Marx and racism

With a title like that, you might think I’m going to talk about how Karl Marx’s economical and political theories apply to racial inequality.

Nope. I’m going to talk about racism in the Marx Brothers movies.

Recently, with much pandemic-induced free time on my hands, I re-watched all of the Marx Brothers films, in chronological order. They were as funny and clever as I remembered. What I’d forgotten (or more likely never noticed before) is the casual racism. I’ve blogged about casual racism in Harold Lloyd’s films. I’m facing the reality that many of the films of that general era, ones that have withstood the the test of time and have become classics, reflect the racist attitudes of those times.

Let’s take a look. Trigger warning: Explicit examples of racism in films you may remember fondly from your youth.

Well, maybe I am a little headstrong. But I come by it honestly. My father was a little headstrong. My mother was a little Armstrong. The Headstrongs married the Armstrongs, and that’s why darkies were born.
– Groucho Marx, Duck Soup (1933)

In A Day at the Races (1937), there’s an extended sequence that starts with Harpo Marx playing a tin flute. A group of black children start dancing around him; they’re part of the families who live next to racetrack’s stables. The children sing “Who dat man?” They call him “Gabriel.” The group comes to the house where the adults are; those adults are somberly singing “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.”

All Harpo has to do is play his tin flute again, and the adults suddenly shift their mood in response to the white savior. They also sing “Who dat man?” and call Harpo “Gabriel.” They sing and dance joyfully and come to another shack where black people are performing a musical jam. Once more, Harpo interrupts and plays his tin flute; the black musicians stop and exclaim, “Who dat man? Why it’s Gabriel!”

Harpo leads them all to a nearby stable. The crowd exhorts Harpo to “Blow that horn!” Harpo plays his flute and the black musicians play in response, even though it’s clear (at least to modern ears) that they are more talented than he is.

A black singer, accompanied by the ensemble, starts singing to comfort the film’s romantic leads (since, of course, it’s the priority of a large crowd of talented black performers to please a couple of white people). The sequence turns into a high-energy dance number, easily the best in the film (if not all the Marx Brothers films), with the frenzied enthusiasm of performers who have to work ten times as hard to get paid a tenth as much. The Lindy Dancers are amazing, and it’s worth enduring the racist overtones to see their work.

Eventually the Authority Figures come to chase the Marx Brothers. The Marx Brothers try to hide, and come up with what I assume was funny at the time:

Screen Shot 2020-08-14 at 12.56.42 AM
From A Day at the Races, © 1941 by MGM

Of course, none of the black performers mind, even as the black-face Mark Brothers take center stage to dance in front of them.

Sigh.

I’ll discuss just one more film, but one that contains two examples of racism: The Big Store (MGM, 1941).

In the middle of the “Sing While You Sale” musical sequence, Groucho picks up a cotton plant display and starts singing about inspecting a plantation. He tosses the plant to these performers:

Screen Shot 2020-08-14 at 1.08.14 AM
From The Big Store © 1941 by Loew’s Incorporated

These four young men are literally singing about the joys of picking cotton.

Later in the movie, there’s a “large-family confusion” sketch. An Italian couple comes to purchase a bed, accompanied by their 12 children. Some go missing. Then a Chinese couple comes in with their 6 children; they are (of course) all wearing coolie outfits. Then to add to the confusion:

Screen Shot 2020-08-14 at 1.20.40 AM
From The Big Store © 1941 by Loew’s Incorporated

It all plays out with the broad stereotypes that one might expect.

I said I’d discuss just one more film, so I won’t go into this:

Screen Shot 2020-08-14 at 1.47.58 AM
From Animal Crackers © 1930 by Paramount Publix Corporation

What to make of it?

I’ll back down my high dudgeon just a bit to acknowledge that these moments take up a small portion of screen time in the overall body of the Marx Brothers’ films. Also, they’re a reflection of the times in which they were made; if I were to compare the casual racism I’ve detailed above to that found in other films of the period I might find that the Marx Brothers films contained relatively fewer racist overtones.

Still, how many racist jokes do you need to make to reinforce a negative image? Answer: one. I can’t help but think of the black, Chinese, or Native Americans in the theater audience. They had to accept the prancing around of white performers mocking their experience in the larger culture. Perhaps, given the pervasive effects of racism, they thought no more about it than did the Marx Brothers.

The Marx Brothers themselves were Jewish, as were many of their writers, directors, and producers. Jews in the 30s and 40s were no strangers to prejudice and racism. That awareness did not transfer to awareness of racism against black people. Such were the times then, and often now.

What might be done?

Warner Brothers dealt with a similar issue by putting an acknowledgement of racism in the DVD releases of the classic Looney Toons shorts. HBO put a disclaimer in front of Gone With the Wind.

I think it’s worth putting similar disclaimers in front of the relevant Marx Brothers films. I want people to see the Marx Brothers movies. As I said, they’re funny and clever, and we could all use more laughs during these times. They’re also an important part of the history of film and popular entertainment.

But we must also acknowledge their flaws, especially those flaws that were part of the passive rot of racism.

And what about Marx and sexism? I didn’t count the number of times Harpo and Groucho chased some random female across the movie screen. I’ll leave that analysis for someone else.

Leave a Reply