The Marx Brothers’ “Everyone Says ‘I Love You’” on Screen and in Popular Music

Everyone Says I Love You

[This article is a study of the Marx Brothers’ song “Everyone Says ‘I Love You’” from its onscreen debut in their 1932 film Horse Feathers to its appearance in popular recorded music from roughly the same period. The article first appeared in the April 2016 edition of The Discographer Magazine and has been revised and updated for this website.]

When Peter Bogdanovich spoke with director Leo McCarey in the late 1960s about McCarey’s film Duck Soup (1933), Bogdanovich remarked: “A lot of people think it’s [the Marx Brothers’] best picture: there’s no harp or piano playing, no interludes, no love interest—those things slowed up their other comedies terribly…” The earlier Marx Brothers film Horse Feathers (1932) contains all of the elements that Bogdanovich singles out as weaknesses, in particular musical interludes. But while many people rightly consider Duck Soup to be the Marx Brothers’ greatest cinematic achievement, Horse Feathers is an accomplished film in its own right, and the Horse Feathers interludes—in which the brothers interpret and reinterpret Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby’s “Everyone Says ‘I Love You’” on piano, harp, and guitar—consist of rich moments on screen that, rather than slowing down the film’s progress, advance its thematic concerns. In other words, the performances in Horse Feathers demonstrate the way that musical interludes can contribute in an essential way to the rhetoric of Marx Brothers movies in general.

In the first half of this article, I will argue that the musical interludes of Horse Feathers, far from being superfluous distractions, convey meditations on a focused theme that at least on the surface ties in with the esprit de corps of the early 1930s. In particular, the lyrics of “Everyone Says ‘I Love You’” toy with a philosophical topic, the idea of love’s universality, that is fairly deep and corresponds to Depression-era political and film rhetoric. But as the renditions of the song both attract and repel the notion that something profound is being discussed, they offer us an ideal opportunity to experience an essential quality of early 1930s Marx Brothers films— their tendency to undermine statements, moments, and agendas that promote sweetness and tenderness, and their universal flippancy towards and rejection of serious, sanitized, mainstream values.

The song “Everyone Says ‘I Love You’” is thus strongly associated with the Marx Brothers’ characteristic brand of comedy, and yet interestingly it had a successful concurrent and independent life in recorded music in the hands of other artists. In the second half of this article, I will explore the particular challenges of transforming Kalmar and Ruby’s song into popular recordings by examining five dance band versions of it, including recordings by Isham Jones, Henry Hall, Jay Wilbur, Anson Weeks, and Phil Harris.

Horse Feathers is a comedy about college life starring Groucho Marx as college president Quincy Adams Wagstaff and Zeppo Marx as his son Frank. Chico Marx and Harpo Marx play Baravelli and Pinky, respectively—the former a bootlegger and the latter a dog catcher—who are both enlisted by President Wagstaff to rig the college football game. Although the football plot provides a thread that unites much of the activity, the film is nevertheless largely a series of vignettes. The song “Everyone Says ‘I Love You’” serves as a device to bring further continuity to the film: it is performed by each of the main characters in turn, in his own unique style, at different points throughout the narrative (always with love interest Thelma Todd on hand), and the device joins the brothers’ disparate personalities in one consistent conversation.1 Although the Marx Brothers sing different lyrics, each one (with the exception of Harpo, who is mute) uses the same melody and the line “Everyone says ‘I love you’” during his interlude, strengthening the relationship between the performances and our sense that we are hearing multiple takes on the same topic. “Everyone Says ‘I Love You’” thus contributes not only structure but thematic cohesion to Horse Feathers.

Zeppo is the first to sing to Todd, and his lyrics, which offer a survey of the world’s lovers, lay the foundation for the film’s discussion of love (the other brothers will respond implicitly to his lyrical content):

Everyone says “I love you”:
The cop on the corner and the burglar, too,
The preacher in the pulpit and the man in the pew
Says “I love you.”

