Dr. Rich Edwards

Daily Dose of Doozy #6: There Ain't No Sanity Clause: the Marx Brothers

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With regard to Alan Dale's definition of verbal slapstick; would you consider the banter between Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday verbal slapstick? It is brilliant and in my view, one of the best rapid fire exchanges of dialog in classic film.

We're talking about Ben Hecht's original "The Front Page," here, which was adapted into "His Girl Friday" with most of that snappy dialogue intact by Charles Lederer and, guess who, Morrie Ryskind, the same Morrie who contributed to the writing of "Night at the Opera." And Pat O'Brien, who had been the original movie Hildy Johnson in "The Front Page" of 1931 became the bones of another vehicle, "Boy Meets Girl," with the same type of rat-a-tat dialogue playing against Jimmy Cagney as two Hollywood screenwriters.

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1.  I would say that they could be the poster child or working definition of Dale's verbal slapstick. However, as I've looked at other replies on this topic I have to agree that Grant and Russell in "His Girl Friday" is also wonderful - my students in my film class are amazed at how fast they can talk and not goof up.  I also think if you want a TV show comparison - Gilmore Girls-fast dialogue with so many nuances and cultural references.

 

2. One that stands out in my mind is the idea that Chico should sign the contract and Groucho is shaking the pen and he says that it's okay that he can't write because the pen has no ink.  Also the Sanity Clause is nice as well.

 

3.  exaggerated.

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In terms of the definitions of slapstick, admittedly it wasn't athletically physical or even particularly violent (no animals were harmed). But as a former legal secretary, I admit that I cringed when they blithely start tearing off parts of the contract. Ouch! You don't do that to a legal document! Without the physical use of the prop, this would have been nothing, and the violence done to the paper -- and to the words is definitely there.

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Alan Dales definition of verbal slapstick perfectly fits the Marx brothers.Chicos repeating back to Grocho his own words but in a different order or with a slight accent move the verbal gags forward. The Marx brothers were so smooth in their delivery of verbal slapstick,notice the timing of a physical action only before or after the spoken word. In contrast the Ritz brothers never did seem to have the same smooth timing between word and physical action of a gag.Abott and Costello signaled the start and end of a verbal gag with over exagration of the face.

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The Marx brothers were so smooth in their delivery of verbal slapstick,notice the timing of a physical action only before or after the spoken word. In contrast the Ritz brothers never did seem to have the same smooth timing between word and physical action of a gag.Abott and Costello signaled the start and end of a verbal gag with over exagration of the face.

 

The Marx Brothers would go into a theater with a live audience and run through all the gag sequences from the movie they were ready to film. They would carefully gauge audience reactions and would rework a scene until they had perfected the timing and maximized the laughs. While a lot of their material may sound ad-libbed, it was generally very carefully rehearsed and tested.

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I look at a lot of these verbal exchanges between Groucho and Chico (and sometimes Groucho and some other character in the movie) to be the verbal equivalents of pie fights. Instead of throwing pies in each other's faces, we get insults, innuendos, puns, etc. thrown back and forth with each exchange of words being a little more intense or topping the previous one. Like a pie fight, it's a battle where no one gets hurt but the sheer pace, timing and cleverness of it all sets off laughter from the viewer.

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1. How well does Alan Dale's definition of verbal slapstick fit the Marx Brothers?

 

It’s a perfect fit: while reading the definition I could think of an example from a Marx brothers movie for each instance of verbal slapstick.

2. Can you identify specific "characteristic gags" that Groucho and Chico use in their on-screen performance of this extended verbal slapstick gag?

 

In the clip we can find malapropisms (in the famous closing line) and Chico’s foreign accent. The repetition of “the party of the first part” is important to make humor.

But now it’s time to digress: I think so much of verbal slapstick fun can be lost in translation! The first time I saw this movie, I thought Chico spoke like this in real life (not a gag) and it took me time to get the word game involving “sanity clause” and “Santa Claus”. It was lost in translation, and only repeated viewings made me aware of some jokes.

3. Which of the five conditions we associated with visual slapstick comedy (exaggerated, physical, repetitive/ritualistic, make believe, painful/violent) remain operative in the use of verbal slapstick in the movies?

 

Exaggeration in special. A bit of make believe and only in some cases we have ritualistic or repetitive.

