As the world’s media debate the future of satire, it’s an opportune time for the BFI to release the Marx Brothers’s most barbed film, a silly-serious sideswipe against war, politics and the entire concept of heroism. First shown in 1933, as humanity were busily gearing up for another round of death-to-everyone, the film doesn’t take the same direct potshots as, say, Chaplin’s ‘The Great Dictator’.
But this is a spikier, subtler, far less sentimental film, using its timely mittel-European setting and Fascist-like decor to mask a pointed attack on American triumphalism and the lunacy of war, all the way back to Thomas Jefferson. The plot sees Groucho playing Rufus T Firefly, the populist revolutionary who takes charge of the remote nation of Sylvania and is pursued by a pair of spies played by Chico and Harpo. But all this is secondary to a series of wildly elaborate set-pieces – the mirror scene is perhaps the greatest physical comedy routine in slapstick history – and mind-scramblingly relentless one-liners (‘I got a good mind to join a club and beat you over the head with it!’). Genius just about covers it.
Cast and crew
The Marx Brothers