Infatuated with a Pretty Uniform

image from Groucho, Harpo1

In these films, as in life, characters frequently display their identities by visual clues. Other people automatically accept these signifiers as true signs of identity. The Marx Brothers show the irrationality and arbitrariness of that type of identification.

Each of the movies features the brothers playing with signs of identity. In Monkey Business the brothers repeatedly display a false identity with simplistic signification. At one point Groucho pretends to be the captain by wearing the captain's hat and jacket. He manages to fool the First Officer as long as Groucho keeps his back turned. His voice does not accurately imitate the captain's, but since he maintains appearances, his clueless foil falls for the disguise. Groucho's face gives him away because of the obvious signifiers. Chico and Harpo utilize smocks to disguise themselves as barbers. Their pursuer is so confident in the signs he sees before him that he literally goes to sleep in the barber chair.

The brothers also play with facial hair in a variety of ways. First, the scholars in Horse Feathers each sport beards, symbolizing their ties to the academy. President Wagstaff (Groucho) does not have a beard, which suggests immediately his disconnection from education. In A Night at the Opera the brothers stage several escapes through their use of fake beards. At one point, they hide from the detective Henderson by disguising themselves as a chair, an old lady, and a man in a beard. Henderson falls for the seemingly inadequate disguises even though he should know where is he and what is going on. In these films, the most basic disguises fool the foils, because they programmatically except surface indicators of identity.

The most absurd scene involving beards comes earlier in the movie. Fiorello, Tomasso, and Baroni (Chico,
A Night at the Opera
Fiorello: So now I tell you how we fly to America. The first time we started, we get-a halfway across when we run out-a gasoline and we gotta go back. Then I take-a twice as much gasoline. This time we-a just about to land--maybe three feet--when whaddya think? We run out-a gasoline again and a-back we go again to get-a more gas. This time I take-a plenty gas. Well, we get-a halfway over when what-a you think-a happened? We forgot-a the aeroplane. So we gotta sit down and we talk it over. Then I get-a a great idea. We no take-a gasoline. We no take-a the aeroplane. We take a steamship. And that, friends, is how we fly across the ocean.
Harpo, and Allan Jones) steal the beards off of Russian aviators to sneak off the on which ship they've stowed away. The aviators, though, are given a big ceremony at City Hall, where they are asked to make speeches. Everyone is fooled by the disguises, even after Fiorello's ridiculous speech. The people do not care about the true identities of the men as long as they maintain the proper appearance. Tomasso cannot speak when asked (of course) so he repeatedly drinks water to stall for time. The water disintegrates his identity, but no one minds. When Henderson suggests the men are imposters, the mayor asks him to apologize to prevent an international scandal. Tomasso kisses him to show forgiveness, and the beard comes off of his face and sticks to Henderson. Only now that the surface signification has been broken does anyone recognize the problem. The characters are so consumed with signs that they do not understand the poor performance they are witnessing.

The play with signs reaches its most absurd point in Duck Soup. First, Chico and Harpo (Chicolini and Pinky) arrive at Trentino's office wearing bizarre masks. Clearly, the costumes are "spy stuff." Merely by putting on the signs of spies, the Marxes think they can pass as intelligence agents (we'll let that obviously slide). They also attempt to steal the plans of war later by disguising themselves as Groucho (Rufus T. Firefly). When Mrs. Teasdale encounters the disguised brothers, she believes that they are who they look like, even though one of them has an Italian accent ("Maybe sometime I go to Italy, and I'm practicing the language") and the other one
Duck Soup
Mrs. Teasdale: I thought you left.

Chicolini: Oh no. I don't leave.

Mrs. Teasdale: But I saw you with my own eyes.

Chicolini: Well, who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?
cannot talk. Chicolini wisely suggests that she should not believe her eyes. Furthermore, Pinky makes sure that as many signs as possible are eliminated throughout the movie. He carries a pair of scissors with him at all times to cut off signs of status like cigars and coattails (which Groucho's costumes mock) and he spends a fair portion of the movie destroying hats (which we see as a standard sign throughout the films).

The movie climaxes with the ridiculous war. The brothers each appear dressed in different uniforms, which do not represent which side they are on (which is hard to tell in some cases, Firefly even shoots at his own men). Firefly, too, keeps reappearing in uniforms from different periods. The signs from this scene represent War, but do not get specific enough to make any sense. If we were to read the signs literally, we would be watching an American frontiersman shooting a machine gun. We cannot create any acceptible identity through these signs. Pinky, helpfully, has a solution. When a vase gets stuck on Firefly's head, he draws big glasses, mustache, eyebrows, and a ciagar on it in an ironic attempt to make external signs correspond to identity. Of course, this attempt is ridiculous, so he sticks a firecracker under the jar to blow it up.


1Adamson, Joe. Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Sometimes Zeppo: A History of the Marx Brothers and a Satire on the Rest of the World. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973.