5.2 The Model and the Marx Brothers

The two doctor-patient relationship encounters from the works of the Marx Brothers to be discussed here both come from the film ‘A Day at the Races’. In this film Groucho is a horse doctor who has been appointed head of a debt-ridden clinic on the whim of the clinic’s new rich hypochondriac benefactor, whom he once successfully treated, and who believes him to be a genuine medical practitioner. Chico and Harpo are two kind-hearted rogues who aim to assist the clinic financially by winning lots of money at the nearby race track. They do not know Groucho and they believe him to be a genuine doctor. The examination takes place in Groucho’s office. These extracts have been edited.

(1) Groucho: Sit down here till I snatch you from the jaws of death. Just sit
quiet there. Now that’s it.
(2) Chico: That’s a doctor. [Groucho takes Harpo’s pulse. Harpo looks nervous
as Groucho studies his watch.
(3) Groucho: Either he’s dead or my watch has stopped. [He goes to the cabinet
and takes out a thermometer.
(4)Chico: He’s a good doctor, he knows his business. [Groucho shakes
thermometer and sings. Harpo watches him and plays his
flute.Groucho, after a tussle, puts the thermometer into Harpo’s
mouth. Harpo begins to eat it. As he chews Groucho looks at his
(5) Groucho: [When the thermometer is all gone] Well that temperature
certainly went down fast. [Harpo gets up and goes to cabinet.
Takes out a bottle marked
POISON and begins to drink.]
(6) Groucho: Hey, don’t drink that poison. It’s four dollars an ounce. [Groucho
puts on head mirror and begins to examine Harpo’s head.
(7) Groucho: Rather a strange looking sight.
(8) Chico: Is it serious Doc?
(9) Groucho: I haven’t seen anything like this in years. The last time I saw a head like this was in a bottle of formaldehyde.
(10) Chico: I told you he was sick.
(11) Groucho: He’s got about a fifteen per cent metabolism with an over-active thyroid and a glandular affectation of about three per cent.
(12) Chico: That bad, huh?
(13) Groucho: With about one per cent mentality. He’s what we designate as the Crummy Moronic Type. All in all this is the most gruesome looking piece of blubber I’ve ever peered at.
(14) Chico: Hey, Doc! Hey, Doc!
(15) Groucho: Huh?
(16) Chico: You gotta da looking glass turned round - you’re looking at yourself!
(17) Groucho: I knew it all the time. [He skips and dances across the room]
(18) That was a good joke on all of us, wasn’t it? Let’s do it again sometime, huh?
[Groucho leans over Harpo]
(19) Say “Ah” [No response] Louder! [Still nothing]
[Groucho crosses over room to door]
(20) Chico: Hey, Doc! Where are you going?
(21) Groucho: I’m going to the ear doctor. I’m deaf.
(22) Chico: Aw, come on back. It’s notta you - it’s him.
(23) Groucho: Well, sometimes I’m not sure who’s getting the examination here.
(Pirosh, Seaton and Oppenheimer 1972: 167-170)

Groucho’s first two turns (1 and 3) both show an alarming insensitivity to the patient’s feelings, both containing a reference to death. (3) Is even more unusual for a doctor as in it he equates the mechanical workings of a watch with the vital workings of a human heart. Both these turns signal ignorance and incompetence, characteristics alarmingly overlooked in Chico’s reassuring remarks to Harpo (2 and 4). The undermining of conventional doctor-patient relations is furthered by Groucho’s singing (between turns 4 and 5) and Harpo’s accompaniment on the flute.

Harpo’s rejection of the usual subject position of patient continues with his refusal of treatment. Not only does he reject the thermometer, he actually eats it. The doctor, however, rather than express shock and trying to stop this extremely dangerous practice, behaves as if it is a normal part of the routine and actually times it. This allows him a play on the words ‘goes down’ (5); a temperature can go down (decrease), the food can go down (be swallowed) quickly. This abnormal doctor-patient behaviour is immediately repeated in a very similar form. Harpo carries out another dangerous act - he drinks poison and Groucho reacts nonchalantly with a joke (6) – don’t drink the poison because it is expensive, not because it’s dangerous. More concern is shown for his budget than his patient’s life.