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Now here we go into some of the best verbal slapstick around, and I do believe the Marx brothers represent Alan Dale's definition quite well.  They were so ahead of their time - I honestly believe that a large majority of modern slapstick stylings can be traced back to these guys.  The repetition of the tearing of the contract and the back and forth of Groucho and Chico are, as someone else said here, a good bit like a verbal pie fight.  

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The Marx Brothers, with their gags, managed to return to the best of the splastick of the golden age, with its five characteristic elements, adding new elements provided by the sound and the evolution of the cinema. Groucho and Chico are master on the verbal splastick, and, this famous scene of a Night at the Opera, it show.  All dialogue between both is a clear example of that says Alan Dale. On the other hand, although not seen in this clip, remember that reading of the contract made it supported in the body of Lasparri (lying on the floor after a coup of Harpo). Movements, gestures, the break of the contract are also powerful visual elements too.

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1. How well does Alan Dale's definition of verbal slapstick fit the Marx Brothers?

 

It makes perfect sense, given the amount of fast-paced verbal slapstick, in which dialogue is delivered back and forth rapidly between Groucho and Chico. It wasn't just physical comedy with the Marx Brothers, they also had the ability to excel in verbal comedy, where they delivered their lines a mile a minute. You wondered how they were able to catch their breath, especially Groucho. I think it is safe to say that Dale's interpretation really justified their legendary comic gifts. They played off of each other extremely well. It continues to show today.

 

2. Can you identify specific "characteristic gags" that Groucho and Chico use in their on-screen performance of this extended verbal slapstick gag?

 

Obviously, you can identify the verbal wit, brilliant one-liners, and Chico's accent. In a way, I don't think silent films would have been able to capture the spirit of the Marx Brothers. Don't get me wrong, I love silent films, but the Marx Brothers fit perfectly in the sound era.

 

3. Which of the five conditions we associated with visual slapstick comedy (exaggerated, physical, repetitive/ritualistic, make believe, painful/violent) remain operative in the use of verbal slapstick in the movies?  

 

I think that repetition and ritualism still exists because in certain comedies now, some gags can be used more than once, to the point that they become stale and overused. I really do miss the subtlety and attention to all five conditions that were used in the silent and sound films. That was the era that really cared about the timing, how certain gags worked, and if comedians were able to handle the more violent and physical areas of comedy.

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​Dale's definition is perfect in describing the verbal slapstick gag that is so Marx Brothers.  I found the timing to be in place and cringe at the bad puns and grew impatient with the shredding of the contract.  With the "talkies" not only sound effects but writers (or the comedians themselves) could write thing that would have the audience reacting hilariously and wanting more of such banter.

 

 

I myself got confused trying to figure out each party that was mentioned; loved the party that caused 3 day blindness!  The more the verbal slapstick goes on Chico's accent is noticeable.  The payoff is the "sanity clause" and its reference to Santa.

 

 

Exaggeration abounds in just attempting to read a legal document.  No real physical comedy unless you include the shredding of the contract.  Repetetive...the tearing of the paper and the puns, insults, verbal jokes.  Make-believe...definitely only in a movie would a legal document be a cause to tear it up.  Painful...I think the Marx Brothers tried to verbally out-pain each other.

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OTIS B. DRIFTWOOD. News to me. Love Groucho Marx! Well, to answer the first part of the second question prior to The first party of the third question… OK I cannot do it. Because it is brilliant verbal slapstick. Indeed that scene between Groucho and Chico is a perfect example of Alan what's his name's definition. I really should learn his name before the quiz. The gag is a wonderful verbal banter with quick timing and great delivery. Of course Chico has his accent, but every time Groucho would go into reading he would acquire an accent for the "first party of the second part etc."
This verbal gag uses no violence or great physical effort. Aside from ripping the paper. Pretty much repetitiveness was the gag. Ritualistic brilliant repetitiveness. Therefore I guess we could use the word exaggerated. Anyway loved it. Love the Marx brothers. Looking forward to watching the movie tonight.

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DISCLAIMER:

Since I believe the Marx Brothers to be perfect, this may tend to skew any contributions I may make to discussions about their comedy, either now or in the future. 

Thank you.

