal Crackers Captain Spaulding (Groucho) proposes marriage to two women at once. During this conversation, he steps towards the camera three times and delivers brief, dark monologues in a parody of Strange Interlude. The scene ends with Spaulding chasing a group of women in bathing suits. The scene functions as a wonderful parody of the O'Neill play on several levels. First, the topics correlate well. Both this scene and Strange Interlude deal with confused love relations and the problems of wanting to be with two people at once. Groucho completely stands the idea on its head by reversing gender roles and trying to resolve the problem through bigamy ("It's big o' me, too"). The scene also does a wonderful job of parodying the language used by O'Neill for his characters' frequent asides. Spaulding stays dark and disturbed, but with the wit to make his melodrama seem ridiculous. His exit casts a final disparaging comment on the whole practice.2

Parody functions a little different in Monkey Business.3 This movie parodies gangster tales in general. These stories, particularly in film, utilize standard characters and employ a rise-and-fall narrative. The Marxes spoof the characters perfectly. We see the hardened tough guys with their gats and slick suits. The gangster's lingo could be lifted straight out of a number of movies. However, the parody of plot disintegrates (although perhaps more usefully than could be expected). We do see a very slight rise, as Groucho has worked himself "up from nothing to a state of extreme poverty." If the rise peaks here, the fall does not go far. Zeppo gets the girl (after working for her father's rival). Harpo is in a stack of hay kissing a calf, for what that's worth. Groucho has been reduced the most dramatically, clear down to a cliche (he's literally looking for a needle in a haystack). All of the brothers, though, seem to come out okay, as they've formed a tie with millionaire gangster-gone-straight Joe Helton. The ending of the movie makes no sense in any sort of gangster context. The film utilizes gangster motifs throughout and leads us to expect a certain type of conclusion, but it does not give us that finish. Parody functions on conventions, but the brothers drop these conventions.

This fails as a parody for several reasons. First, it does not stay within gangster film protocols. Second, the brothers do not maintain their identity within the roles provided for them. This point, however, allows them to show the fragile nature of identity by showing how easily identity is escaped. These identities, importantly, are constructed upon superficial signs. We know people are gangsters due to their clothes, accessories, or stereotypical language. However, no one can adequately perform these roles.

The Strange Interlude parody succeeds precisely because it is performative. Groucho adopts an identity and, rather than showing us or telling us that identity, performs it. He maintains this performance as long as he wishes to maintain the identity (which is until women in swimwear pass by). The brevity of the parody also aids its success. Whereas Strange Interlude draws us in over time with its addictive pacing, the parody pushes us away with its self-consciousness and randomness. By keeping the scene brief, Groucho can preserve his identity throughout the scene.

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1O'Neill, Eugene. A Play: Strange Interlude. New York: Boni & Liveright, 1928.

2It's curious to note that "All God's Chillun" songs in Duck Soup and A Day at the Races refer not only to an old spiritual, but also to O'Neill's 1924 play All God's Chillun Got Wings. The Duck Soup moment seems less parody than allusion. The other song fits in with a bizarre moment ending in blackface, about which I have little to say now.

3One could argue that this movie is not really a parody, but is simply a story that involves gangsters. This intention does not concern me, as I am interested in how the movie functions. I would also suggest in reply that Duck Soup is simply a story that involves war.