As the first version of the song in the repeated structure, Zeppo’s rendition sets the tone for the remaining performances. And yet although Zeppo’s lyrics ostensibly pertain to love’s ubiquity, and Todd may react to the renditions by smiling and looking touched, none of the sentiments that he conveys are particularly romantic. Zeppo’s words are concerned more with generalities than love for Todd’s character specifically. Instead of romantic details, they contain a microcosm of the world: in addition to the cop and the burglar, we hear about “the king in the palace and the peasant, too”—the high and the low in society. Zeppo also sings about “the folks over eighty and the kid of two”—the mature and the immature, and other extremes of state and nature.

We should keep in mind that this song was written in the early part of the Great Depression, before Roosevelt’s election, and it is already filled with some of the uniting spirit of Roosevelt-era cinema. Here I am thinking particularly of the Busby Berkeley musical numbers that had begun to appear in 1932, with their spirit of collectivity and collaboration that served as encouragement to a downtrodden populace. Zeppo’s lyrics speak to his particular cultural moment: they present a series of identities at opposite ends of the socio-economic and power spectrum, but not only that, the lyrics implicitly argue for the ability of love to equalize and join together people across the class divide in a way that corresponds with Berkeley’s images of united movement. As a result, Zeppo’s version of the song is complementary to the rhetoric adopted by a broader cinema that sought to comfort and motivate its audience, encouraging people to band together and solve society’s problems through their relationships with their fellow citizens.

Notably, if we look to the characterizations of the Marx Brothers in this film, we see Zeppo’s microcosm reflected in their stations: Groucho is college president, Chico works as a businessman, and Harpo is employed as a dog catcher—they are manifestations of the highs and lows of Zeppo’s lyrics. It is true that this emphasis on social status is always more or less present in Marx Brothers films, but the costuming in this movie particularly underscores the extent to which the characters represent different walks of American life (I am thinking particularly of Harpo’s tattered dog catcher’s ensemble and Groucho’s glossy top hat).

Zeppo’s message of universality, though it may have appealed to a Depression-era audience, is contemplated by Chico but rejected rhetorically in his lyrics. Chico delivers his rendition of the song in his characteristic pseudo-Italian patter. His lyrics are the silliest of the brothers’:

Everyone says “I love-ah you”:
The great big mosquito when-ah he sting-ah you,
The fly when he get stuck on the flypaper, too,
Says “I love you.”

The conversation about love grows more specific when Chico alludes to famous figures from history:

Christopher Columbo, he write the Queen of Spain a very nice-ah little note,
And he’s-ah write, “I love-ah you, baby,” and then he get hisself a great-ah big-ah boat-ah
(He’s a wise-ah guy).
What do you think Columbo do
When he’s ah-comin’ here in 1492?
He said to Pocahontas “aye-cha-kye-cha-kye-cha-coo”—
That means, “You little son of a gun,
I love you.”

The universal and expansive notion of love found everywhere in Zeppo’s lyrics gets turned on its head here. Chico, in applying the principle of “Everyone Says ‘I Love You’” to history, creates a historically preposterous claim (the idea of Columbus meeting Pocahontas and telling her he loves her) and an oversimplification (the idea that Columbus said “I love you, baby” to the Queen of Spain, and then a boat appeared). While obviously goofy, Chico’s lyrics nevertheless point to a flaw in Zeppo’s rhetoric: the claims of universality that we find in Zeppo’s lyrics are perhaps easily made, and they tug at the heartstrings in a way that Chico, through absurdity, rebuffs. Suddenly it seems as though the project of bringing everyone into the conversation about love has been derailed.

And yet something changes when Chico begins his instrumental solo on the piano, with Thelma Todd seated on the bench next to him. In that performance, Chico often looks over at Todd and she smiles back. He becomes more playful at the keyboard, he looks at her flirtatiously, and she smiles again. This behavior continues throughout his solo, with the result that by the end of Chico’s piano performance (piano performances being one of the elements of Marx Brothers films that Bogdanovich explicitly criticized during his conversation with McCarey), his demeanor has convinced us of something that his lyrics did not—that love really is a universal constant after all.

