A couple of days after the death of Robin Williams, I watched “The Fisher King,” a very good movie directed by Terry Gilliam that starred Williams and Jeff Bridges. In one of the best scenes in the film, Williams — who plays an unbalanced street person — gets a date with the woman he idolizes (played by Amanda Plummer). It’s late and the three of them, along with Bridges’ girlfriend (played by Mercedes Ruehl) are in a Chinese restaurant. The staff is waiting to close. Everyone is tired and the Williams’ character has finally slowed down. Suddenly, he begins singing “Lydia, The Tattooed Lady.”
It’s a great scene and reminded me of what a fun song it is. It was written by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg for the 1939 movie Marx Brothers’ movie “At the Circus.” I also had forgotten how important music was to the Marx Brothers, whose roots were in vaudeville and Broadway. Of course, much of it was Harpo’s harp interludes, which basically slowed things down. (It was the 1930s equivalent of the drum solo at a Grateful Dead concert.) There was, however, great comic piano by Chico and Harpo and, of course, the production numbers.
A third thing I had forgotten is how talented these guys were. I was a big fan when young, and remember reading that it was generally assumed in the family that any of them could play any part. They did so when one was ill or absent for another reason (perhaps when Chico off gambling somewhere). Julius eventually became Groucho, Leonard became Chico and Adolph became Harpo. Herbert and Milton — Zeppo and Gummo — lost out, but they were said to be just as talented.
Howard Stern, Trey Parker and Matt Stone all are great at what they do, but the Marx Brothers were the real subversives (along with Charlie Chaplin and W.C. Fields). It’s a matter of timing. It was a troubled and chaotic the world. A subtext was that people’s relationship with authority was changing. The brother’s anarchy and disrespect for authority figures played off that perfectly. Groucho’s character, in particular, was something that I suppose never had been seen before. He also was a very good dancer.
“Lydia, the Tattooed Lady,” which was brilliantly used at the end of the last episode of “Breaking Bad,” is above. Two other great songs — “I’m Against It” and “I Always Get My Man” — are sung back to back in the 1932 movie “Horse Feathers.” They were written by Harry Ruby — who was Groucho’s close friend — and Bert Kalmar.