You know the kind of thing I mean. Someone called Dennis P. de Loof (you just knew there had to be someone somewhere called Dennis P. de Loof and it seems there is) has argued that all of the references to sewer pipes in The Cocoanuts are examples of phallic symbolism. He is of course wrong. Groucho is talking to Dumont about sewer pipes with no hidden meaning to it at all. In fact, it is the actual absence of hidden meaning that is the point of the joke. He expects Dumont to be interested in his sample of sewer pipe. The banality is the point. It's what makes it funny.
There are probably very few occasions when you can say that the whole point of a joke about sewer pipes is that it isn't an example of phallic, or any other, symbolism, but here I confidently assert is one of those few. And it is in this rare example of a joke relying for its effect on the absence of phallic symbolism that Dennis P. de Loof affects to discern phallic symbolism.
If you've ever read either of Allen Eyles's books on the Marxes, and they're basically very good, you'll know that he has a funny little bee in his bonnet about identity confusion. Confusion over identity is a running thread in the films, he says. Quite a lot. And he finds plenty of it in Animal Crackers, even without spotting the dark room doppelgangers (see here).
My own feeling is that if there is a deliberate vein of identity confusion in the film then somebody must have put it there. So was it Kaufman who said to Ryskind: "Hey, Morrie, you know what would go over great in this show - a running subtext of confusion over identity"? Or was it Ryskind who said to Kaufman: "Say, George, how would you feel if I introduced an undercurrent of identity confusion into this thing?" Either it's one or the other or, as Chico says in the bridge scene, atsa what-a you call coincidence.
Nonetheless, if you want to set off on a wild identity confusion chase through the Marx jungle, Animal Crackers is unquestionably the best place to start. There are characters pretending to be people they are not, there are people pretending to be characters they are not, and before the opening credits are even finished we have been told that Groucho plays 'Jeffrey T. Spaulding' and 'Geoffrey T. Spaulding'. (The 'T', of course, stands for Edgar.)
And few in-jokes have caused as much wholesale mischief as Louis Sorin's throwaway line to Chico "Say, how did you get to be Italian?" (I wade into the perennial 'Is Chico Italian?' conundrum here.)
But if these issues inspire endless confusion, debate and dissension - and let's face it, they don't really - there is one point in connection with identity re: Animal Crackers on which everybody seems to agree.
Glenn Mitchell in The Marx Brothers Encyclopaedia: "Elsewhere in the house, Chandler is recognised by Ravelli. He is difficult to place, never having spent time in any prisons, but a birthmark on his forearm pinpoints him as Abe Kabibble, a former fish-pedlar from Czechoslovakia."
Simon Louvish in Monkey Business: The Lives & Legends of the Marx Brothers: "At one point he was 'Rabbi Cantor' but on screen he ended up as the ethnically neutral Abe Kabiddle."
Allen Eyles in The Complete Films of the Marx Brothers: "The prominent art critic Roscoe W. Chandler hides the fact that he is a former fish peddler from Czechoslovakia called Abie Cabiddle."
Okay, nobody seems sure if it's a 'k' or a 'c', 'biddle' or 'bibble', but that this man and Chandler are one and the same there is no doubt.
Sorry, but it just won't wash. This is not what happens.
Look at the scene again.
Chico apprehends Chandler at the end of the previous scene: “Some place I met you before because your face is-a very familiar...”
Chandler is nonchalant: “Well, after all I’m one of the most well-known men in America. The newspapers will keep on running my photograph.”
It is at this point that Chico says without a second’s deliberation: “You’re not Abe Kabibble?” (It’s not even for certain that it’s a question. It’s delivered as a statement, as if Chico were saying ‘You’re not that famous’.)
Chandler’s response is equally immediate and unflustered. “Oh, nonsense!” he says, and walks away, with irritation at being bothered but not the smallest hint that he might be someone whose secret identity has been discovered.
Here the scene cuts to another set, Chandler and Chico walk on, and it is at this point that the scene in question actually begins.
Chico continues: “If you’re not Abe Kabibble, who are you?”
Chico resumes his struggle to identify him, and it is ridiculous to assume that a name he has already offered twice has suddenly eluded him: “Some place I met you before because your face is-a very familiar. Now wait. Let me see. Were you ever in Sing-Sing?”
More deliberation and wrong guesses follow, before Chandler volunteers that he spends most of his time in Europe. This sets a train of thought moving in Chico’s mind. “Europe… I got it now! I know – you come from Czechoslovakia!”
Even now, however, he can’t quite place him. He even asks Harpo for help. “You remember him. Who was he? He comes from Czechoslovakia.”
Then, finally, realisation dawns: “He comes from Czechoslovakia and I know who it is! It’s Abie the fish peddler!”
This, with the revelation of a matching birthmark, Chandler eventually admits to be the case. Of Abe Kabibble, whoever he may be, there is no more mention, but it is interesting that both Chico and Chandler seem to recognise the name, as if he were a famous person.
So who the hell is he? He isn't a real famous person, I feel sure in saying. So is it just Chico being silly, just coming out with a name at random, along the lines of 'one of my own compositions by Victor Heerman', (whether he did or didn't actually say that)? Or is it Chico perhaps getting it wrong, introducing the name too early (along the lines of his famous confusion during the prison break in Cocoanuts)?
No, it can't even be that. Firstly, because the name is never reintroduced - Abie the fish peddler is never given a second name. Plus there is practiced calm in Sorin's reaction to the suggestion; he brushes it off just as he has been doing all day in rehearsal. Not only does he not call for a retake, there isn't even any surprise such as would have greeted Chico getting it wrong, especially getting it wrong in such a scene-ruining way. And he says it in two different scenes, anyway: at the end of one and the beginning of the other. There can be no doubt that Chico is supposed to say Abe Kabibble at this early stage, and that it is not the secret identity of Roscoe W. Chandler.
The name Kabibble may, perhaps, be intended to parody the name of a real person. The original play of Animal Crackers featured a character cut entirely from the film called Wally Winston, a journalist based obviously upon Walter Winchell. And Chandler himself, unmasked in the play not as a fish peddler but as Rabbi Cantor, was originally intended as a thinly-veiled parody of Otto Kahn, the art mogul famous for his efforts to disguise his Jewish background.
But of one thing we may be absolutely certain. The heavyweights quoted above are wrong. Roscoe W. Chandler is not and never was Abe Kabibble.
Chandler is played, in both film and original show, and most amusingly, by Louis Sorin, an actor whose very little screen work also includes Glorifying the American Girl, discussed here. But if you click here you will be transported as if by technology to the website of the Manitoba Institute for Patient Safety. And who do we find there, masquerading as the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority's Aboriginal patient advocate? None other than Louis Sorin. Will this identity confusion never end?