Dr. Rich Edwards

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

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It was repetitive and ritualistic in the way they had to keep repeating the same lines of the clause. I think that the Marx brothers and all the others who made verbal slapstick made the transition from silent films to talkies look extremely easy even though we all know the transition was the exact opposite.

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The verbal slapstick featured in this film fits Dale’s definition in all its forms.  The comedy bits were so bold and unceasing that a lot of the exchanges must have been unscripted. There were notable pauses in the exchanges…even so the wise cracks and innuendo were so fleeting that I could hardly retain them. The least appealing scenes for me were some of the not so funny song and dance sequences where the Marx Brothers weren’t in front of the camera…when things “slowed down” and deviated from the continuous/bizarre jabs and gags.

The film was a composite of wit and “riotous” physical comedy with a fair share of “violence”.  That the brother’s characters were operating completely out of their element (the opera crowd) alone is funny. The gags that were the most memorable for me and that best employed  the elements of visual slapstick comedy were:  the "contract" bit (“there aint no sanity clause”) between Chico and Groucho ; the crowded state room scene; Jones,  Harpo, and Chico heaping food on their plates at the buffet on the upper deck, Harpo and Chico charming the children with musical antics at the piano (with a more serious moment at the harp);  the hotel scene with Harpo serving himself breakfast and all the switching of furniture between suites to avoid capture by the Detective; Harpo crawling out of a porthole, hanging on to a rope, and falling into the ocean; Jones, Chico and Harpo in bearded disguises posing as celebrity aviators with Harpo repetitively drinking glasses of water to avoid “speaking”; and finally the gags during the opera performance where Chico and Harpo “play in the orchestra”, engage the director in a “baton fight”, and eventually destroy the sets during a series of acrobatics. 

The visual slapstick in this film was hardly “subdued” or supplanted by the verbal wit.  In fact Harpo’s character conforms to silent slapstick by not speaking.  The physical routines were daring, boisterous, and exaggerated.

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Repetitive, ritualistic and surreal, best exemplified for me by the "sign here" exchange, "I forgot to tell you I can't write." "That's alright, there's no ink in the pen anyhow." Not so much a physical bit as depicted here, apart from the tearing of the paper, although it was preceded by some physical mayhem, I'd say it clicks solidly on four out of the five slapstick basics.

Although I've seen this many times, it always makes me laugh. Watch the reactions of the underrated Chico if you're so inclined.

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      Dale's definition of verbal slapstick is a good fit for the Marx Brothers.  In this clip, we see all the elements but breakneck speed of delivery and orotundity.  In working with Chico on a routine like this, Groucho would slow his delivery and change his tempo.  This was necessary to give Chico time to play his part.  Against less fraternally-connected adversaries, Groucho would steamroll them with rapidly fired verbiage.  That the fit would be so tight with the Marx Brothers is hardly surprising, since they were a stage act of long standing that had always included this kind of verbal jousting and absurdity.

 

      Specific characteristic gags:

 

                      Sarcastic asides & badinage at the start of reading the contract.  Turning words                                                 around & insipid verbosity regarding "the party of the first part."  Double entendre

                      about attending "the party of the first part."   Groucho's verbal intonation and

                      exaggerated facial gestures.  Chico's pseudo-Italian accent and frequent malaprops.

 

        Of the five conditions that we associate with visual slapstick, three are present in this clip -- exaggeration, ritual and make-believe.  The whole contract negotiation is make-believe.  Not only is it not a negotiation, it's not even a reading.  The removal of unwanted clauses by tearing them off defeats the whole purpose of having a contract.  The repetition of this tearing gag gives us an element of ritual.  And in the end, it's not even a contract -- it's a sanity clause.  The wordplay also builds on exaggeration. And Chico's accent is both exaggeration & ritual.  

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1. Dale's definition of "verbal slapstick" fits well with this classic scene between Groucho and Chico from The Marx Brothers' "A Night At The Opera" (1935)- hands down (with perfect pacing, timing and snappy dialogue). 

 

2. Characteristic "Gags' that were included in this scene from "A Night At The Opera:" A well-rounded mix of puns, one-line references, and chaotic metaphors.

 

3. For "verbal slapstick," four of the five conditions for slapstick comedy would be used to achieve this (in order to grab the audience's attention), including exaggeration, repetition, make-believe and pain.  

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

 

I believe the definition fits very well. Especially in the clip as both Groucho and Chico takes turns playing each other's straight man for every joke. Their banter has a quick back and forth motion that is rarely seen in comedies these days.