Chico’s fluctuation between critic of love’s universality and endorser of it is mirrored in Groucho’s solo. Following Harpo’s instrumental performance of the song (which reveals some of the tenderness that is lacking in the other versions, even when they endorse the ubiquitousness of love), we eventually find Groucho in a canoe with Todd. Groucho’s persona is, as usual, sarcastic and snidely undercutting, and yet the effect of this sequence is very sweet. Plucking crudely at a guitar, he sings in a slightly off-key voice in a sometimes too-high register. His lyrics at first give one the impression that he has been listening to the other songs, particularly Zeppo’s:

Everyone says “I love you,”
But just what they say it for I never knew.

His recollection of his formerly puzzled, perhaps naïve state is quickly undermined by cynicism:

It’s just inviting trouble for the poor sucker who
Says “I love you.”

Love is a sham, in other words. Groucho in a resigned way then moves on to a statement about the proverbial reproducing rabbits:

Take a pair of rabbits who
Get stuck on each other and begin to woo,
And pretty soon you’ll find a million more rabbits who
Say “I love you.”

“I love you” is therefore not a unique or admirable thing to say either; it is just the way of the world—nothing special. But one reference to the animal kingdom quickly leads to another:

When the lion gets feeling frisky
And begins to roar,
There’s another lion who knows
Just what he’s roaring for.

Groucho happens in this example to hit upon something missing from the rabbit lyrics—the notion of understanding. Perhaps that is what then leads him to make the movie’s most sweeping statements about love:

Everything that ever grew,
The goose and the gander and the gosling, too,
The duck upon the water when he feels that way, too,

Just as Groucho’s song is reaching its climax, in which his lyrics reinforce the notion that love (and, by extension, sex) is a universal and natural urge, something that biologically unites all things, “the duck upon the water”—an actual duck on the water that has been trailing Groucho’s boat—interrupts with a series of quacks. Groucho chastises him, “That’s a wise quack…. You keep your bill out of this…” The singer is pulled out of the moment and out of the music by the very creature he was singing about, whom he now sees as competition, “wise quacks” being very much Groucho’s métier. The duck has stolen the punchline and disrupted the singer’s climactic vision of harmony, and Groucho’s idiosyncratic cynicism has won out.

Horse Feathers’ use of “Everyone Says ‘I Love You’” thus pulls us towards statements of love’s universality but also deflates and undermines those same statements through the Marx Brothers’ subversive personalities. And although the brothers’ musical performances bestow structural order on the film, the performances simultaneously revel in anarchic, topsy-turvy attitudes. However, while the tension between gestures of inflation and deflation in Horse Feathers is evident and expressed ingeniously through the specific use of the “Everyone Says ‘I Love You’” interludes, this quality is also characteristic of Marx Brothers films from the early Depression more generally. Surely, therefore, one of the reasons the Marx Brothers flourished as entertainers during the Depression was because they offered a check on society’s tendencies towards sentimental, easy solutions; indeed, it is challenging to enjoy their films without also embracing this aspect of their characters.

We might assume, therefore, that the success of “Everyone Says ‘I Love You’” in popular music might directly relate to this feature of their films. Yet the tension I have described in Horse Feathers is absent from the recordings of “Everyone Says ‘I Love You’” made from late 1932 to early 1933. In those recordings, other complications arise that pertain to the specific challenge of taking music that is highly characteristic of a group of personalities and giving it a life independent of them. Some of the problems that occur involve arrangements and performances that are so different from the Marx Brothers’ style that the spirit of the filmed versions is lost. Alternately, recordings that channel too much of the zaniness of the Marx Brothers seem slightly cartoonish.