 

1. According to Dale, "verbal slapstick:".  . . generally refers to dialogue performed at a breakneck clip."

This is about the only part of Dale's definitions that doesn't apply to the Marx Brothers comedy, at least to themselves specifically. The conversation between Groucho and Chico could have gone on for hours, and still would have been hilarious.  However, they had a very special way of leading others (Groucho's conversations with Sig Ruman during A Night in Casablanca comes immediately to mind), leading them, as it were to the hillside, and letting them fall over, snowballing as they go. 

 

The rest of the definition is practically an inventory of Marx specialties: characteristic gags (shake Harpo),  . . . the sarcastic aside ("I see figures... straaange figures... weeeird figures: Steel 186, Anaconda 74, American Can 138"), the comeback that turns the first speaker's words around (how Margaret Dumont put up with Groucho in seven movies), one-liners (every time they opened their mouths--even Harpo), vivid slang, outrageous metaphors ("This would be a better world for children, if the parents had to eat the spinach"), double entrendres, nonsequiturs, malapropisms (can you just hear Groucho saying "I beg your pardon?"), mispronunciations, getting names wrong (say it with me everybody: Hung-er-dung-er), and foreign accents.

 

2. The entire clip is a classic put-on, going back to their stage origins.  Groucho the "expert" seeks to enlighten Chico, who knows infinitely more than he lets on.  the interim one-liners differ with the movie, of course, but keep us laughing.

 

3. As others have pointed out, the ritualistic exchange of reading the contract is the most outstanding feature relating to the conditions. 

 

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1. Dale's definition fits this gag to a T, a textbook example of verbal slapstick.
2. There was always an encounter between Groucho & Chico in every Marx Brothers movie. Their experiences on Broadway and vaudeville had them reined their routines down to a science. Groucho the wise guy would try to pull one over Chico but it woken never work out quite that way. W.C. Fields said that he hated to follow the Marx Bros. in vaudeville because they would always bring ten house down. This scene shows them at the top of their game.
3. Every element of visual slapstick is present in this example of verbal slapstick: An exaggerated contract negotiation, physical interplay by tearing up the contract, ritualistic back and forth, a farcical & make believe situation and Chico doing violence to the English language.

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I have to agree with everyone on what they said. Maybe I should leave it at that. I won't. With the slapstick there's the routine and exaggerated with Groucho and Chico back and forth with the contract and tearing it. Their one liners are fast and you have to listen to catch what they're saying.

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The exquisite timing involved with this lighting fast exchange represents the same planning, practice and discipline so evident among the masters of the silent era. The Marx Brothers, to me anyway, represent the very best of verbal slapstick. We all watch to see who will win in this seesaw battle that seems to pit an ignorant Chico against a wiseguy Groucho, but they are really very evenly matched with Chico delivering the final twist to this gag.
The extremely long contract that seems only to identify parties to it is a lovey piece of exaggeration that also pokes fun at the legal establishment that we all are occasionally afflicted with and tearing parts of it away is a good physical bit as their eyes shift back and forth.The whole sequence strikes us as a make believe situation because contracts aren't really negotiated in that way (no matter how much we wish they were).
I know he wasn't in this clip but just a quick thought about the silent Harpo. He seems to be imbued with all of the over the top characteristics of silent slapstick.The exaggerated actions, the physical comedy moves with repetition (chasing girls, the leg set into someone's hand, etc), and most violent action, and except for the horn and harp, the silent pantomime. The silent era wasn't abandoned by the Marx Brothers, they Incorporated it quite successfully in their movies.

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1.  How well does Alan Dale's definition of verbal slapstick fit the Marx Brothers?

 

I’m sure Dale’s comments include other performers but its as if he used the Marx Brothers to develop his profile of verbal slapstick.  “One-liners, puns, vivid slang, outrageous metaphors, double entrendres, nonsequiturs,

malapropisms, mispronunciations, getting names wrong, and foreign accents” pretty much summarize the Marx Brothers.

 

2. Can you identify specific "characteristic gags" that Groucho and Chico use in their on-screen performance of this extended verbal slapstick gag?

 

The props they use in this gag are very simple but contributed greatly to the humor.  For example, the paper contract allows the brothers to rip away repeatedly sections they don’t like. The pen that doesn’t have any ink summarizes the futility of the whole discussion about the contract. 

