Ruminations on a Zeppo

The cold I picked up in Ireland appears to have mutated into some sort of annoying permanent viral respiratory infection which has knocked me on my ass for the past couple of weeks. I’m extremely fortunate in that I can work from home while sick, which means I can stay close to my nebulizer and all my other medicines, and also be close to my doctor just in case I need to see him at some point. I’d rather be in the office, because sitting at home tends to make me kind of stir crazy.

I have been using the opportunity these past two weeks, though, to catch up on a bunch of DVD’s that my parents gave to me for Christmas. Among these films is a collection of ultra-cheap discs including some Flash Gordon, some Rocky Jones, Space Ranger, and a disc full of giant lizard action (the silent version of The Lost World, The Giant Gila Monster, and a Superman cartoon featuring the Man of Steel fighting a Tyrannosaurus pulled from the Arctic ice). It’s been fun watching these old shows, comparing the narrative style of, say, Flash Gordon, to more modern stories. Make no mistake; these stories are more sophisticated than the modern viewer typically assumes. At least, it’s a way to keep my mind off my lungs.

Also among the DVD’s in my collection is the Silver Screen collection of five Marx Brothers films. This collection includes Duck Soup, Horse Feathers, Monkey Business, Animal Crackers, and The Cocoanuts. A few months ago I watched Duck Soup and resisted the urge to compare the governorship of Rufus T. Firefly with the presidency of George Bush (I find it much easier to take Groucho seriously as a national leader than George Bush); the other day, I watched Horse Feathers. Right now I’m watching Monkey Business to lubricate my brain as I try to install PHP OCI8 extensions on our server.

Zeppo MarxOne thing that has struck me in particular about these films is the role of Zeppo. Traditionally Zeppo is considered a minor player in the Marx Brothers movies (this is so much the conventional wisdom that an episode of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, featuring Xander and exploring his less than central role in the stories, was called “The Zeppo”). It seems to me, though, that Zeppo has a comic persona just as developed, though more subtle, as those of Groucho, Chico, and Harpo. Groucho’s the wisecracking smart-alec, Chico’s the crazed Italian, Harpo’s the — well, he’s the Harpo. But what is Zeppo? Who is he supposed to be?

Zeppo, with his clean cut looks and tidy suit, appears to be a straight man; and he plays his roles mostly as a straight man. And yet there’s a certain insanity in Zeppo that isn’t hard to see; from the opening moments of Monkey Business, when he emerges from the barrel with that crazed yet moronic grin, he comes across as almost a surreal parody of the typical guy on the street. His mundane interactions with the women passengers on the ship are quite funny. There’s that scene where he promises, “Mary, I’ll never leave you”, whereupon he jumps up and runs off stage at top speed as the ship’s officers approach.

So, watching Zeppo, it’s easy to forget that he can be just as crazed as Groucho; it’s just that he’s far more subtle about it.  He’s the crazed straight man, the guy on the street who looks perfectly normal but who has those eyes that dart back and forth, looking for a barrell to duck into — or to put over your head.
I recently learned that Zeppo also acted as an understudy to his brothers; rumor has it that he played Groucho even better than Groucho did.   More evidence of Zeppo’s comic abilities.  It’s a shame that he chose later on to leave show business and become a talent agent.  He was even given a larger role in the film Horse Feathers (which he did brilliantly) in the hopes that he would change his mind.  He didn’t.
Perhaps when Joss Whedon equated Xander to Zeppo in that episode, it was a deeper commentary on Xander’s role than it would seem superficially. I wouldn’t put that past Whedon, after all. He’s pretty clever that way.

I dunno. Maybe I’m just ruminating over a subject which has been beaten to death already in academia. Maybe there’s a pile of feathers where once a horse had been flogged to death. Or maybe the asthma is impacting my ability to think straight or write coherently.  But I think it’s an interesting question.

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