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Marx Brothers rewatch thoughts

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been binge-rewatching my Marx Brothers DVD sets, and I thought I’d post some brief thoughts on them all. There are 12 “proper” Marx Brothers movies — five from Paramount from 1929-33, five from MGM from 1935-41, one from RKO Radio Pictures in 1938, and one from United Artists in 1946. There’s also a borderline case from UA in 1949. Through the vagaries of film library rights transfers, the Paramount films are on a set from Universal Home Video and the MGM and other films are on a set from Warner Home Video.

The Cocoanuts (1929): This was adapted from a Marx Brothers stage show, and it feels like it. Not their best film by any means, but it sets the template for both the Paramount films and the MGM films (and is closer to the latter’s plot structure in some ways). It establishes the basic roles that carry throughout the films. Groucho is an unlikely authority figure and something of a grifter, in this case a broke hotel manager trying to make money any way he can. Chico and Harpo are pickpockets and thieves, but Chico gets a comedic piano solo and Harpo gets a straight harp solo. (I love these parts. Seeing the zany Harpo become so serious and focused on his beautiful harp playing is such a striking contrast.) Zeppo, the straight man, is barely there as the desk clerk. Margaret Dumont is the rich widow Groucho tries to woo, and the mother of the young female romantic lead, who wants to marry working-class male lead Bob, but Dumont wants her to marry the upper-class villain, who’s conspiring with the vamp to steal Dumont’s necklace and frame Bob for it. It presages the MGM formula where the Marx boys end up helping the young couple win out, but doesn’t really develop it well, since Chico and Harpo barely interact with Bob before they end up randomly saving him in the last act. Notable for a couple of reasonably good Irving Berlin songs and the Groucho-Chico “Why a duck?” sketch that sets the template for their later routines.

Animal Crackers (’30): One of the best and most famous Marx films. Groucho is Captain Spaulding, the African explorer — the first of several Groucho characters that are inexplicably revered despite acting like, well, Groucho. As usual, he’s trying to marry Margaret Dumont(‘s money) yet insulting her constantly. Chico and Harpo are musicians and con artists, recruited by the young romantic leads to help them swap out a painting that the villains intend to steal to humiliate Dumont. Zeppo is Spaulding’s secretary, getting his most notable comic scene when he takes a letter. Lots of classic songs and sketches here, like Spaulding’s account of his adventures, Groucho and Chico’s banter, and the surreal three-way flirtation scene with random Eugene O’Neill strange interludes. But Harpo’s a bit too belligerent here with his aggressive girl-chasing and a bridge-playing scene where he gets kind of violent with Dumont (although what he does when he finally catches a girl is completely innocent).

Monkey Business (’31): My least favorite of the Paramount films, because the Marxes have no identities or character motivations in this one and just feel randomly shoved into what passes for its story. They’re just four anonymous passenger-ship stowaways who spend the first reel dodging the crew before stumbling into a feud between gangsters. It’s less interesting without the tension between Groucho as the faux-authority figure subverting the establishment from within and Chico and Harpo as the ruffians subverting it from without, and the weird adversary/ally relationship that results between them. But it’s probably the best showing for Zeppo, who gets to be the romantic/action lead this time, wooing the daughter of the reformed gangster. The climax doesn’t work too well, since the daughter gets kidnapped and the brothers inexplicably take the lead in going to her rescue, yet all of them but Zeppo are cavalier and unconcerned about rescuing the kidnap victim, or about helping Zeppo as he fights the abductor. So a sequence that would’ve been funny with less dangerous stakes instead feels kind of inappropriate and callous. It has its moments, like all the Marx Brothers films do, but it’s forgettable to me.

Horse Feathers (’32): This fortunately reverts to the standard formula, with Groucho as a supposedly great dean brought in to save a struggling college. But his son — Zeppo, again as the romantic lead — convinces him that what the college needs is a winning football team. Chico and Harpo are bootleggers that Groucho mistakenly recruits as football players, while the actual players become ringers for the rival team and serve as the film’s villains. (In an oddly intellectual in-joke, Groucho’s college is Huxley and the rival is Darwin.) Notable for Groucho’s famous song “Whatever It Is, I’m Against It,” the speakeasy password scene with Groucho and Chico, and the climactic slapstick football scene, which establishes the tradition of Harpo using his cartoon-character powers to save the day. A reasonably good one.

Duck Soup (’33): The absolute best of the Paramount films if not the entire Marx canon. None of the others had me laughing this constantly. Groucho is Rufus T. Firefly, appointed dictator of tiny, cash-strapped Freedonia at the insistence of Dumont. Chico and Harpo are inept spies for the ambassador from Sylvania, who’s trying to take over the country by stealth. They somehow end up as both allies and adversaries to Firefly, who’s his and Freedonia’s own worst enemy, constantly digging the country into a deeper hole through his impulsiveness. Under cover as a peanut vendor, Harpo also gets into a rivalry with a lemonade vendor played by well-known “slow burn” comedian Edgar Kennedy, which adds a funny new dynamic. Zeppo is back to the secretary role and largely irrelevant. Notable for the utterly classic mirror scene where Harpo pretends to be Groucho’s reflection, for Chico’s trial scene, and for the unrelenting slapstick in the climactic war sequence. The one real deficiency, aside from the randomness with which Chico and Harpo switch allegiances, is that it lacks their piano and harp solos. (Though I wonder if a piano scene for Chico was cut, because in one shot he’s standing by Dumont’s piano, and a few seconds later he’s gone.) It’s also the only Marx film without a pair of young lovers in the cast.

