Lesson Learned from the Marx Brothers: Heed the Zeppo Factor.

animal_crackers_movie_posterI originally wanted this post to be about the importance of unique characters. That when characters overlap, you have to cut whomever’s the most superfluous. Considering the current love of the Marx Brothers in our house, I was going to use Zeppo Marx as an example.

For those even more of a Philistine than me, the Marx Brothers began as a vaudeville group put together by their mother. All could sing, dance, play instruments, and verbally spar like nobody’s business. When the talkies came a’callin’, Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo left Broadway to perform in a filmed version of Cocoanuts and four other musical comedies for Paramount. When they transferred to the MGM film studio, Zeppo dropped from the act. The films they did for MGM, most notably Night at the Opera, made boatloads of money, so therefore the loss of Zeppo must have improved the films. Right?

20170117_071743Well….n-n-no.

Bo’s adored the Marx Brothers since the age of 6. Introducing them to the kids has been a huge treat for him. Bash in particular adores the music segments, and can even mimic Harpo’s faces during a piano duet in The Big Store:

I showed Bo my old post. He shook his head. “See, you can’t…no. Look.” He crossed his arms. Books, films, and documentaries played on fast-forward across his eyes. “It’s true that Zeppo doesn’t really stand out. You’re right that he plays the connection to the flimsy excuse of a plot in those movies. But when he’s gone, they still have a pretty boy for a lead. The three Marx Brothers are tighter as a unit, yeah, but they’re not the real stars of the movies anymore. They’re just a part of the story, and the stories suck. There’s a reason I never made you sit through Day at the Races.”

“So,” I hold off Biff and his giant metal eighteen-wheeler, “it’s the character-driven story vs. the plot-driven story?”

Bo considered. “Yes, I suppose so.” And then he went on about a lot of other nuances and exceptions, but I’ve had wine, so I don’t feel like typing all that.

The point is, even a character who doesn’t seem to stand out can have an impact on a story; it’s just that impact may not be felt until its absence. The Marx Brothers are all about fine-crafted comedy: perfectly-timed stunts, word-play that’ll make a priest blush, and music performances any obnoxious toddler will watch in blessed peace. Each Marx Brother contributed particular gifts: Groucho’s wordplay, Chico’s music, and Harpo’s innocent deviltry. While all the brothers had talents in all the corners, each picked one to dominate. Sure, Harpo played piano with Chico sometimes, and Chico sometimes sparred words with Groucho, and Groucho sometimes joined Harpo in the physical schtick, but these cross-overs never outlast the bit at hand.

And then, there’s Zeppo. He was just as talented as the other three: sing, dance, play, banter. All of it. He was a hit with them on Broadway, even though he never cared for the attention. But the triumvirate of comedy–physical, verbal, musical–were filled in by his brothers. What unique trait did he bring that they couldn’t?

marx-brothers-cocoanuts

The eye-candy, of course!

Yup, they made him the pretty boy character. He was the one who kept whatever passed for a story going. When he was given a chance to actually be funny, like in Animal Crackers, he’s great, but otherwise he’s just…there. Several scenes pass between Zeppo appearances in the films, and he’s never really missed. Groucho’s foil is usually Margaret Dumont, so even the straight-man role is filled. After Duck Soup and the announcement of MGM “acquiring” the comedic group, Zeppo took advantage and left the group.  A tighter group should lead to tighter comedy, only it doesn’t. Why?

Because as Bo said, the MGM films don’t highlight the comedy.

Therein lies the dilemma.

MGM was all about appealing to the broadest audience possible. This meant expanding the films to be more than just Marx Brothers’ antics; the movies had to contain a stronger story and popular music numbers, too. MGM proved their point with the massive box office successes of their three Marx Brothers films, but any fan of the Paramount films can see that the Marx Brothers simply aren’t allowed to be as funny in the MGM films. Story was given priority at the sacrifice of the characters. When one looks at the Paramount films, one’ll find plots little Bash could out-write in a single afternoon. The comedy, though, is king. The four Marx Brothers have free reign with their banter, music acts, and physical antics, which makes for hilarious viewing every time. One does not watch Duck Soup for its political drama; one watches it for Chico and Groucho verbally sparring over a nut stand. One does not watch Monkey Business for the drama of gang rivalry; one watches it for Harpo driving steamship’s crew crazy.

