Tag Archives: Christmastide

A Marxist Christmastide: Celebrating the Season with Silliness

5 Jan

Driftwood: It’s all right. That’s, that’s in every contract. That’s, that’s what they call a sanity clause.
Fiorello: Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! You can’t fool me. There ain’t no Sanity Clause! (A Night at the Opera [1935])

Christmas is not only a feast of children, but in some sense a feast of fools (Chesterton).

On Wednesday, the second day of the Christmas Octave, I was heading over to Kroger to pick up some groceries, and I fired up the minivan. The radio was still preset to the station that had been playing Christmas music 24/7 since Thanksgiving, and when I turned the key, guess what I heard? Bing Crosby? Vince Guaraldi Trio? Burl Ives?!

No, of course not. Christmas was over, as far as the radio station and its commercial sponsors were concerned. Back to the easy listening and soft rock – like Kool and the Gang, which is what actually started playing. “Celebrate good times,” they sang, “come on!”

It was a bit jarring – in the same way that it’s jarring when we start seeing barren fir trees abandoned at the curbside on December 26. But, you know, Kool was making a very good, seasonally appropriate point: It’s still Christmas – the Octave, the Twelve Days, even Christmastide until the Baptism of the Lord! Good times for weeks to come. Time to celebrate – come on!

However, let’s face it, that’s hard to do when the world around us – the world we inhabit most the time – has already moved on. We’ve got returns to make at the mall, new year’s resolutions to pretend we’ll keep, and tax receipts – ugh – to start organizing. Who can keep up a jolly Christmas spirit under those circumstances?

We can – I know we can! We just need a little help.

Now, it’s true, as Pope Francis points out, that true joy is more than frivolity and merrymaking. In his Christmas message to the Vatican staff, he noted that saints are “joyful people, not because they are always laughing, no, but because they are very serene inside and they know how to spread it to others.” Fair enough, but I’d still argue that conjuring up some laughter is a pretty good way to get into a joyful groove – or to keep that Christmas one going for a couple weeks more.

So, my solution? Funny movies – old funny movies. The kind that rely on corny jokes and slapstick to elicit mirth. They’re like celluloid comfort food, and they can transform even the most wintry dumps into yulish gaiety.

Frank Capra and the Thin Man corpus come to mind, but, for my money, there’s nothing like a Marx Brothers film to get the giggles going. Groucho, Chico, and Harpo (and their entourage of regulars) were masters of translating screwball vaudeville antics to the silver screen. We own the MB opera omnia on DVD, but you can find them in the public library easy enough, and probably most of them are free to watch on the internet somewhere. For the purposes of stirring up hilarity, any of them will do, but here are three that I think highlight especially Christmaslike values.

  1. A Night in Casablanca (1946): Note the year – just after the end of World War II. The Marx Brothers were the sons of Jewish immigrants, and so they were certainly attuned to Nazi atrocities and the collapse of the European order. Even so, they managed to make a comedy out of postwar Axis shenanigans, playing off the storyline (and popularity) of the earlier Bogart/Bergman classic. Groucho takes over management of a hotel that’s crawling with spies and counter-spies. Somehow, he and his looney assistants have to prevent the local Nazi fugitives from accessing a hidden cache of stolen art treasures. There’s danger and romance and risk – all elements in the Christmas story itself – not to mention a happy ending: The bad guys are vanquished, and the Brothers survive to carry on in their madcap ways.
  2. Room Service (1938): Hospitality is a major Christmas theme – something we glimpse in the innkeeper’s (perhaps grudging) provision for the Holy Family and the grand welcome they receive from the shepherds, not to mention the equally grand welcome we’re meant to give the Christ child ourselves – and it’s a theme central to this film. Groucho and company (including a youthful Lucille Ball) are struggling to find financial backing for a Broadway musical, and they’re camping out (along with the entire cast) in the White Wave Hotel. As the bills mount, the hotel’s supervising director demands that the whole gang be tossed out. The Marx Brothers manage to stay put by turning their suite into a sick room, complete with bedridden “patient,” thus hoping to play off the director’s better nature and sympathies. The ruse works, the musical finds a backer, and accounts are all squared in the end – although the hornswoggled director faints when the patient, who’d expired, shows up again in the last scene.
  3. Duck Soup (1933): Last month, I had the privilege of attending the one-day screening of Peter Jackson’s incredible World War I documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old (2018). By weaving together restored footage and contemporary voiceovers, Jackson brought to life what actual combat was like in the trenches. As reviewer Scout Tofoya notes, the film was “not about the mindlessness of combat and murder, but of the identities lost and forged by gunfire,” although one of the veterans at the end of the film does voice his skepticism that any of it made sense or was worth it. As I watched Jackson’s masterful achievement, I couldn’t help thinking about the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, which does address the mindlessness of war, not to mention the airy detachment of those behind the lines that foment it. By poking fun at warmaking, Groucho, Chico, and Harpo indirectly make a solid case for invoking the Prince of Peace and avoiding violence as a means of problem-solving at all costs. When Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) starts singing a patriotic anthem of victory at the close, there’s an ironic satisfaction in watching the brothers pummel her with vegetables.

So, did my Christmas allusions seem a bit forced? Perhaps. The truth is that I chose to comment on those three particular films because they’re the ones my son, Nicky, and I enjoyed most recently. And I can tell you that no time was wasted in analyzing their motifs and underlying messages. We just sat there together and yukked it up – something that is surely at the heart of the Christmas event, and, by extension, of the Faith itself. “The important thing in life is…to keep alive in oneself the immortal power of astonishment and laughter,” writes Chesterton. “Religion is interested not in whether a man is happy, but whether he is still alive, whether he can still react in a normal way to new things, whether he blinks in a blinding light or laughs when he tickled.”

It’s still Christmas season, so keep watching your favorite Christmas movies. But as January slides into February and beyond, consider including a Marx Brothers classic – any of them – into your film-viewing line-up. Just for the laughs. It’s a great way to help you sustain, come what may, a jovial and joyful Christmas spirit, and celebrate good times the whole year long.
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Of Time Travel, Christmas, and Liturgical Displacement

6 Jan

“Being obedient, she became the cause of salvation
for herself and the whole human race.”
~ St. Irenaeus

Read more…

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