A Night at the Opera (’35): The first of the big-budget MGM films that established a new formula, brainstormed by producer Irving Thalberg. While the Paramount films had been set in farcical worlds where the Marxes could get away with anything, MGM’s films put them in a more grounded world with more coherent storytelling, as well as making them more sympathetic by directing their antics more toward helping the young lovers and confounding the villains. Groucho is Margaret Dumont’s business manager and wooer, and he’s helping her invest in an opera company run by the obnoxious Gottlieb (Sig Ruman). Harpo is the villainous tenor’s abused dresser, shown sympathy by female lead Kitty Carlisle, who’s pursued by the villain but only has eyes for a less famous singer played by Allan Jones. Jones is old friends with Chico, who convinces Groucho to sign him in the classic contract scene, featuring one of the all-time great punchlines. The movie handles the steamship/stowaway plot much better than Monkey Business did. Jones and Carlisle are strong singers and actors and effective leads, and MGM pulls out all the stops on the big production numbers and the action climax. (The Chico and Harpo musical solos are back with a vengeance.) But the highlight is the famous crowded-stateroom scene. The best of the MGM films, and competitive with Duck Soup as their best ever.

A Day at the Races (’36): The last film Thalberg was involved with, because he died during production. Brings back Allan Jones as the romantic lead, but this time opposite Maureen O’Sullivan (best known as Jane in the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan films), who’s wonderfully classy and elegant here, though she doesn’t sing. She’s the owner of a sanitarium whose survival depends on the generosity of Dumont, a hypochondriac patient who wants Groucho’s Dr. Hackenbush to run the establishment. But Hackenbush is actually a horse doctor. This is a new twist, in that Groucho is no longer unquestioningly accepted, but is overtly a con man in danger of being found out by the villains, including Morgan (Douglass Dumbrille), the abusive former owner of Jones’s race horse and the man who wants to tear down the sanitarium. This one has weaker humor in the first half, though there’s better stuff later on. I’m not that fond of the racetrack-tout sketch where Chico cons Groucho, because it make Groucho look too naive; I prefer the older formula where Groucho’s the smart one but is confounded by Chico’s linguistic misunderstandings, or where they’re both conning each other equally. The movie also debuts a sketch where Harpo tries to give Chico an important message through charades, a routine they’d reuse in later films. The musical sequences are hit-and-miss, including a musically impressive African-American slum sequence that was probably considered racially inclusive for the time but has some problematical elements by modern standards.

Room Service (’38): An odd sidebar in which the Marxes were loaned out to RKO to adapt a play that wasn’t written for them. (The deal was made by Zeppo, now working as the brothers’ agent.) It’s about a broke theater-troupe manager (Groucho) using various cons to avoid getting thrown out of a hotel. It’s not very funny, and the young male romantic lead is annoying. The funniest bit is a wordless, slapstick meal sequence with the Brothers, probably added for the film. Notable for featuring Lucille Ball as the female lead, though she’s wasted in the role. (Though she’d get something out of it, since she and Desi Arnaz later bought RKO and renamed it Desilu. Which is the first tenuous connection between the Marx Brothers and Star Trek, aside from both of them being Paramount franchises at one time or another.) Not worth it unless you’re a completist.

At the Circus (’39): Back to MGM and its established formula, as circus employee Chico hires private detective Groucho to help save a circus owned by Margaret Dumont’s rebellious son, so that he can marry his lady love. Naturally, villains are out to take the circus away by any means necessary. Harpo is again the abused assistant of the secondary villain, a strongman who oddly wears the same kind of curly wig as Harpo. Eve Arden plays the vamp working with the villains. Notable for introducing the Groucho song “Lydia the Tattooed Lady.” This isn’t as well-received as the previous two MGM films, but I found it a lot funnier than A Day at the Races. Maybe it was just in contrast to the dullness of Room Service, but I really liked this one. All three brothers are in fine comic form, though Groucho’s toupee is unfortunate.

Go West (’40): These titles are starting to sound rather prosaic, but keep in mind that the posters showed them underneath “GROUCHO – CHICO – HARPO – MARX BROS.,” so it’s basically like saying The Marx Brothers at the Circus or The Marx Brothers Go West. Anyway, this is their only period piece, set in 1870, as the brothers go out west to dig for gold (more figuratively in Groucho’s case) and end up helping the romantic couple hold onto a valuable deed to land that the railroad wants to buy and the villains want to steal. Probably the first Marx Bros. film with onscreen killing (it is a Western, after all). Notable for the sketch where Chico and Harpo con Groucho into giving them change for the same $10 bill over and over — it’s a bit like the racetrack routine I mentioned before, but Groucho holds his own better because he’s trying to con them too. The big train-chase climax is fairly fun, though these climaxes are getting more over-the-top and slapstick-driven. This film has my least favorite harp solo, because it has Harpo very unconvincingly turn a rug loom in a Native American village into a makeshift harp, with the harp music dubbed in, rather spoiling the illusion.