As writers, we must always be conscious of how many characters we have in play. We must be wary of repetitive characters, of too many or too few characters. We must also remember that the changes we make with our characters can have a subtle ripple effect throughout the rest of the story. Sure, the three Marx Brothers were a tighter comedy unit, but their films did not in any way improve. The four Marx Brothers make one easily forget about the need for plot, but one’s always left wondering, “What’s with Zeppo?”

When you choose to revise your cast, think carefully what impact the absence(s) will have. Don’t just study the plot for new rips; study what binds the characters, too. The needed mending might not be noticeable at first, but once you spot it, the story won’t be the same until you make it right.

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44 thoughts on “Lesson Learned from the Marx Brothers: Heed the Zeppo Factor.

  1. This is really interesting stuff. It sounds like cash over content always wins because that’s what most of the public wants. Also, these days the public demand a bit more for there money. I’m thinking for example a bit part character Jabba the Hutt was pretty important to The Empire Strikes Back, so sometimes they get it right.

    Liked by 2 people

    • The Hutts! Yes, they are rather important in trilogy; however, I do NOT dig Hutt’s insertion into A New Hope. He looks like a total weakling with Han Solo bossing him around. It makes later scenes with him really strange, because his character basically does a 180. Now, if he was a sly bastard from start to finish, THEN I could handle that new first meeting with him by the Millennium Falcon.
      ANYway…yes. Studios got to basically dictate what movies could be about, and they traded staff and actors like, well…well it’s always sounded a bit like a set of plantations to me. Bo told me that Groucho couldn’t get the MGM movies made so much money because they were so bloody horrible. I think it is about catering to the audience–if you enjoy the Marx Brothers’ comedy, you don’t care how bizarre the plot is, and let me tell you: DUCK SOUP makes absolutely not one lick of sense. Do fans of their comedy care? Nope. Because they’re in it for characters, not plot.
      …that got really long-winded, sorry. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve never seen those films but I have heard of the Marx Brothers. I don’t think I’ll be checking them out on Netflix though. Have you seen Rogue One yet. So good after the first ten minutes.

        Liked by 2 people

      • The comedy genre has so many variations and tastes–rather like wine, I think. While I enjoy the Marx Brothers, I have no patience for the Three Stooges or the silent comedians like Buster Keaton. Bo loves them all. 🙂
        I have seen Rogue One, yes. I…I’m mixed about it. It was good, but…actually, I hope to share something about it next month.

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      • I will say I enjoyed it better than The Force Awakens. It’s nice to see the Star Wars universe acknowledge IT’S A BLOODY BIG UNIVERSE. A Star Wars story shouldn’t have to be tied somehow to the original cast.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! Bo had more things for me to say, but I didn’t feel like putting together a dissertation. 🙂 I just wish there was a better way of seeing Zeppo shine. He gets sooooooooooo few chances to do anything genuinely funny in those movies, but he pulled his own on stage with ease. And when one watches the interviews given by family and friends, they all praise his prowess as a comedian.
      And did you know Harpo was working for a gang of bank robbers before he went to vaudeville?!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I imagine you must be a remarkable teacher. Could be a barrister perhaps? Your gentle yet accurate dissection of the subject matter and thereafter shredding the irrelevant to get to the substance is a gift. When combined with a style of writing that appeals the result makes for the finest reading.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. This makes me curious to check out the Marx Brothers’ films as I actually haven’t seen any of them.
    It is quite tricky, having no characters that are superfluous. I do think it’s good to leave a character in even if he does nothing if he has good chemistry with the others. I guess that would be kind of like Zeppo? I’m working on a story right now where I’ve introduced a character to fill a plot hole, but I don’t see much further use for him. It’s becoming really difficult to find a role for him in the rest of the story, though I feel there should be one.

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  4. St. David The Patron saint of Wales, where I live said, “Do the little things…” and it is the little things that can make the biggest impact overall, turning something that is well executed into something that is excellent. I wasn’t into the Marx Brothers but admire their comedy genuineness and recognise that they are one of the ‘Go to’s ‘ for the very best comedians, crafting their comedy skills and searching for the comedy bible. I get your point that collaborative projects- performance, writing or otherwise- must find the glue, understand how it sticks to others, how the glue dries and maybe how it becomes un-sticky and falls away, the loss that that entails, and the consequences.
    One of the first lessons taught in improvisation (theatre) workshops is that you do not leave anything on stage without a reason. So, if someone came on with an imaginary ball, it would have to be used, acknowledged until it was no longer needed. Its exit would have to be acknowledged. You could not simply drop the ball into thin air and move on to another topic. The audience will be bothered by the ‘Ball’, right the way to the end, sometimes not being able to put into words why something didn’t feel right in the performance (particularly if the object was more obscure than a ball, as the subconscious doesn’t forget). The visible and invisible are equally important.Just like the glue. Ignore the little things at your peril. An engaging post.