The arrangements that were distributed to the bandleaders of the time followed in their lyrics the version that Zeppo sings in the film, which as we have seen is the least riddled by subversive commentary of all three versions sung by the Marx Brothers. The way that Zeppo performed that version and the way that the bands did is partially what I intend to discuss in the paragraphs that follow (where for convenience’s sake I will refer to the lyrics that Zeppo delivers and the lyrics that are performed in popular recordings as simply “the lyrics”). This standard version of the song was recorded by at least nine artists from late 1932 to early 1933.

The 1932 recording by Isham Jones and His Orchestra (v. Eddie Stone, Victor 24118) and the BBC Dance Orchestra recording of the same year (Henry Hall dir./v. Les Allen, Columbia CB-545) are probably two of the finest arrangements of the song, but both suffer from too much estrangement from the song’s comic roots. In the Isham Jones version, Eddie Stone gives the most precise enunciation of the singers whose recordings I have surveyed, which has the effect of distancing the song from the Marx Brothers’ original thick New York accents. His plosive p’s are especially attention-getting and have the effect of making the recording sound somewhat stiff. All in all, Stone’s performance seems a bit too far removed from the universe of the Marx Brothers movie—a universe that, because it persists in the lyrics must somehow be accommodated by the performance, and he sounds mismatched with the song’s content. The arrangement, however, is inventive, with the first section reproducing the original Kalmar and Ruby tune and a second section that is a creative variation on the first, leading into the vocal refrain that again matches the original melody.

The Henry Hall version has the big, lush sound characteristic of his recordings and is particularly heavy on the saxophone. Hall’s singer, Les Allen, has a slightly academic voice, which again sounds at odds with the material, and his singing is closely accompanied by the strings, which contributes to our sense that his performance is strangely delicate. Overall, the Hall version is a bit slower than the other recordings, somewhat more plodding even. While technically impressive, it lacks the spirit of its Marx Brothers counterpart.

The 1933 recording by Jay Wilbur and His Band (appearing as Phil Allen’s Merrymakers with vocals by Louis Spiro, Eclipse 359) is demonstrative of another problem typical of the dance band renditions of this song. The orchestral introduction is bouncy, with a staccato melody line and a strong brass component, and the effect is that the song feels a bit like a jazzed-up version of something that might accompany a cartoon—perhaps reminiscent of the Merrie Melodies animated shorts that debuted in theaters in 1931. The lyrics seem a good match for this presentation: the vicissitudes of state alluded to in the words are well matched by this just slightly goofy arrangement. Nevertheless, much as we are pushed and pulled in the Marx Brothers’ own versions of this song between elements of ridicule and profundity, so, too, in Jay Wilbur’s recording we are encouraged to experience both the silly and the sophisticated. Lest we should think that Wilbur’s recording is a novelty piece, Louis Spiro’s vocal injects a good deal of warmth and refinement into the song. The singing is set off in contrast by a trumpet in the background that is not playing the melody line but rather lends a jazzy counterpoint, bringing with it an element of maturity.

While in the Isham Jones and Henry Hall recordings, it is evident that a certain kind of distancing from the madcap roots of the song can backfire, it also becomes clear in recordings such as Jay Wilbur’s that one of the challenges of performing “Everyone Says ‘I Love You’” lies in creating a version that is not dependent on the Marx Brothers’ personalities for sense or adornment. For this reason, the lyrics that Zeppo delivers are a good choice for reproduction on shellac. The most palatable, the most universal, the least tied to an idiosyncratic Marx Brothers personality, they make for appropriate material for recordings that cannot depend on the audience’s knowledge of Horse Feathers for their success. Zeppo is known for playing the straight man in the early Marx Brothers films. Usually the subject of a love plot, he typically serves in the role of the foil to the anarchic antics of his three other brothers. Accordingly, his songs normally reflect his temperate, non-manic role in the comedies. Yet ironically, the comparatively tame version of “Everyone Says ‘I Love You’” that Zeppo sings sounds potentially colorful, spirited, and quite strange in the hands of non-Marx Brothers performers such as Louis Spiro. One of the things that can stick out in a performance of “Everyone Says ‘I Love You,’” no matter how artfully it is carried out, is the potential for the recording to sound a little too playful, a bit out of character for the performer in question.

