Horatio Alger and The Queen’s Gambit

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The Netflix’s series The Queen’s Gambit is based on Walter Tevis novel. which is part of a long tradition of Horatio Alger characters.

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow

La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

The Queen’s Gambit released by Netflix looks to be an ultra-modern series with state of the art set design and touching on a whole set of current issues – such as drug addiction and feminism. Yet the story is a particularly old fashioned Horatio Alger style tale, which is almost the quintessential American myth. Alger was a Nineteenth-Century writer whose central characters rise through meticulousness and industry to become a respected society member.[1] In many ways, the central character Beth Harmon, played with style by Anya Taylor-Joy, represents the traditional Alger protagonist. A creature of the 19th century, Horatio Alger’s characters were invariably young men. Despite the difference in gender, Harmon resembles one of his characters perfectly. Beth comes from the humblest of origins. Harmon worked hard at her craft – which in this case is chess. She succeeds through a combination of hard work and the astonishing mental gifts bestowed on her. Her gender is a barrier, and she still has to break into the chess world, but the doors were open to her through the vastly superior American system.

Alger’s central characters are usually young, white men living in big cities with low-paying jobs. Published in 1868, Alger’s first major work Ragged Dick followed the story of a young boy working as a shoeshine on New York streets. Dick befriends a customer who gives him five dollars for a service. The protagonist then uses that small sum to create a small fortune through being frugal and mostly through hard work. In The Queen’s Gambit, Beth is also given five dollars to play in a state chess tournament by a kindly janitor who taught her how to play chess. She wins the tournament and moves onto becoming US champion, before taking on the world.

In contrast, the Soviet system is no place for genius, but it allows a player such as her rival Bogrov to succeed. He is a machine, who shows no flashes of brilliance, but can crush any opponent in the end game. In the Soviet system, players with ability are hand picked by the Soviet bureaucracy, and drilled to play at their best. The state provides every assistance, and the players are a team who help each other, planning how to beat their foreign opponents.

The show depicts Harmon’s friends rallying to her assistance to meet the Soviet team on equal terms. They eventually adopt the Soviet collegiate system, where players support each other, which is a departure from the Alger myth. Beth Harmon is based on Bobby Fischer, an United States chess genius who broke the Soviet Union’s stranglehold in a cold war showdown in 1972.[2] The show does not mention that the Soviet Union dominated chess from 1948 until Fischer loosened their grip in 1972. While one of the greatest players in chess history, Fischer was only a blip to Soviet domination. It is rarely mentioned that the Soviets retook and retained command of the sport until 1990 when the Soviet Union fell apart. Russia retained its grip for a while, and it still has two players in the top ten.

Fischer and Harmon have similar traits, such as learning Russian, and both are outsiders who are obsessed with chess. In the 21st century version of the Alger myth, the protagonist must fight both external forces and internal demons. Beth Harmon must deal with her parent’s separation, her mother’s death, being an unwanted orphan in a dreadful school, a remote stepfather, a loving but crushed stepmother coupled with a drug and alcohol problem. Beth is also compared to Paul Morphy of the 19th century, one of the finest players of the era, who dazzled the world with his brilliant attacking play, then went mad after being compelled to stop. 

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A distant ancestor of Beth Harmon is Harold Lloyd, who triumphs against adversity. While Harmon had to conquer a Russian giant in chess, Lloyd had to conquer a building in Safety Last. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Horatio Alger provided the basis for many cinematic heroes. In the silent period, Harold Lloyd was the personification of the Horatio Alger myth. With his get up and go, the Lloyd character conquered massive obstacles to his ambition, of which the climb up the side of the multi-storey building in Safety Last was the most famous. Despite his glasses, his tenacity would win over the biggest obstacle and strongest opponent.

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Horatio Alger in boxing: Rocky Balboa triumphed in boxing against the USSR in Rocky IV. Beth Harmon’s triumph is far more dignified. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

In more recent times, the boxer depicted in Rocky is a prime example. A loser Rocky Balboa is given one chance to fight the world champion. He trains hard and then comes close to beating Apollo Creed. In later sequels, like The Queen’s Gambit, it developed a cold war edge with Rocky going up against an inhuman Soviet Goliath and triumphing. In contrast, Beth Harmon goes up against Russians who are ruthlessly competitive, but also courteous and dignified. This a post-Cold War series and we are allowed to see the Russians as human. While Bogrov can destroy any opponent, he is polite, respectful in defeat and triumph, and appears to be a dedicated family man. He even seems genuinely happy at Harmon’s triumph.

