Tag Archives: Groucho Marx

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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Who’s a Christian: Of Trump, the Pope, and the Benefit of the Doubt

13 Mar

trump_bible

“I don’t want to belong to any club
that would accept me as one of its members.”
~
Groucho Marx

We’ve already grown accustomed to it – almost come to expect it. Pope Francis travels overseas, and at some point in his informal chats with journalists, he drops a verbal bombshell that screams across headlines the next day. We grin, shake our heads, and wait for the inevitable spin.

The most recent example took place on the Holy Father’s flight back to Rome from Mexico. His visit there included a stop at the U.S. border and a call for greater hospitality toward immigrants, which gave rise to some pointed criticism from presidential candidate Donald Trump. The Holy Father, speaking to reporters on his plane, alluded to Trump’s policy proposal to build an impenetrable fence along the border and suggested that those who prefer building walls to building bridges are not Christian.

That’s the part that played in the press, and the Pope’s follow-up comment that he gives such people the “benefit of the doubt” was lost in the shuffle. Unsurprisingly, Trump shot back that it’s outrageous for any religious leader to judge the faith of an individual believer, and his supporters seemed to agree, for Trump’s campaign, far from beinPope Francis greets journalists aboard his flight to Havana Feb. 12. Traveling to Mexico for a six-day visit, the pope is stopping briefly in Cuba to meet with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow at the Havana airport. Also pictured is Alberto Gasparri, papal trip planner, who will retire after this trip having served 46 years in his role. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) See POPE-PLANE-START Feb. 12, 2016.g damaged by Francis’s remark, took a bump in the polls. The negative fallout fell primarily on the Pope’s defenders who had to expend a bunch of effort squaring what the Holy Father seemed to say with what he apparently meant to say.

And what did he mean to say? From everything I’ve read, Pope Francis was merely attempting a commonsense observation that those who call themselves Christians don’t always act accordingly. In this case, the Holy Father also seemed to assert that a particular approach to solving highly complex issues of immigration and human rights, law and economics is required of those who claim to be Christian – at least Catholic Christians, anyway – and he implied that Trump was falling short.

That might be, but does that make Trump any less a Christian than you or me? The record is clear that the Republican front-runner grew up and was confirmed in the Presbyterian Church, and it’s a faith tradition he still identifies with. Consequently, Trump is unquestionably a baptized and professed member of the Body of Christ, and, by definition, my brother in the Lord – and yours.

Perhaps that makes you squirm – you’re not alone! Candidate Trump (not to mention Private Citizen Trump) has flouted commonly accepted Gospel values in word and deed so many times and in so many ways that it would be nigh impossible to catalog them all. Large sectors of the electorate find it unthinkable that this man might become President – as it’s unthinkable, for some of us, that any of the remaining candidates from either party might achieve that goal – but that’s beside the point.

Of greater interest to me is the Trump phenomenon as a case study in our understanding of Christianity itself – of who’s in and who’s out. Consider these words of Msgr. Romano Guardini: “The great revolution of faith is not a lump of reality fallen ready-made from heaven into our laps,” he wrote. “It is a constant act of my individual heart and strength.” That is, for Trump, for you, for me, Christianity is a religion of constant conversion that commences with our baptismal grafting into the vine of Christ, but which recurs daily, constantly, every moment even. There’s no resting on our laurels, no plateaus. Once we think we’ve finally “arrived” is precisely the moment we’ve essentially removed ourselves from the taproot of grace. Either we’re growing in Christ, or we’re dying – maybe even dead.

The worst-case scenario is when we delude ourselves into thinking that we are growing when we’re not – that we’re very much alive when we’re actually on the way out. Here, too, Guardini offers insight:

Woe to me if I say: “I am a Christian” – possibly with a side-glance at others who in my opinion are not, or at an age that is not, or at a cultural tendency flowing in the opposite direction. Then my so-called Christianity threatens to become nothing but a religious form of self-affirmation.

Ours is an “already/not yet” religion – both fixed and fluid. When we formally embrace the faith through sacrament and interior assent, we can “already” legitimately call ourselves Christians. However, that’s only the beginning, and we’re compelled by the knowledge that we’re “not yet” saints to continually conform ourselves to Jesus.

Your parish’s candidates and catechumens are learning about this in their Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) classes. They’re very much looking forward to receiving Easter sacraments and making their profession of faith on Holy Saturday – at which point they’ll “already” be Catholics – but they’re also anticipating an ongoing formation and deepening of understanding that will follow. It’s called the “post-baptismal catechesis,” or mystagogy – a reference to the further unveiling of those “mysteries” of grace tdoubtingthomashat the new Christians (“neophytes”) will have received on Easter. “This is a time for the community and the neophytes together to grow in deepening their grasp of the paschal mystery,” the RCIA reads, “and in making it part of their lives.”

Now, for those neophytes, mystagogy instruction will last until Pentecost or thereabouts, but will they be done then? No, of course not – no more than you and I are ever “done” with regards to our own Christian walks. In that sense, all of us are perpetually in the mystagogy period of faith.

And that includes Donald Trump – along with most of the slate of presidential candidates. If you’re like me, you’ve just about had it with all the vitriol and carping that goes on in the news and on the internet regarding this election. Next time you heave an exasperated sigh as you switch off whatever gizmo had been feeding you Trump’s latest outrage, say a prayer for the guy – it can’t hurt, right?

If Pope Francis can give him the benefit of the doubt, so can I. In any case, I certainly hope that same benefit applies to me.
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