 

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

 

When Chico points out that he didn't like the 1st or 2nd party of the second part, and Groucho says "Well, you should've come to the first party. We didn't get home 'til around four in the morning... I was blind for three days!"

Another would be where Groucho points out the Sanity clause and Chico responds with "You can't fool me! There ain't no Sanity Clause!"

 

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 would say all of the conditions can fit in verbal slapstick as well as visual. In our clip, we saw the contract being ripped multiple times and the "parties" mentioned would be a example of both physical and repetitive conditions. The back and forth banter could be both exaggerated and make believe. Maybe not in this clip, but in the movie there are multiple times where Groucho makes jokes that could be painful.

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Repetitive, ritualistic and surreal, best exemplified for me by the "sign here" exchange, "I forgot to tell you I can't write." "That's alright, there's no ink in the pen anyhow." Not so much a physical bit as depicted here, apart from the tearing of the paper, although it was preceded by some physical mayhem, I'd say it clicks solidly on four out of the five slapstick basics.

 

Although I've seen this many times, it always makes me laugh. Watch the reactions of the underrated Chico if you're so inclined.

 

Chico Marx isn't underrated in my opinion!!! I have watched his reactions in this clip, and at one point, it seems like he is trying not to laugh. And Groucho's asides almost seem to be daring Chico to laugh. So funny! I had the feeling that Chico and Groucho had a lot of fun doing this bit, probably every time they did it. This just makes me want to laugh all the more.

 

Aside here: I always laughed harder when Jimmy Fallon or Bill Hader couldn't keep a straight face on SNL.

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

He hits the nail on the marks brothers head! Comedy/ slapstick from all forms.

 

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

 

They keep on ripping the contract because its way too long. Each time they rip it they add a funny line to it...like i got home late last night and was blind for 3 days. Then at the end of the gag Groucho points out why is Chico's contact smaller then his? But in the end both of them had a contact.

 

 

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?

 

​Repetitive/ritualistic and make believe.   This gag was almost like "Who's on first?"

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The Marx Brothers!  The team that propelled me into the film and slapstick world!  

  1. Just as it was mentioned, you can invariably recall various scenes from the extensive career of the Marx Brothers that fit into each term that was mentioned in Dale's definition of "verbal slapstick."  The Brothers successfully mastered the use of the definition in their movies (the good ones and even the not-so-good ones).  
  2. The two usually tie in misinterpreted words/phrases along with sarcasm in their gags.  The looks Groucho gives Chico during this scene are priceless!  This simple yet extremely dedicated scene is just breaking through to the consistent inconsistency that the Marx Brothers thrive on engaging in.
  3. More than anything, I feel that exaggeration and/or repetition play a big part in movies based on verbal slapstick.  Since the other conditions associated with visual slapstick comedy can be utilized in other instances throughout a slapstick film, these two conditions have the potential to make a normal verbal exchange a hilarious and well-received scene.
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I would like to bring up Stan Laurel as a master of Verbal Slapstick. His misuse of the English language is legendary. Oliver: To catch a Hardy they've got to get up very early in the morning.

Stan: What time?

Oliver: Oh about half past - "What time." Hmph.

 

Oliver: Where is she?

Stan: Maybe she went to the mountains.

Oliver: I'll bet she did. You know she makes me sick.

Stan: Well if she didn't go to the mountains, then Mohammad would have to come here.

 

Oliver: Now isn't this nice?

Stan: It sure is. We're just like two peas in a pot.

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The Marx Brothers are my favorite comedians. I have seen all their films many times over. I do like verbal slapstick more than physical, because it make you think. You need to know a thing or two about grammer, puns, innuendo. The Marx Brothers were the best at it. I wish TCM showed "Animal Crackers", for this course, it has the best examples of verbal slapstick.

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Well, this is another instance where I don't think I've seen a film from the comedians involved; in this case, the Marx Brothers.

 

In this case, I think Alan Dale's definition fits perfectly with the clip. Like Dr. Edwards says in the DDoD, "nearly every variant of verbal slapstick" is present. Both Groucho and Chico go at each other with their verbal arsenal, each trying to top the other. Aside of the ripping of the contract, there's little physicality involved, because the key is the dialogue.

 

In terms of specific "characteristic gags", I kinda liked the one where Groucho says "if my arms were a little longer, I could read it. You haven't got a baboon in your pocket, have you?". Chico's comeback with the "first party of the second part", and whatnot, was also pretty funny.

