It is difficult to imagine a comedy team more talented, impressive, flexible and just downright hilarious than the Marx Brothers. Comedy certainly hasn't produced their equal at this point in time. The Judd Apatow crew, the Christopher Guest crew, the Not Ready for Prime Time Players, Monty Python, a million wonderful and timeless comedy duos -- all great, but none quite on that Marx Brother level.
That sounds hyperbolic, but the statement's size seems appropriate given the comedians we are dealing with. In all honesty, can you imagine anyone matching wits with Groucho Marx? Or a mute performer who can meet the effortless mixture of sweetness and malice displayed by Harpo? How about an actor who is the equal to Chico's unique combination of comic ignorance and charming chicanery? We've seen a lot of Marx imitators -- Alan Alda and Bugs Bunny definitely have a Groucho thing going on, and I've always seen a lot of Harpo in Martin Short's Clifford performance (yes, I just referenced Martin Short's Clifford performance) -- but those are just attempts at a type these guys invented and fully embodied.
But perhaps the biggest strength offered by the Marx Brothers is the wide range of comedy styles they were able to mine from their three (sorry Zeppo fans!) very distinct comic personalities. By himself, Groucho is the acerbic wit and the brother most capable of carrying screentime without the rest of his team, as he did for years hosting television's You Bet Your Life. Harpo's the destructive clown, amazing to watch for any amount of time so long as there's someone or something for him to mess with or destroy. Chico, however, is much harder to define because he, far more than his brothers, requires directed conversation (even if it's against the mute Harpo) to be effective and reflects a little differently depending on each scene's partner.
But that's also part of Chico's brilliance and key to the Marx Brothers' elasticity as a whole. To varying degrees, they each have unmistakable comic personas. But their characters also have the ability to take on different dimensions when combined in different ways.
When you see Chico and Harpo together, for instance, you get the sense that you are watching two pals with a long shared history. You don't really believe any of the details each film offers to explain their partnership, but the fact that they are always together seems evident. Chico displays a kind of weird but sweet responsibility for Harpo. This is largely because it often falls to him to explain Harpo to others or translate for him. They are both miscreants, so it certainly doesn't mean he keeps Harpo out of trouble, and he shows little interest in protecting the world from Harpo's destructive insanity. Nevertheless, between the two of them, he comes closest to providing direction and focus, poor and misguided as it may be.
As Chico and Harpo enjoy their shared adventures -- stealing works of art, bullying lemonade vendors, and kidnapping football players -- we usually find Groucho in a much different situation, subverting the upper class from within, a job for which is he is magnificently suited thanks to his utter disdain for every stuck up affectation he sees. What's fascinating about Groucho, however, and the Marx Brothers as a whole, is the way he often becomes a de facto member of that class in the face of Harpo and Chico's shenanigans.
This is mostly true with Chico, who can speak and therefore offer Groucho more fertile opportunities for comic back and forth. Many of their one-on-one scenes revolve around Groucho's need for Chico's help or something he possesses. The comic mode is pretty simple: Chico's tenuous grasp on the English language and lack of knowledge in general lead to a ton of hilarious verbal misunderstandings.
Groucho battles these with a parade of witty asides, but make no mistake -- Chico's comic voice transforms Groucho, a notable warrior against convention, into the world's wittiest and most unlikely straight man. Speaking personally, these are my absolute favorite Marx Brothers scenes (save for any scenes involving Chico playing the piano -- but sometimes they overlap!). I can barely breathe while watching stuff like the "Why a Duck" bit from The Cocoanuts, the "Swordfish" scene from Horsefeathers or the "Sanity Clause" scene from A Night at the Opera.
This is somewhat true of Groucho's interactions with Harpo as well. Despite their shared stance as agents of comic chaos, Groucho finds himself no safer from Harpo's assault on physical comfort zones and personal belongings than any of Margaret Dumont's characters. But while Groucho's interactions with Chico carry with them a crescendo of exasperation, his often quits the fight with Harpo early and just rolls with it. The famous "Mirror Scene" from Duck Soup offers a great example of Groucho deciding he'd rather play and have fun than actually investigate Harpo's mischief as a figure of authority.
Of course, all bets are off when the three brothers finally get to come together as a team. This happens a lot but perhaps not as frequently as those unfamiliar with the films might expect. With the three Marx Brothers going all at once, Groucho might still play straight man to Chico or they might end up totally in cahoots. Harpo's objects of abuse can shift from any of the brothers to anyone else in the room and even to the physical room itself. There are precious few rules when it comes to the Marx Brothers, which makes this goofy exploration a sort of fool's errand filled with easily disproved generalizations. But that's just another reason why, almost a hundred years since the release of The Cocoanuts, no one has yet to match their comic insanity.