At the time of writing, The Queen’s Gambit, is the most popular TV show on Netflix. The success of TV series shows how underlying Horatio Alger myths retain a stranglehold on the American imagination. The story may shift from a young man to a woman. It may shift from commerce to boxing to chess, but the myth remains in firmly in place.


[1] For a discussion  on  Horatio Alger see Weiss, Richard. The American Myth of Success : From Horatio Alger to Norman Vincent Peale. New York: Basic Books, 1969.

[2] Edmonds, David & John Eidinow. Bobby Fischer Goes to War: How the Soviets Lost the Most Extraordinary Chess Match of All Time  provides an excellent account of the 1972 world championship.

Feydeau to Marx to Spike to Python

Occupe toi d’Amelie (1948) a film adaptation of Feydeau’s work . The poster is a fine example of Cromiere’s artwork. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Kevin Brianton

Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University

The streaming services are reviving interest in one of the excellent comedy writing teams of all time: Monty Python, a British team that dominated comedy on television and film from the late 1960s through to the 1980s. It is a pleasure to see the fish slapping scene and the brilliance of the dead parrot sketch. The pythons openly acknowledge their debt to Spike Milligan, and Milligan is clear that the Marx Brothers influenced him. This transatlantic comedic cross-fertilization has produced some astonishing results, and we are all the richer for it.

But possibly, there is a distant French relative to this family tree. Georges Feydeau was France’s leading writer of farces  – which he referred to as “vaudevilles” – since the early 1890s. He wrote about 40. Many critics have noted the similarities between the Marx Brothers and Feydeau.

The New York Times film critic Vincent Canby wrote: “Some people like to talk rather weightily about the similarity in the lunatic logic that dominates the best of the Marx Brothers movies and Georges Feydeau’s elaborate French farces. For Canby, the Marx Brothers movies were collections of brilliant individual routines, almost like a machine gun popping off with no routine running into the other. “While each Feydeau play is a single, breathless routine in itself, designed to be framed by a proscenium arch for a spectator who, sitting in a fixed position, can appreciate the comedy of simultaneous actions and reactions. Canby argued that turning a movie camera on a Feydeau play would destroy its structure.[1]

Canby is relatively dismissive of A Flea In Her Ear (1968), which is a play by Georges Feydeau written in 1907, at the height of the Belle Époque, adapted by John Mortimer and directed by Jacques Charon. Canby’s criticism is valid to a certain extent, but Occupe-toi d’Amelie or “Keep an Eye on Amelie,” directed by Claude Autant-Lara, may give him pause. As Leslie Halliwell noted in his book Halliwell’s Hundred, it begins outside the cinema and does not pause for breath for its entire length. It begins with a running man, and the pace does not slacken for a moment.[2]

In 1948, after the revival of the play Occupe-toi d’Amelie, Autant-Lara began adapting the famous play by Feydeau, in collaboration with Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost. The authors decided to develop the characters in a contemporary context, rather than the turn of the century. It was located at the Palais-Royal theater. In the film, Parisian cocotte (Danielle Darrieux) agrees to a mock marriage ceremony, and in turn, is deceived by an actual ceremony, but manages to outwit a fate worse than death – middle-class respectability. Claude Autant-Lara’s direction is very fast, a surprising change of pace from his other work, such as The Red and Black, which also starredDanielle Darrieux.

It is hard to know if the Marx Brothers were aware of the Feydeau farces. They all appeared in Vaudeville for many years and moved to the theatre. The door to Hollywood opened when sound was introduced. It is hard to imagine the Marx Brothers without sound. So it is entirely possible that they were aware of the plays. Feydeau’s The Girl from Maxim’s was in Broadway in 1899, when the Marx Brother were infants. But The Girl from Montmartre ran from August 1912 to April 1913, and Breakfast in Bed had appeared on Broadway in 1920. In 1924, the Marx Brothers appeared on Broadway, but Feydeau’s plays could have been an influence, as they had been in Vaudeville since 1905.[3]

What is certain is that they both draw from the same well of anarchic comedy. There is one scene where lines between the play and the audience are blurred and then erased. The same idea would appear in the Marx Brothers, Spike Milligan and eventually Monty Python. Maybe a long bow, but who knows.

People interested in Occupe Toi Amelie can easily find the DVD, but like many French films, it isn’t easy to source it with English subtitles.


[1] Vincent, Canby, “Screen: ‘Flea in Her Ear’: Charon Directs Movie of a Play by Feydeau,” New York Times, 28 November, 1968.

[2] Halliwell, Leslie. Halliwell’s Hundred : A Nostalgic Choice of Films from the Golden Age. London ; New York: Granada, 1982, 243- 246.

[3] Internet Broadway database, https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/georges-feydeau-5878, accessed on 4 September 2020.