The routine continues with an examination of Harpo’s head. Once more Groucho exhibits gross incompetence by putting on the head mirror wrongly, a fact that is not revealed till (16). Meanwhile he uses words and phrases most inappropriate for a doctor to use to a patient; he likens Harpo’s head to a dead one (9). he calls him a moron (13) and a gruesome piece of blubber (13). The insults are mixed with pseudo-jargon (11 and 13), which, as the ‘jargon’ part of the compound, expresses power over the patient, who cannot be expected to understand, and, as the ‘pseudo’ part of the compound, satirises the genuine medical lexicon. When Chico challenges his power by indicating his error with the mirror (16) he deflects attention away from himself by a denial of his own ignorance, giving an exhibition of dancing, and finally by claiming they were all a butt of his joke, not just him. He then immediately reasserts his power by exercising the most common practice in a doctor’s repertoire, getting a patient to say “Ah” (19). Just as Harpo’s body has, with its extraordinary qualities, challenged the doctor’s knowledge/power from the beginning of the encounter – there was no pulse, he ate a thermometer, he drank poison – he now does so again. The basic physical fact about Harpo is his lack of speech. Thus he is unable to perform this simplest of patient’s tasks. It is enough to undermine Groucho’s faith in his own basic physical qualities – he thinks he is deaf (21) – which leads him to an explicit expression (23) that the contents, subject positions and relations of this exchange might well have become reversed.

The next medical exchange comes from later in the same film. Harpo and Chico, though they now know Groucho is bogus, have teamed up with him to save the clinic against the moves by the clinic’s administrator Whitmore and his backers to take it over and use it as a casino. Whitmore and the other doctors at the clinic are sure Groucho is bogus and have challenged him to examine the rich hypochondriac benefactor Mrs. Upjohn in front of a panel of doctors which includes a specialist from Vienna, Dr. Steinberg. The power relations in this encounter, then, are much more complex than in the previous doctor-patient exchange. Here Whitmore and the doctors (legitimate) have power over Groucho (charlatan); Groucho (doctor) has power over Mrs, Upjohn (patient); and Mrs. Upjohn (new benefactor) has power over them all (employees). This takes place in a large examination room. Dr.Steinberg is standing next to Mrs. Upjohn. This scene has been edited.

(1) Steinberg: So next we see...
(2) Groucho: (2a) Just a moment! (2b) Take your hands off her.
(2c)A fine doctor you are. (2d) Don’t you know you’re not supposed to
touch a patient without being sterilised? (2e) You don’t see me running an
examination like that!
(3) Upjohn: No!
(4) Whitmore: That’s true. And I think it would be very interesting to see how Dr.
Hackenbush [Groucho] does conduct an examination.
(5) Upjohn: Splendid, splendid. Show them, Doctor.
(6) Groucho: If you insist, I’ll proceed.[Groucho then takes a very long time to wash his hands. Enter Harpo and Chico in gowns and masks.]
(7) Groucho [aside]: I told you guys to stay in that room with those pigeons.[Harpo goes to wash his hands. When he turns his back to camera we see JOE’S SERVICE STATION printed in large letters on the back of his gown.]
(8) Whitmore: Dr. Hackenbush [Groucho]. Tell me, who sent for these men?
(9) Groucho: You don’t send for them. You just rub a lamp and they appear.[The Marx Brothers stall for time by washing their hands twice more. When Chico turns his back to camera we see BRAKES RELINED printed in large letters on the back of his gown.]
(10) Upjohn: What is the matter with them? [They finish washing and Steinberg turns away from them. Chico dries his hands on Groucho’s gown, Groucho his hands on Harpo’s gown, and Harpo on Steinberg’s coat tails.]
(11) Steinberg: I don’t know – what is this – get away from me! [He pushes Harpo away]...(12) Ach, this is ridiculous. Put the patient in a horizontal position...[Harpo and Chico flip Mrs. Upjohn’s examination chair back and turn it into an examination table, but they push it too high and her feet are above her head.] …(13) Be careful, gentlemen!
(14) Upjohn: Oh! Oh! Oh!
[They push the table further until her legs are straight up in the air. Harpo dangles a sign from her feet saying MEN AT WORK. They push the table around the room. The table and Mrs. Upjohn are forced into a right angle. Harpo drapes a towel over her and begins to lather her face. Chico begins to shave her with a blunt medical instrument. Harpo takes a basin of water and begins to wash her hands.]
(15) Whitmore: Here, give me that. What are you doing? [The examination table is now in its sitting position, Groucho is shining Mrs. Upjohn’s shoes. Chico is massaging her scalp. Whitmore is tearing his hair. Groucho stops shining her shoes and begins to dry his back with the same towel. Harpo is cranking the examination table up and down and Mrs. Upjohn’s legs are flying in the air.]
(16) Steinberg: But there is one indisputable test.
(17) Whitmore: What?
(18) Steinberg: The X-ray!
(19) Whitmore: The X-ray!
(20) Groucho and Chico [Running around the room]: X-ray! X-ray!
[Harpo pretends to shout and hand out newspapers.]
(21) Chico: X-ray! Extray! Extray! [Harpo activates the overhead sprinklers drenching everyone. Whitmore, Steinberg, Upjohn rush out. Enter Hi Hat, the racehorse with which the Marx Brothers intend to win money at the race track and thereby save the clinic. All three Marxes mount the horse and exit leaving the room in chaos.]
(Pirosh, Seaton and Oppenheimer 1972: 211-220)

