It’s kind of amazing how little physical changes can have such an enormous effect on how we play characters. An average looking man puts on a slightly over-sized tux, slathers some grease paint across his eyebrows and upper lip, and uses exaggerated gestures - including a particularly swaggering walk - and he becomes Groucho Marx. Another similar looking man puts on a giant trench coat, a fright wig, and a top hat, then doesn’t talk at all, and becomes Harpo Marx. And, in the Marx Brothers’ classic film Duck Soup (1933), the two end up dressing alike and mirror each other, giving birth to one of the most iconic and copied scenes in cinematic history.
These days, the Marx Brothers are one of those things we know about, but tragically few people have actually seen their movies. Such is the march of time. But, today’s comedic performers specifically can learn a lot from these old movies. Particularly, how great they were at space work.
The basic plot of Duck Soup is smart enough. A commentary on nationalism, and specifically prescient in light of what would soon happen in Europe, Duck Soup finds the country of Freedonia deep in debt and desperate. Wealthy citizen Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) says she won’t loan the country any more money unless she appoints Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) as the new leader. Meanwhile Trentino (Louis Calhern), leader of neighboring Sylvania, is trying to annex Freedonia. He engages in espionage by hiring Pinky (Harpo) and Chicolini (Chico Marx) to spy on Firefly. Eventually, war happens, and Freedonia haphazardly fights its way to victory. It’s smart, but the plot is really more of a vehicle for Marx brother comedy bits.
The Marx Brothers got their start in vaudeville, another early 20th century art that is sadly not paid enough attention these days. To extremely oversimplify things, the general Vaudeville show was a variety show. There was dancing, acrobatics, clowns, singing, acting, comedy, etc. The Marx’s did comedy shows, obviously. So, even though we’re talking about a film here, this is a film that has its roots on stage. In fact, before the Marx Brothers would shoot a movie, they would road test all the bits, honing them until they were as strong as possible for the movie.
So, that’s kind of the opposite of improv, right? Well, yeah. But, that’s not really the point I’m making, so can it.
It’s true that the Marx Brothers, and Groucho specifically, were known for their quips. Their movies were rife with witty great, punny one liners. But, perhaps less remembered is just how great their space work was. And, that’s something that modern comic performers can take a valuable lesson from. Quips are still very much en vogue, but outside of the occasional screwball stage play, our idea of stage comedy is very word driven.
Part of that has to do with our changing sense of humor. Many people say we live in an Age of Irony. With that comes satire. And, those two things, and most other forms of humor that branch off that tree, are based in literature.
Because the Marx Brothers came from the vaudeville stage, their comedy was much more physical. For instance, in his first scene, Groucho barely ever stands still. Even while other people talk to him, he moves and gestures, sometimes with no connection to what is being said. So, in one little bit of exposition, he starts hopscotching for no reason at all. At first glance, this might seem random, but in reality he’s communicating the boredom of setting a scene.
In improv, performers have to get out the who/what/where pretty early. It’s often a little awkward. But, imagine shaking that up by just going with the first gesture that comes to mind, even if it doesn’t necessarily flow with the words. Groucho no doubt tested out several bits there, but the same would work in an improvisational environment.
And, due to physical bits like this, the words then mold to fit the action of the scene, rather than the other way around.
Harpo and Chico are particularly good at this. In both their first scene with Trentino and the famous “hat scene,” the duo constantly torment their foil with little visual gags. Many of these involve props (as Harpo was famous for), but the general motivation was to, again, take a routine scene and introduce a little physical anarchy by constantly subverting the forward momentum of the plot.
This puts a lot on the shoulders of the other person in the scene, the classic straight man role, but the Marx’s always had good people like Dumont who were adept at keeping a straight face and staying in character while dealing with the insanity around them. Or in other words, they “yes and”-ed the hell out of every scene. Calhern specifically played right along without skipping a beat, even when Harpo produces a blow torch to light their cigars with.
The main point of this ramble being that Groucho, Harpo, and Chico are always moving. The effect is something that looks natural by the fact that it’s an id-like stream of consciousness.
Everything they feel, they act out. And that often ends up being funny, even if it wouldn’t seem so in the context. That’s an important thing for improv performers to consider. If it pops in your head, do it. Trust your scene-mates and let the physically manifested emotions flow.
Or, instead of just saying how you feel, try acting it out. It can open up whole new avenues in a scene.
So, with that in mind, let’s talk about “the mirror scene.” If you don’t immediately know what that is based on the totally important quotation marks I put around it, it’s the scene where Groucho and Harpo, both dressed as Groucho’s character, mirror each other in an opening between two rooms that could possible pass for a mirror.
In the scene, Harpo is doing his espionage and gets caught by Groucho, so to try and throw him off, Harpo - again, dressed as Groucho - mimics the Freedonian leader in an attempt to convince him that he’s looking into a mirror.
Both characters in this scene have a motivation. Harpo wants Freedonia’s war plans and to not get caught getting them, and Groucho wants to prevent that. And Groucho is on to the ruse, so he tests his “reflection” with a series of exaggerated gestures, which Harpo copies to near perfection.
It’s a scene with literally no sound. It’s purely physical, and yet it’s perfectly clear what is happening in the scene, how each character feels, and what they want. It was all about the physicality and the space work.
If you haven’t seen Duck Soup, do yourself a favor and seek it out. It’s only an hour long, after all. If you have seen it, watch it again. Sure, there’s a lot to glean from the great quips - or buttons - that so often serve as great punctuations to scenes. But pay attention to the overt physicality of the Marx Brothers and how they use gestures, posture, and movement to drive a scene forward. It’s a skill that has a lot of application to modern improv.
Also, Dallas gets a mention in one of the super pun-tastic lines. So, that’s fun.
My Top 5 Classic Physical Comedies:
- Dr. Strangelove - I mean, seriously. Peter Sellers. Master.
- Duck Soup
- Sullivan’s Travels
- The Freshman
- Young Frankenstein
Kris Noteboom is a Level 2 student at DCH. He is working on his PhD, with a focus comedy. He went on a mini tour this summer performing his comedic one-man show, And Then I Woke Up.