Or to put it another way: Is Chico a real Italian or merely someone pretending to be an Italian?
This is one of the most deep and profound questions thrown up by the entire Marx canon, similar to - but in its way even more vexed than - 'Is Harpo a man who does not speak or a man who cannot speak?'
Now, obviously, in one sense the answer to both questions is obvious. Harpo definitely could talk and often did (when communicating, for example). And Chico was born in New York to a German mother and a French father. This is as foolproof a recipe for not being Italian as has yet been patented.
But just as obviously, that is not what we really mean when we ask the question. We mean: Is Chico playing a character who is a funny Italian or a character who is pretending to be a funny Italian? Strangely, the most popular answer seems to be the latter.
Allen Eyles tells us that "Chico sports a phony Italian accent and uses this as an excuse to misunderstand words" and this view is taken on, as often as not unconsciously, by just about all other writers on the subject.
The first level of complication is this: does Chico play the same character in every film? They do, after all, have different character names. If you want to be all literal about things then you have to say no, the eccentric musician Ravelli is a different character to the speakeasy employee Baravelli.
But this would be silly. Chico is an actor possessed of a definite persona, and it is that persona that reappears, regardless of whether he be called Ravelli, or Chicolini, or Faustino the Great, or even Tony. (Those MGM writers knew their stuff, eh?) Just as Groucho is always Groucho, so Chico is always Chico. Note that he always used the accent in interviews, when ostensibly 'himself'.
It's that line in Animal Crackers that really seems to fire them up, when Chandler says, "How did you get to be an Italian?" and Chico replies, "Never mind; whose confession is this?"
"It is the only time Chico's dialect act is ever questioned," says Eyles.
But it seems to me that this is not Chandler asking the question of Ravelli but Louis Sorin asking the question of Chico; it's an in-joke, perhaps a retained ad-lib like all that 'you're Chandler, I'm Spaulding' nonsense.
It's amusing to think of Chico pretending to be Italian so as to annoy people; it makes the character funnier, more original, more Marxian - but there's no real justification for believing it.
In truth, Chico's was by far the most stock-drawn of all Marx characterisations. Ethnic characters played by dialect comics, scores of Italians among them, were vaudeville staples. Chico seems to have wandered into the characterisation for want of anything else to do, and then just outlived it, so that by the end he was representative of no comic style other than his own. Even the costume, topped by the soft felt hat, is not original to him; as the New York Times reviewer noted in his appraisal of the Animal Crackers stage play, he is clad "in the ungainly attire of an immigrant".
Almost everything we consider typical of him - the clothes, the accent, the pidgin English interspersed with Italian, the obtuseness, the wiliness - were all the stock features of the Italian ethnic comic. His greatness is that he doesn't settle for that: he is also a brilliant comedian. The absurdism and wordplay, hilarious flights of anti-logic, and all those features that are uniquely Marxian, do not really arise from the specifics of the character but merely use them as its medium. Whatever nominal 'character' he had settled on, he would still have transcended it..
Ultimately, if we accept that Chico is always the same character from film to film, the clodhopping literalists of MGM must have the last word. And under Louis B Mayer, sworn enemy of witty comedy, Chico becomes explicitly Italian, just as Harpo becomes explicitly mute and Groucho becomes explicitly not as funny as he used to be.
There's a fascinating moment in The Big Store where he encounters Henry Armetta, another refugee from the golden age of funny Italians, by this time a reasonably busy small part comic relief character actor. Armetta's character accuses Chico of mocking his accent before they remember treading grapes together in Italy.
Cute Italians are rare in wartime Hollywood and finding such a routine in a 1941 Hollywood screenplay is a real novelty. The studios were not keen on showing Axis powers in a sympathetic light: that's why Peter Lorre stopped playing Mr Moto the Japanese detective after 1939. Even great literature was not safe: in the 1940 version of Louisa May Alcott's Little Men (starring Kay Francis and directed by Norman Z. McLeod) Jo's German Professor husband is made Swiss, and thus neutered, as it were.
And of course, the reason why the cut-about version of A Night at the Opera that seems now to be the only one that survives was chopped up in the first place was to remove all explicit reference to the fact that the film takes place in Italy. And yet through it, and now here in 1941 with Armetta, Chico cuts a blithe swathe, at'safining as he goes, like Mussolini never existed. Proof, I guess, that both men had long since been accepted as themselves, rather than mere representatives of comic types.
That neither Harpo nor Chico felt able to step outside of their self-set defining characteristics is shown by the fact that they both accepted tv roles in the fifties that cast them as unambiguously mute and Italian. Harpo, in a straight role, played a deaf-mute who witnesses a murder in the tv play Silent Panic, while in the charming comedy pilot Papa Romani Chico is cast as the flustered head of a rumbustious Italian immigrant family.
Papa Romani is one of those bits of Marx ephemera that turn up with relative frequency on public domain compilations and it generally gets a very bad rap, presumably from people who are not just disappointed but also somehow surprised that it isn't as witty as A Night at the Opera. Know in advance, however, that what you are in for is fifties American comedy so inoffensive it makes Ozzie and Harriet look sharp and edgy, and there is no reason in the world why you won't have twenty-two and a half thoroughly enjoyable minutes ahead of you. I would have liked to have seen it become a series.. I propose a middle-course out of this dilemma.
Chico is a Chico, of which there is one. By that I mean not the actor Chico, whose real name is Leonard, but the comic persona Chico, who is variously known as Ravelli and Chicolini and the rest. These sub-individuals, these Ravellis and Chicolinis; they are not anything, not real Italians or fake Italians. They are fictional characters. It's all pretend.
We do not need to settle these esoteric matters with such bludgeoning finality. That's the kind of mirthless exercise MGM screenwriters are given to. Just ask yourself this: does Groucho have a real moustache or a greasepaint moustache? Of course, it's a greasepaint moustache. Of course it could never pass as a real one. But it's only there because it's absurd and funny. The fact that Margaret Dumont never mentions it doesn't mean diddley. Does Captain Spaulding wake up in the morning and apply a greasepaint moustache in the mirror? Of course not. Only Julius Marx does that. Spaulding does not get up in the morning at all. He only does what we see him do; he only exists as long as we are watching. Chico's nationality falls into the same category. He has an accent because it's funny. We need go no deeper. Try, and the laughing stops.
Perhaps we should give the last word to the man himself, who reflected in a late interview that he used to be Italian, but when he saw what happened to Mussolini he became Greek. All said, of course, in an Italian accent.