Wednesday, February 18, 2009

How the Marx Brothers and I first met

In 1983, I was ten years old. Great Britain had three television channels (or was it four by then? not many, that's the point), and they stopped transmitting around midnight (at which time the station announcer would traditionally tell us to sleep well and not to forget to unplug the tv set, before playing the national anthem).
On December 23rd at 10.30 pm, BBC-2 showed Monkey Business. It was the first of five films being shown over the Christmas period (all the Paramounts bar The Cocoanuts, plus A Night In Casablanca).
I was intrigued by the prospect of these films. I remember the trailer shown to promote them (it certainly featured the barking dog in Harpo's chest from Duck Soup), and especially the grainy black and white images of the Brothers on the Radio Times programme page (reproduced above left).
Nonetheless, I was at some family party or something that evening, and did not particularly notice or care that I would be missing it.
I returned home at about eleven, and idly switched on my black and white portable, just in time for the Chevalier impressions.
I had never laughed so much before in my life; here was a whole new level of amusement I had never previously attained. By the time Groucho announced that "a lady's diamond earring has been lost; it looks exactly like this - in fact, this is it") I was an addict.
During the course of that one, magical Christmas, I watched every other film in the series (and crudely copied the soundtrack of the last, Animal Crackers, on audio tape using a mic that also picked up every other sound being made in the room), wrote my first book on the subject (a little short on factual information but strong on crude felt-tipped pen illustrations) and, to my family's bewilderment, talked of virtually nothing else.
I still had a lot to learn: in fact, I thought it was Zeppo that played the piano. But I soon caught up.
The next year I learned all the basics from a chapter of a lovely book called Movies of the Thirties and found Harpo Speaks almost as exciting as the films themselves. (I still do.)
Over the next two or three years I caught up first with Love Happy ("one of the more famous of the Marx Brothers' later films" was how the BBC continuity announcer described it before its Saturday morning showing), then The Cocoanuts (Saturday afternoon on Channel Four and fully as magical as the first batch), then the rest (which still seem to me to be just that: 'the rest').
Since then, I have seen each dozens and dozens of times. I have been fortunate to have seen them all at least once at the cinema, where they belong; A Night at the Opera at least ten times. On television: each beyond counting.
I never turn down an opportunity to see them, but I always make sure I watch the Paramount ones at Christmas time, as near as possible to those magical, original 1983 dates and times of transmission. The following year, BBC-2 introduced me to Hammer horror films, and that's an intense and special memory, too. But first and foremost, Christmas is the Marx Brothers and the Marx Brothers are Christmas.