6.2 The Law and the Long Arms of the Marx Brothers

Now turning to law in the works of the Marx Brothers, the examples involve a courtroom scene in which roles and relations are subverted, and two which express disrespect and contempt for conventional legal discourse. In this courtroom scene, which comes from Episode 16 of the radio shows (1933), Groucho, the down-at-heel lawyer, has been elected judge. Chico, his assistant,
plays defending counsel. They are in court with Groucho presiding.

District Attorney: The state is prepared to proceed with the trial of
John H. Plunkett. Our first witness is Leo Greenbury.
(1) Groucho: Oh, no Greenbury can’t be a witness in this court.
(2) D.A [astonished]: Why not, your honour?
(3) G: Well, he told my wife’s butcher that he didn’t vote for me. The
sneak!
(4) D.A: Why, I’ve never heard a judge say anything so undignified!
(5) G: Oh, you’re a wise guy! Just for that I fine you twenty bucks for
contempt of court.
(6) D.A: I regret to say, your honour, that I consider your remark most
unbecoming to a judge.
(7) G: What did you say?
(8) D.A: I said your remark was most unbecoming to a judge.
(9) G: Hey, that’s the second time you said that. Just for that I fine you one
hundred bucks. I dare you to insult me again.
(10) D.A: Oh never mind.
(11) G [coaxing]: Oh, come on. I’ll let you have this insult for fifty bucks.
(12) D.A: Your honour, these proceedings have become most unjudicial. I
move for a new trial.
(13) Chico: Hey. where you gonna move to?
(14) D.A: Please don’t interrupt Mr. Ravelti [Chico]. I don’t know what right you have to appear in this case. You’re not even a member of the bar.
(15) Ch: Oh, so you wanna get fresh wit me? Aw right joosta for dat I fine you twenty bucks for contempt of court.
(16) G: Ravelli [Chico] , how can I charge a hundred bucks if you’re going to let him insult you for twenty?
(17) Ch: Shut up, judge, or I fine you twenty bucks.
(18) G: In that case, I’ll fine you twenty bucks, so we’ll be even. Plunkett, you keep score, and if you let him win, I’ll fine you twenty bucks too.
(Barson 1988: 203)

This extract shows a severe rupture with the subject positions, relations, and contents of conventional courtroom discourse. The judge, Groucho, tries to bar a witness (1) because he didn’t vote for him (3). When the district attorney expresses strong disapproval in an attempt to maintain normal behaviour (4), Groucho fines him for contempt of court (5). In short, Groucho creates a new courtroom structure and any attempt to maintain the old is seen as contempt of the new. Chico, too, refuses to accept the usual position of defence counsel and participates in challenging the old roles by fining the district attorney (15) and the judge (17), something that is clearly beyond his powers. The district attorney, forever trying to assert conventional courtroom procedure, employs what Goodrich calls an ‘exclusive mode’ by reminding Chico that he isn’t even entitled to the usual subject position of defence counsel (14), let alone one that can issue fines.

The relations and contents of this new discourse are also not what is considered usual for a courtroom. Groucho calls the district attorney a ‘wise guy (5) and continues to address Chico as if he were his assistant and not the defence counsel in a court of law 16). He refers to dollars as ‘bucks’. He rudely prefaces his address to the district attorney with ‘Hey…’ (9). This inappropriate style and register flouts what Ervin-Tripp (1972) calls the rules of alternation and co-occurence. Further, he is oblivious to the point of their gathering – to conduct a trial – and behaves as if he were participating in a game of insults – ‘Plunkett you keep the score’ etc. (18). The district attorney gamely attempts to play out his subject position and establish normal relations (passim) but when this fails he acknowledges the breakdown and calls for a new trial (12). The cumulative effect of all this is satirical; all the features concerning the imbalance of power in the legal system which were discussed above are here heavily underlined by the deliberate disturbance of conventional courtroom discourse. Normal procedures are disrupted resulting in breakdown.

The second extract concerns legal language and comes from the film ‘Animal Crackers’ (1930). Groucho plays an explorer and is here in his office with his secretary, pompously striding back and forth dictating a letter to his lawyers.

Groucho: Now then, re yours the fifth inst. yours to and beg to rep, brackets, that we have gone over the ground carefully and we seem to believe, i.e. to wit e.g. in lieu that despite all our precautionary measures which have been involved we seem to believe that it is hardly necessary for you to proceed unless we receive an ipso facto that is not negligible at this moment, quotes, unquotes, and quote. Hoping this finds you, I beg to remain.
(Quoted in Jarrett 1982:11)

Though this is patent nonsense it does have sufficient structure – an approximation of a beginning and end - and sufficient stretches of comprehensible syntax – ‘that we have gone over the ground carefully and we seem to believe...that despite all precautionary measures...’ - to almost cohere, formally at least. It seems ‘no harder to swallow’ than Wydick’s example from the California Penal Code cited above. Yet it is, repeat, nonsense and is another example of the satirical pointing up of one of the features of the power differential in law – the language of law itself. The final extract concerning law will demonstrate precisely how the Marx Brothers perceived such language.

It comes from the film ‘A Night at the Opera’ (1937), in which Groucho is a bogus opera agent and Chico is the representative of an aspiring singer. Groucho wishes to sign up the singer and here he and Chico are discussing the contract. Chico is not happy with the wording.

Groucho : All right. It says - huh - the first part of the party of the first part should be known in this contract as the first part of the party of the first part, should be known in this contract - Look, why should we quarrel about a thing like this? We’ll take it out, eh? [Groucho rips off the top of the contract]
Chico : Yeah. [He rips off the top of his copy] It’s too long anyhow. Now what have we got left?
Groucho : Well I’ve got about a foot and a half. Now it says, huh, the party of the second part of this contract shall be known in this contract as the party of the second part.
Chico : Well I don’t know about that.
Groucho : Now what’s the matter?
Chico : I no like the second party either.
Groucho : Well you should have come to the first party. We didn’t get home till around four in the morning. I was blind for three days.
Chico : Hey, look! Why can’t the first part of the second party be the second part of the first party? Then you got something.
Groucho : Well, look, rather than go through all that again, what do you say?
Chico : Fine. [They rip together]
(Kaufman and Ryskind 1972:120)

This tearing of the contract continues until there is just a shred left, which they don’t bother to sign, preferring instead a verbal agreement, such is their distrust of and contempt for the legal language. Conventional legal discourse is literally torn apart and replaced with a negotiated discourse of their own making.