A recording that overcame this conflict, also in 1932, was made by Anson Weeks and His Music featuring the Moreing Sisters (Brunswick 6391). The orchestral introduction is bouncy, much like Wilbur’s, also with prominent brass instruments playing staccato notes, and yet when the Moreing Sisters begin to sing, the song instantly sounds not as if it is making an obvious allusion to the Marx Brothers’ silliness but rather as if it were an original creation written for the Moreings, or even similar close-harmonists such as the Boswell Sisters. Their vocals do not strictly follow the melody laid out in the film. Instead they tend to sing the first two lines of each stanza in a way that is faithful to the melody but then depart from it in the remaining two lines. They achieve a certain amount of playfulness, but it is a playfulness that they have created, rather than one that the song’s origins have imposed upon them. Their recording is also the only one I have heard that stresses the word “Everyone” as “EV-ry-ONE” (versus other singers’ equally stressed “EV-RY-ONE”); this choice signals their departure from the way other performers sing this song, including the Marx Brothers themselves.

A completely instrumental version was recorded by the Phil Harris Orchestra as a broadcast excerpt in 1932. It features strong brass and keyboard elements, lasts nearly four minutes, and cycles through the length of the song five times, varying the parts slightly with each repeat and speeding up towards the end. I must confess, I feel while listening to it that I am confined in a dance band elevator that will never quite reach the destined floor. The song loses something when the lyrics are omitted. Because the Harris recording is purely instrumental, it is actually more evocative of Harpo’s performance in the film than of any of the other interludes. Yet interestingly, in contrast to the Harris version, Harpo’s instrumental transcends the issue of its missing vocal. The arrangement for the harp is so inventive that it does not rely on repetition to fill out time, and Harpo’s resulting glissandos and frills are beautiful and very moving.

Woody Allen, who worships both the Marx Brothers and early jazz, named his 1996 musical comedy Everyone Says I Love You after the very song I have been discussing. The song seems to summarize for him so much of what he adores about these performers, but also about the popular recorded music of the early twentieth century that he uses in the film. In his earlier movie Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Allen’s character is suicidal but comes across Duck Soup playing in a local theater and finds salvation in the screening. Life may be meaningless, he concludes, but it is worth living while there are people like the Marx Brothers spreading joy to others. Ultimately, the conclusion that taking delight in others makes life worthwhile relates in its social component to the assertion that love is a great global equalizer.

When distilling the essence of the Marx Brothers, Allen turns to the uplifting and life-affirming quality of their performances. Perhaps we should not be surprised that recorded music did the same: it chose to embrace the lyrics of “Everyone Says ‘I Love You’” that are most clearly encouraging and to forgo the cynicism of the other versions in Horse Feathers. But while Zeppo’s theme of love’s universality is aligned with messaging that developed as the Depression spread worldwide, we should bear in mind that the Depression gave birth both to powerful expressions of unity and collectivism and to the subversive undermining of those expressions, as evinced by the Marx Brothers’ career. In other words, there was room in the world at the time for all of the versions of “Everyone Says ‘I Love You.’” Those who are interested in the subversive worldview will simply have to forgo shellac and turn instead to celluloid.

1I should note that this is by no means the only time that this format occurred in early 1930s cinema. Horse Feathers songwriters Kalmar and Ruby used one song as a tool to unify the major characters in the film Kentucky Kernels (1934), for which they also served as screenwriters (they contributed to the script for Horse Feathers, too). In Kentucky Kernels, the song “One Little Kiss” is sung by all of the major characters in a single montage.