[On August 2nd, this AmericanStudier’s amazing younger sister celebrates her birthday. So this week in her honor I’ll AmericanStudy interesting American siblings!]
On the two groups of siblings at the heart of mid-20th century American comedy and popular culture.
From the Booths to the Barrymores, the Douglas’s to the Bridges, on down to Will and Jada Pinkett Smith and their increasingly visible young ‘uns, multi-generational families have long been a staple in American popular culture (I’m setting aside the most famous such multi-generational pop culture family in 21st America, the Kardashians, as a subject for another time if I feel up to it). Whether you read the trend as one of many signs that American society is not nearly as class-less as we like to believe, as a symbol of our hankering for an equivalent to the British royal family, or as simply a reflection that it’s easier to get ahead if you know the right people, there’s no doubt that our cultural icons have often come as part of family units. Yet I’m not sure that any other cultural medium or any other historical moment have been dominated by competing families of entertainers as were the 1930s and 40s by the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges.
The two families (which is a slightly inaccurate word for the Stooges, since Moe, Shemp, and Curly were brothers but Larry was unrelated to them) have interestingly parallel biographies: each group of brothers was born to Jewish American immigrant families in late 19th century New York; members of each began to perform in Vaudeville-type acts for the first time in 1912, and achieved their first real breakthrough successes about a decade later; and the similarly-titled films that truly launched each group both appeared within a year of each other, the Marx’s The Cocoanuts (1929) and the Stooges’ Soup to Nuts (1930). The families even feature individual brothers who helped originate the act but left the group at a relatively early point, Zeppo Marx and Shemp Howard. Yet despite these parallels, in my experience it’s very rare to find passionate fans of both the Marx Brothers and the Stooges—they seem today, as perhaps they did in their own era, to have found pretty distinct fan bases.
It’d be easy to attribute that divide to the highbrow/lowbrow dichotomy, and certainly there’s no doubt that the two groups tended to employ very different kinds of comedy: the Marx’s using their scripts and wordplay first and foremost, the Stooges their physical comedy and violence (although certainly Harpo Marx was entirely a physical comic, and in other ways too this division would break down upon close examination). Yet I would say that the two groups also exemplify two very distinct directions for American comedy and popular culture after Vaudeville, both employing developing technologies but in quite different ways: Cocoanuts was one of the first sound films, and throughout their career the Marx Brothers used this new medium of sound film to great effect; whereas most of the Stooges’ classic works were shorts, and while such pieces were often featured before or with other films they were also tailor-made for the new medium of television as it developed in the decades to come. Both films and television remain central media for American comedy, of course, but they work and connect to audiences in fundamentally different ways, and the Marx’s and Stooges can help us analyze those trends at their earlier moments.
Next siblings tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Sibling stories you’d highlight?