 

As for the five conditions of slapstick, the ripping of the contract is obviously exaggerated, physical, and make-believe. Its repetitiveness might fit the ritualistic trait, but again, the violence is pretty much non-existent. Although Groucho does seem to get exasperated by Chico a few times. Also, I don't have the context clear but it seems to me that Groucho is trying to pull something tricky with the contract, which might be seen as "violent".

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1.  I think Dale’s definition fits the verbal slapstick of the Marx Brothers perfectly. In this particular clip, it seems to me that Groucho and Chico use almost, if not all, of the characteristics of verbal slapstick listed by Dale. The Marx Brothers were masters at verbal and physical slapstick. In this clip, their back and forth is so quick and so well done that you have to pay close attention to catch all of the elements of verbal slapstick that Dale describes.

 

2. The characteristics I could make out the clearest were the way they turn each other’s words around, use one-liners, puns, slang, mispronunciations, foreign accents.

 

3  I think all five of the visual slapstick comedy elements are present.

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

 

My response: Perfectly, especially in the cases of both Groucho, who is the undisputed king of snark, sarcasm, and snappy comebacks, and Chico, who pretty much rolls along with both him and their silent partner Harpo. 

 

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

 

My response: As they go through the contract in the scene, both Groucho and Chico start pointing out things in the contract they don't like, and they rip it out and throw it away, and they continue to do so until there's only a strip of it left, which is, as they state, something that's in every contract, which is bare bones. Each time they come to a clause neither can agree on, the words they speak are turned around. I can also identify some of the sarcasm, obviously from Groucho, and various one-liners here and there.

 

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?

 

My response: All of 'em.

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The Marx Brothers are the omnipotent verbal slapstick comedians of all time. Wow, Dales definition has helped link for me the silent era slapstick to the booming new talkie films. I have always wondered why they had to talk so dang much. Because now they can. I see now the slapstick transition perfectly clear. Now their words do a lot of the work, LOL!!! I have always just watched these films never really analyzed them before. They make me feel better with whatever ails me my whole life. Guess this time the gags on me!!!

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The Marx brothers, for me, have always been a stroke of pure genius.  Every time I watch a film, I find that I am slapping myself in the head, simply in awe of the cleverness, the verbal barrage of words, the silent humor.  For me, these are the quintessential perfect films!

 

1)  Dale's definition of verbal slapstick feels as though it were built around the Marx brothers.  The verbal comedy, the words, the scenes,..... they all hit the viewer at breakneck speed.  This isn't the type of movie that you can watch passively.  Your brain must be alert and completely focused on what is being seen, what is being said.... or you might just miss something.

 

2)  There are the mispronouncing of names/words, one-liners, sarcasm, comebacks, everything!  Yes, the comedic slapstick verbal gags are all there.

 

3)  I think in verbal slapstick, we continue to see elements of slapstick, particularly the exaggeration and repetitive areas.  "The party of the first part..."  How many times does the viewer hear this, but yet it continues to be funny.  And exaggeration?  Most certainly!  Ripping up a contract until it reaches the very end is truly an element of exaggeration.  

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


 


I believe the definition fits very well when used to describe The Marx Brothers. Panel member Bgeorgeteacher wrote "Dale's definition of verbal slapstick feels as though it were built around the Marx brothers.  The verbal comedy, the words, the scenes,..... they all hit the viewer at breakneck speed.  This isn't the type of movie that you can watch passively.  Your brain must be alert and completely focused on what is being seen, what is being said.... or you might just miss something." Could not say it better than that.


 


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


 


Both Groucho and Chico start pointing out things in the contract they don't like, each in turn rip a clause out until the only piece left is the end of the gag clearly showing the repetitive and physical part of the gag. Chico's accent, the mutual combacks at each other and Groucho's sarcasm are all verbal slapstick. I laughed outloud watching the clip.


 


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 is nothing painful/violent. Only 4 of 5 used.


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It's not too much of a stretch to accommodate all five of our characteristics of silent slapstick within Dale's description of the varieties of verbal slapstick.

 

Exaggeration -- Sure enough. Speed, volume, verbosity. The thickness of an accent. There are lots of humorous exaggerations possible in verbal delivery.

 

Physical comedy -- Sure enough. The mouth of the comedian might contort humorously over the pronunciation of a term, the body may sway or jerk over the course of a line's delivery as the rhythm or emphasis of a word or phrase is physically enacted during pronunciation. The physicality of uttering speech provides lots of opportunities for humor.

