Here’s one I picked up in a dance hall

On the most recent Old Movie Club episode of The Incomparable podcast, Jason Snell and his guests discussed the Marx Brothers, mostly Duck Soup (iTunes, Amazon) and A Night at the Opera (iTunes, Amazon). Because Jason records and edits podcasts faster than I can write short blog posts, the episode is already a week old, but there are a couple of things I wanted to say about it before it vanishes into the mists of time.

First, on the argument over the value of the framing story, I’m firmly on Jason’s side. What makes Duck Soup better than all the other Marx Brothers movies is that it distilled the framing story down to the barest essentials. There’s no pair of young lovers singing at one another; in fact, there are no young lovers or “straight” songs at all. Even better, there’s no piano solo by Chico or harp solo by Harpo. While these additions may have helped at the box office in 1935, history has shown that they were dead weight, nothing more than a reason to exercise the FF button. No one watches a Marx Brothers movie to see Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones.

Second, there’s the blackface scene in A Day at the Races (iTunes, Amazon). It was only briefly mentioned in the podcast (and mostly in the bonus track), partly because it wasn’t in either of the main movies under discussion, and partly because it’s embarrassing. But I think it is worth talking about, so here goes:

It starts out very badly with “Who Dat Man.” Whatever you think of dialect humor,1 the notion of a bunch of black people being gathered together to follow a white guy is pretty offensive. Yes, I know Harpo ties the scene into the rest of the movie, but it still makes me wince whenever I see it.

For me, though, the scene starts to turn for the better with the shaking house and the party going on inside. If you’ve read anything on the history of the blues, that image is one you’ll recognize. All the great blues musicians from the Delta started out playing in house parties that are described just that way.

Shortly after the musicians come out of the house, Harpo bows out and the real entertainment begins. Ivie Anderson, who sang with Duke Ellington, segues from “Who Dat Man” into “All God’s Children Got Rhythm,” and we see one of the greatest dance sequences ever filmed.2 The white people are out of the picture, and it’s all African-American artistry on display. Better yet, it’s given respectful treatment by MGM, the studio for musicals.

Unfortunately, the scene ends with the Brothers smearing axle grease on their faces and going out to dance in front of the troupe. Again, I understand that they’re the stars and the movie has to transition back to them, but I still cringe in anticipation when I see them duck under the wagon.

(In fairness, they do a couple of twists on blackface. First, there’s something inherently funny about Groucho, who already has a greasepaint moustache and eyebrows, putting grease on the rest of his face. And Harpo, in true Harpo fashion, emerges with only the left half of his face covered. How Jason avoided a reference to Frank Gorshin, I’ll never know.)

So what we have is a great musical number, highlighting the talents of several African-American artists, bookended by bits of casual racism common to the time. It’s not like the blackface routines we see in other movies, and it’s likely that the middle section couldn’t have made it into the film without the bookends.

Cultural historians often talk about black culture transcending its “place,” infiltrating and outdoing the white culture that restricted it. I’d like to hear what Stanley Crouch thinks of this scene.

  1. As Chico would say, “’Atsa no good.” 

  2. Swing dance aficionados say it’s bettered only by this scene in Hellzapoppin’