The first six turns succinctly demonstrate the complex web of power relations at work in this scene. In (1) Steinberg is keen for the examination to proceed and, he hopes, for Groucho to be thus unmasked. Groucho (2) immediately displays his enmity in the completely unprofessional manner in which he addresses a fellow doctor. In this single turn he (2a) rudely interrupts a colleague, (2b) gives him a direct order in the imperative, (2c) openly criticises him, (2d) admonishes him as if he were an ignorant child, and, finally, (2e) indicates his own superiority. Mrs. Upjohn, hypochondriac and gullible believer in Groucho’s quack methods, shows her support (3), an important source of power for Groucho. No one dare challenge this support even though it is for Groucho’s outrageous behaviour in (2). Whitmore pretends to agree with her (4) but is actually keener to press ahead with the examination (4) in order to expose Groucho. Mrs. Upjohn, who is ignorant of the sub-text concerning the exposure of Groucho as a fraud, urges him on in the naive belief that his methods will expose what she believes are the faulty diagnoses of the genuine doctors. Groucho, despite Upjohn’s support, essentially feels disempowered by his imminent unmasking as a charlatan, and only reluctantly agrees to proceed (6).

However, with the entrance of Chico and Harpo power relations are quickly adjusted in Groucho’s favour, though he does not at first realise it. Rather, he believes their presence will help expose him all the sooner and he complains (7). Whitmore, however, is aware of their gift for chaos and knows that this could somehow block his chance to unmask Groucho. He too complains (8). Groucho senses Whitmore’s alarm and now warms to their presence (9) by indicating their ‘magical’ qualities, that is, their potential for (one kind of) power over and above ordinary mortals. Though at this stage Chico and Harpo have merely entered and done and said nothing, the sign on the back of Harpo’s gown – JOE’S SERVICE STATION – displays their attitude towards the relations within the medical examination room - one of enormous disrespect -and announces the commencement of a struggle for power in which the contents, subject positions, and relations of this discourse type will be openly attacked.

The major part of this attack is unspoken and kinesic. A significant proportion of the spoken turns in the remainder of the extract – Steinberg in (11) and (13), Whitmore in (15), Upjohn in (10) and (14) – are the passive responses of those with authority (status, money) to the active deconstruction of the power relationships by the powerless outsiders (charlatan, rogues). The latter use the eminent specialist’s coat tails as a towel, take scandalous liberties with Mrs. Upjohn (who temporarily forfeits her position of power as a benefactor by adopting the context-appropriate subject position of a patient), and reduce Whitmore to tearing out his hair. Twice more the written code is used to further express their contempt for the class and professional status inherent in the proceedings – BRAKES RELINED and MEN AT WORK. Steinberg (16) eventually reasserts the authority of the legitimate doctors by bringing the focus of the discourse back to the examination and, through it, to Groucho’s professional powerlessness. However, all three Marx Brothers combine brilliantly to fend off this attack with a mixture of kinesics (Harpo) and phonological transformation (Groucho and Chico) in which Steinberg’s (18) and Whitmore’s (19) victory cry of the medical term “X-ray” is turned into the street cry of a newspaper vendor, “Extra, extra” (21). Having throughout made nonsense of the proceedings the Marx Brothers now bring them to a disastrous conclusion and leave the scene - with their enemies scattered and with Groucho’s bogus status still intact - on (of all things to appear in a consultation room) a racehorse.