 

Repetitive or ritualistic gags -- Lots .of parts of parties. These get funnier and funnier as the contractual ritual unfolds. My favorite, moment of ritualistic verbal humor in this film comes when Groucho keeps asking for two, no three eggs in the stateroom scene.

 

 

Make Believe -- Sure enough. The verbal lunacy of sound-era slapstick often highlights the genre's departure from any sort of realism. The simple fact that straight-men and straight-women listen to these gags and try to make sense of them is hilarious. Mr. Driftwood's zany approach to sweet-talking Mrs. Claypool out of her fortune could never come close to succeeding in the real world. But in the world of this film. this kooky seduction is allowed to continue, and it's hilarious.

 

Violence -- Sure enough. There are all kinds of verbal violence, insults and lies being only the most straightforward violations of decorum and truth. And Otis Driftwood manages to get a lot of comic mileage out of this type of verbal violence. But this clip showcases another, less straightforward kind of verbal violence, a violence directed against language itself. In the reading of the contract, its terms are verbally chopped and chewed even as the written text is literally shredded. The climax of this violence against language is the punning malapropism at the end: Sanity Clause. You can't a-fool me. There ain't a-no Sanity Claus.

 

We wince from the sting of this verbal violence, even as we crack up.

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

Dale’s definition was made for the Marx Brothers, and from the moment they attempt to read the contract, the definition falls beautifully into place

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

What is most notable and most hysterical, at least in my point of view, is their use of double entrendres, my favorite being the end bit where Chico asks Groucho about the clause in which Groucho reads and responds;

Groucho: “if any of the parties participating in this contract is shown not to be in their right mind, the entire agreement is automatically nullified”

Chico: Well I don’t know

Groucho: It’s alright, that’s in every contract! That’s what they call a sanity clause!  

Chico: You can’t fool me there ain’t no sanity clause!

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?

All of these conditions can be pointed out in verbal comedy, mainly though, the two that can be most noted is exaggeration and repetitive/ritualistic.
 

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Alan Dale's definition of verbal slapstick fits perfectly on this clip of Marx Brothers. Of course not all the characteristics are there, but a great part of it. The whole scene is based on the verbal talking here presented: no violence, no physical. Slapstick is evolving in front of our eyes.

 

Some of the present characteristics are: sarcasm, the comeback that that turns the first speaker's words around, pun, a little bit of slang, mispronunciation and double entrendre. As a native portuguese speaker some of these characteristics can be more difficult to identify, but they are all there.

 

For me, exaggeration is the condition that remains operative in verbal slapstick. We can even make a brief analogy with the use of voice and the other four conditions, but what's pretty clear is the exaggeration one.

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First of all I do enjoy the Marx brothers.  

 

1. How well does Alan Dale's definition of verbal slapstick fit the Marx Brothers?  I think that Alan Dale's definition fits the Marx brothers perfectly.  As if he wrote the definition for verbal slapstick just for their brand of comedy.

 

2. Can you identify specific "characteristic gags" that Groucho and Chico use in their on-screen performance of this extended verbal slapstick gag?  The witty banter used by Groucho and Chico is classic.  Its funny and direct with out being rude or crude like today's humor.  The way they tear up the contract as they read each clause, until ultimately Chico declares there is no sanity clause hits the nail on the head!

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?  It depends on the movie.  This question is to broad and would require further discussion according to each movie in question.  However, any or all of the five conditions can be present during verbal slapstick.

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First of all I do enjoy the Marx brothers.  

 

1. How well does Alan Dale's definition of verbal slapstick fit the Marx Brothers?  I think that Alan Dale's definition fits the Marx brothers perfectly.  As if he wrote the definition for verbal slapstick just for their brand of comedy.

 

2. Can you identify specific "characteristic gags" that Groucho and Chico use in their on-screen performance of this extended verbal slapstick gag?  The witty banter used by Groucho and Chico is classic.  Its funny and direct with out being rude or crude like today's humor.  The way they tear up the contract as they read each clause, until ultimately Chico declares there is no sanity clause hits the nail on the head!

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?  It depends on the movie.  This question is to broad and would require further discussion according to each movie in question.  However, any or all of the five conditions can be present during verbal slapstick.

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Dale defined The Marx Brothers well done. The Marx Brothers were known for the one liners they said plus slang and all all of the above. There was a mispronunciation and one - liners in the clip. It is hilarious to watch Groucho and Chico doing the gag. It never gets old. I think make believe is one of the elements that is not in use of verbal slapstick in the movies.

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