 

3. Which of the five conditions we associated with visual slapstick comedy (exaggerated, physical, repetitive/ritualistic, make believe, painful/violent) remain operative in the use of verbal slapstick in the movies?

 

The exaggeration comes from the absurdity of the Marx Bros. characters (for example, big black painted mustache and eyebrows on Groucho).  

 

Physical – While not as physical as Keaton’s dangerous stunts, the Marx Bros. have a similar absurd grace with Groucho’s stooping walk and Harpo’s facial expressions.  Likewise, Groucho’s cutting stares at Chico speak volumes.

 

The repetition is both verbal and physical.  The verbal comes from Groucho and Chico arguing about the “parties” in the contract.  The physical comes from the repeated “ripping” of the contract.

 

Make Believe -  Again, the humor of the Marx’s movies work because the brother’s navigate through a “normal” world with absurd behavior.  Some of the Marx’s earlier films like Duck Soup seem to be more make believe than Night at the Opera.

 

Painful/Violent -  Not the type of physical pain that Lloyd, Keaton, and Chaplin experienced but Groucho’s verbal dexterity can be as cutting and disabling as any physical gag.

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The routine in this clip does meet Dale's definition of verbal slapstick.  Groucho and Chico go at a "breakneck clip" in their back-and-forth about the "party of the first part shall be known as the party of the first part...."  The words get twisted around at the end of the clip when Chico gets the name wrong.  "Everybody knows there ain't no Sanity Clause!"

 

Just about all of the visual slapstick condition exist in the verbal slapstick of the clip.  The situation is exaggerated with literal removing of the clauses from the contracts.  Groucho has a small physical bit in the clip when he rolls his eyes, making an exaggerated expression at Chico when he says "There ain't no Sanity Clause.".  The dialogue is repetitive throughout the bit including "The party of the first part shall be known as the party of the first part that shall be known..."  The silliness of the situation of the two tearing up the contracts as they go through them show the situation is make believe.  The only condition I don't see in this clip is the painful / violent condition.

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Questions: 
1. How well does Alan Dale's definition of verbal slapstick fit the Marx Brothers? To a T - it seems like he was describing them even before we watched the clip. But at the same time the Marx Bros incorporated Harpo - who didn't speak. Though he used his horn in place of verbal communication
 
2. Can you identify specific "characteristic gags" that Groucho and Chico use in their on-screen performance of this extended verbal slapstick gag? sarcasm, double entendre from a mispronunciation, the foreign accent (never heard Chico without one). The speed at which they do it and turning a phrase. Back and forth.
 
3. Which of the five conditions we associated with visual slapstick comedy (exaggerated, physical, repetitive/ritualistic, make believe, painful/violent) remain operative in the use of verbal slapstick in the movies? Its repetitive, particularly in response to the clause; exaggerated about nine clauses and tearing off the contract; make believe relating to signing the bottom of the contract that's been torn up; the physical aspect of tearing up the contract at the same time and in turn with the give and take between the two ("You won;t like this one"); no violence, unless you count tearing up the contract.

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Now here we go into some of the best verbal slapstick around, and I do believe the Marx brothers represent Alan Dale's definition quite well.  They were so ahead of their time - I honestly believe that a large majority of modern slapstick stylings can be traced back to these guys.  The repetition of the tearing of the contract and the back and forth of Groucho and Chico are, as someone else said here, a good bit like a verbal pie fight.  

I agree, David Letterman is a direct descendent of Groucho Marx, down to the cigar.

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1. How well does Alan Dale’s definition of verbal slapstick fit the Marx Brothers?

The Marx Brothers did verbal slapstick all along, and then someone comes along and gives it a name! I also feel a bit uncomfortable limiting the Marx Brothers to verbal slapstick. After watching A Night at the Opera, it seems to be that they were multitalented and could be funny doing just about anything they wanted.
2. Can you identify specific “characteristic gags” that Groucho and Chico use in their on-screen performance of this extended verbal slapstick gag?

The snappy one-liners, the misinterpretation of common words and phrases, but the one that I really think is at play is the more sophisticated con man (Driftwood) getting outwitted by another con man (Fiorello) who is assumed at first to be easily duped, to be an easy mark.
3. Which of the five conditions we associated with visual slapstick comedy (exaggerated, physical, repetitive/ritualistic, make-believe, painful/violent) remain operative in the use of verbal slapstick in the movies?