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    • Lovely points, all of these. And apt you bring up improv–the Marx Brothers were all amazing improv artists; Chico and Harpo were so good, they could even trade characters (and wigs) and take the act into even zanier directions.
      But the difference with improv was that Zeppo COULD contribute, whereas in the scripted, controlled filming environment, he was more or less written as a second-stringer, a straight man when a scene didn’t have Margaret Dumont.
      But I love your point about the little things, and the glue. I guess we just don’t always recognize the glue for what it is until it’s gone. Rather like a family member who passes away and the family slowly, slowly falls to pieces.
      Seriously, thank you so much for reading and sharing. Love it!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. INTERESTING! The hubby and I were just talking about Zeppo the other day- around when he made me watch “Day at the Races.” Again. Thank Bo for sparing you- he is kind. There is this musical number that I just can’t scrub out of my brain… I’d definitely take more shenanigans over that “plot!” Thanks for the insights, and always a pleasure to read more Jean Lee, especially on days when I can’t get my “Gwen” fix 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    • Oh dear. Yes, those sappy musical numbers inserted for public-pleasing drive me BONKERS. Bo always fast-forwards through them…except in THE BIG STORE. Have you watched that one yet? I recommend it. Yeah, you can fastforward through some of it, but the chase scene near the end has all the zaniness of the Paramount films, Groucho’s song is tolerable, and Chico and Harpo have a FANTASTIC piano duet scene–oh! Yes, the one I put on the post, duh. 🙂 But yes, for one of the last films, it’s not bad. If your hubby can handle it, you guys should put on Monkey Business or Animal Crackers 😛 Well, Duck Soup is fun, too. Only Cocoanuts really won’t have anything to offer the kiddos.
      Yay, you’re enjoying Gwen! xxxxx

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  6. I have never watched a Marx Brothers movie (gasp), but now I will! My seven-year-old would dig them, I’m sure. From a writer’s perspective, your description of the trade-offs between story and character intrigued me. In my newest novel, I’m considering whether or not I have a “stray” character lurking in the pages–now I feel I know better what the effects of the stray could have on the story. Thanks for the post!

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  7. This is a fascinating article – I recall watching the Marx Brothers on TV many years ago, but since then have been far more caught by listening to the Radio 4 serialisations of their scripts which really bring out the humour and cleverness of the writing.
    On a different note – I look forward to hearing your views on Rogue One – I was very disappointed as I found the characterisation far too thin for the storyline.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Oh man, I have GOT to look up those serialisations. Bo’s favorite character has always been Groucho for his play with language. While Chico makes for a good foil every now and again, I think Bo’s always preferred Zeppo or Margaret Dumont for Groucho’s foil. do you have a preference?
      And you bet your boots I want cover Rogue One, though February will be awful with the finals coming in. Hoping I can get a hold of someone who critiqued it quite fairly.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. FABULOUDS post Lady Jean. I am aa bit undecided on the Marx Bros. I loved seeing their old movies as a kid, find them overdone and Groucho too in my face as an adult but then comedy styles have changed. I still think one of their finest though is that scene in Night at The Opera where they basically stage this other opera. Also having had my share of acting and how a show can go wring and how we save it at all costs, some of the antics remind me of that.
    You have such relevant points re characters, who to leave in etc, JEEZ, I was just thinking in this book I am editing–SCREAM right now- that both this heroine and the other heroine from the other book from the time mutants series have had problematic situations with men that have trapped them and both want revenge on that husband/fiancé. In one book that husband is a secondary character but he has a lot of biz with the heroine, a lot of scenes etc. But in the other book the fiancé doesn’t. And I was thinking maybe I needed more scenes but I told myself no cos there’s enough secondary characters who are vital to the story. So it is nice to see that point reiterated x

    Liked by 2 people

    • Happy to oblige, O Lovely Lady Shey :). You’re indeed right that comedy tastes can change, but I’m pretty sure my house will always be stuck in the 1930s. 🙂 Actually, one of Bo’s favorite writers is Robert Benchley. While I’ve never read one of his books on my own, Bo loves reading me excerpts, and they’re always HILARIOUS with the jabs and undercuts given in such deliciously formal language.
      All right–back to your edits. Love and strength as you pour through those words. Don’t let Hamstah Dickens near your pages! xxxxxxxxxx

      Liked by 1 person

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