“I’m a Marxist, of the Groucho variety” – Anonymous
In most cases, Groucho is the pop culture ambassador of the Marx Brothers, and it’s not hard to see why. His look is both iconic and easy to imitate, his jokes are endlessly quotable. Sometimes, usually to the high-minded elite, Harpo emerges as the favorite, the angelic slapstick devil that most obviously recalls the clowns of antiquity. But what about Chico? Why is the oldest brother always left out in the cold? Even Zeppo gets more mention, on account of his failure to get laughs. The reason, I suspect, is that Chico represents a fantasy that nobody has. Each of the Marx Brothers is, in their way, invincible. Groucho has the endless wit and acid tongue we all wish we had. Not only is every quip a surefire zinger, but there are never any consequences to his verbal takedowns. Groucho can be as nasty as he wants, but Margaret Dumont won’t shout him down until the scene is through and the plot needs to move on, and even then, her protests are rarely effective; a Marx Brothers scene never ends until the Marx Brothers are ready for it to end. Harpo meanwhile is pure id. While the rules of society may suspend for Groucho, the rules of reality dissolve for Harpo. He is free to follow any impulse with total commitment and the full force of his being, not matter how violent, childish, or lurid, and like his brother, there is rarely any punishment. Chico, on the other hand, is an invulnerable idiot. Author Joe Adamson once accurately described him as “an invincible moron”, and however it might sometimes appear, it’s no one’s fantasy to be stupid with impunity. What’s more, his “schtick” is rather difficult to describe, and he’s usually relegated in discussion to being “the piano player”, which is far and away his least interesting trait. To ignore Chico is a dire mistake; he’s probably the most important Marx Brother of them all.
There is a hierarchy of power within the Marx Brothers, and nowhere is that more evident than in the opening of Animal Crackers. First, Groucho arrives, and in a lengthy and delightful sequence, he all but destroys society by reducing social nicities and expectations to ruin. Then comes Chico. In much shorter time, he reduces all logic to rubble, his malapropisms and puns rendering language meaningless. Finally, Harpo enters, and he brings the walls of reality itself crashing down. He drops his pants (in fact, he drops his whole outfit in one fell swoop), fires guns, disperses the guests, chases women, and somehow brings two statues to life merely so that he can play with them. Physics are gone, there are no more rules. The Marx Brothers have arrived.
It’s worth noting that in this escalation of destruction, Chico is not at the bottom, but in the middle; he is more powerful than Groucho. And in a way, he’s even more powerful than Harpo, because it is Chico who holds this tenuous band together, who is the go-between for Groucho and Harpo. Groucho is a clown grounded in reality, a product of the society he flaunts. Harpo is a cosmic clown, who comes and goes as he pleases and to whom rules of any kind are meaningless. There are very few scenes with just Groucho and Harpo in all of the Marx Brothers movies. They need Chico to bridge them, to make sense of their senselessness. Chico grounds Harpo in reality, if only to make sure he sticks around until the credits roll, and he goes toe-to-toe with Groucho, his low status and proud idiocy forcing Groucho into the unwilling role of straight man. Groucho and Harpo are concerned with themselves and bringing down the structures around them, but Chico is concerned with his brothers, and how he can manipulate them, however ineptly, into getting what he wants, which is usually something simple, like food, money, women, or the day off. Chico is the sanity clause that keeps it all together. But don’t try telling him that. He knows better. With the Marx Brothers, there is no sanity clause.