There isn’t much physical humor and I don’t see any pain or violence in this “Party of the First Part” clip, but the exaggerated, repetitive/ritualistic, and make-believe elements are all there and make up for the lack of the other two elements. I kept thinking that Chico and Groucho could be talking about one of their own skits and not a contract: One of them offers jokes and the other (or maybe critics, or maybe other comedians) picks the jokes apart until there’s nothing funny left but the way the two of them interact. Then they apply the way they interact to something as verbose and ridiculous as a legal contract and voilà: They are right back where they started, that is, being funny again.

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The Marx Brothers, with their gags, managed to return to the best of the splastick of the golden age, with its five characteristic elements, adding new elements provided by the sound and the evolution of the cinema. Groucho and Chico are master on the verbal splastick, and, this famous scene of a Night at the Opera, it show.  All dialogue between both is a clear example of that says Alan Dale. On the other hand, although not seen in this clip, remember that reading of the contract made it supported in the body of Lasparri (lying on the floor after a coup of Harpo). Movements, gestures, the break of the contract are also powerful visual elements too.

 

That's right: If the clip had been started earlier, we would see that Groucho and Chico each have a foot on Lasparri's body because he's been knocked out. So the comedy bit had violence in it, too. So I have to revise my answer to Discussion Question #3 to include violence, I guess!

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I agree with many of the toughts posted here. I would only add that watching The break neck pace at which at which Grouco and Chico delivered their lines made me think they needed as much mental agility as other comedians in slapstick needed physical

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Now this is comedy!

Dale's definition is a perfect summation of the Marx Brothers style. They are undoubtedly Masters of the verbose, with mind boggling malapropisms. The dialogue from "A Night at the Opera" clip is an exemplification of artistic intelligence at its finest. The audience is presented with a snappy, mangled, swirling super storm of words.

In the world of film, it's widely known a writer must show, not tell, as dialogue is often times to remain concise, nearly even scarce. However, when filling a script's page, dialogue must flow in such a suggested manner that the writer effectively reverses this show don't tell "rule." Send in the Marx Brothers.

Their skilled technique is the definitive of witty verbal exchange. It's the type of dialogue that seems to be fillable of an open space, as though people are conversing to the amusement of their own voices. In a phrase, mindless chatter. And this conversation is on the brink of absurdity, which is the exact reason this style works to brilliance.

The characteristic gags engulf the dialogue in every possible facet. One Marx brother delivers a nonsensical phrase, only to be outdone by the opposing Brother. Each line poses a heightened level of each character's attempt to top the other.

The repetitive aspect is the very core of the dialogue, as it cements the Marx Brothers' tone and style. The physicality within this clip is transparent verbal sparring. Although scripted, the actors possess such natural inclination the riffing off of one another (in a back and forth type fashion) comes with such synched ease. It's likened to a verbal, high intensity fencing match. On guard! Let the deft pacing with dialogue and delivery.....begin!

The Marx Brothers still inspire comedic actors and writers several decades later. The following dialogue excerpts are from two of my favorite comedy shows, Friends and Will & Grace.

Friends
Episode: "The One Where Everybody Finds Out" (1999)
Written by Alexa Junge

PHOEBE: [TALKING ABOUT MONICA AND CHANDLER TO RACHEL AND JOEY] "They don't know that we know they know we know."

Will & Grace
Episode: "Leo Unwrapped" (2003)
Written by Sonja Warfield

GRACE: But you can't tell Will I found out. I mean, I know. But he doesn't know I know. And now that you know I know, you can't let Will know that you know I know, you know?
JACK: No... [TO KAREN] Do you know?
KAREN: I think I know. But I'm sure I don't care.

*These types of exchanges in between characters have always been my absolute favorite kind of comedic banter, such skillful writing with a Marx-like tone.

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How many takes did it take before they got the paper to tear just right timed to the dialog, I wonder. I've always considered this one of the great comic bits any time, anywhere. I never pass up a chance to tell somebody there ain't no sanity clause. Was this in their vaudeville act, or did they write this for the movie?

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