The Big Store (’41): The final MGM film, with Groucho again playing a detective, hired by Dumont to protect her singer nephew from second-time villain Douglass Dumbrille, who wants to kill him to take possession of the high-end department store he owns. (These movies are getting more violent!) Harpo is Groucho’s man Friday, the first time he’s started out teamed with Groucho rather than Chico. Some good gags here and there, but a couple are too labored, like the extended “novelty beds” sequence with all sorts of weird beds coming out of the walls, and the overly long slapstick climax. But it has a couple of noteworthy musical sequences. The big production number “Sing While You Sell” is rather good and features a cameo solo by singer Virginia O’Brien, known for her trademark deadpan singing style, staring ahead unblinkingly and expressionlessly while singing otherwise normally, which is oddly compelling and slightly creepy. Chico and Harpo did their only four-handed piano duet, bringing fresh interest and comedy to the routine. (They also get a brief piano-harp duet during the otherwise clumsy “Tenement Symphony” production number.) And Harpo has his most glorious harp scene ever, a fantasy sequence where he plays Mozart’s Sonata in C Major while dressed in fancy clothes and a powdered wig and forms a trio with his reflections in a pair of ornate mirrors. An inconsistent film, but I like it.

A Night in Casablanca (’46): This reunion film from United Artists, a riff on Casablanca and similar films, follows the MGM formula pretty closely. Groucho comes full circle to play a hotel manager again, in danger from disguised Nazi Sig Ruman (his second turn as a primary villain, his third appearance overall), since there’s hidden Nazi treasure in the hotel and Ruman wants to take it over in order to find it. All the usual MGM tropes are there. (The romantic male lead is Charles Drake, who two decades later would play Commodore Stocker in Star Trek: “The Deadly Years,” our second connection.) There are a number of good comedy sequences — Harpo messing around with Ruman and his henchmen, Chico and Harpo packing the restaurant with tables to clean up on bribes from aspiring customers, Groucho and the vamp moving from room to room as Chico tries to interrupt the seduction, and the trio driving Ruman crazy by secretly unpacking his clothes while he packs them, to delay his escape. Not a bad swan song for the trio.

Although… there is one more film that should arguably be counted, though the Brothers themselves preferred to ignore it. It’s not on my DVD sets, but I found it on YouTube.

Love Happy (’49): Not quite a Marx Brothers movie — more a Harpo movie with Chico co-starring and Groucho tacked on as a “narrator” who barely participates in the story, since that was the only way Harpo could get financing for what he intended as a solo vehicle. Otherwise, it follows the familiar formula, with Harpo and Chico helping a pair of young lovers trying to keep a cash-strapped theater troupe afloat. Harpo ends up in possession of a stolen necklace that the villain (Ilona Massey) is trying to find, with help of henchmen including Raymond Burr. There’s some decent comedy from Harpo, and he carries a lot of the film with his endearing persona, but it’s weak overall, and has some ill-conceived bits involving a brutal offscreen beating and a “comedy” musical number that makes light of child abuse. The Harpo-Chico material relies too heavily on the familiar “charades” routine. And it’s the only time Groucho is almost completely unfunny, because his material stinks and he hardly has anyone to play off. (The best-known aspect of this film is a random, brief walk-on by Marilyn Monroe in one of her first screen roles. It was before she went platinum blonde and adopted her infantile persona, so it’s the only film in which I find her at all sexy.) The three brothers never appear together except in one shot where they don’t interact. Worth it for Harpo fans, but a slog otherwise. (And it has more Trek connections — Fred Phillips did the makeup and Howard Anderson did the visual effects.)

There was one more film that featured Groucho, Chico, and Harpo, Irwin Allen’s unfunny comedy epic The Story of Mankind in 1957, but the three brothers appeared in separate, brief sketches and never interacted, so it can hardly be considered a Marx Brothers film. It’s not worth reviewing here, but I talked about it in a few posts on the TrekBBS a few years ago, starting here.

So… Overall, a pretty good run, with only a couple of real duds. Even the weaker Paramount and MGM films had a lot of memorable material. Hard to say which era I prefer. The Brothers did get a little more domesticated and inhibited in the MGM era, and they had to share more screen time with non-comedic romantic leads; plus the MGM movies were quite formulaic, all variations on the same pattern. But the Brothers were also more sympathetic in the MGM films. Their personalities were basically the same, but tempered by more compassion. And I don’t mind Chico and Harpo being tamer and sweeter, because they were both really good at it. The edgier Paramount stuff was fun, but Harpo’s early antics were sometimes too edgy and aggressive. Harpo was really very charming, and the MGM era brought that out more fully. As for Groucho, his evolution from Paramount to MGM reminds me of Bugs Bunny’s evolution from the early Tex Avery days to the later Chuck Jones days — initially just a wise guy making trouble for fun, but eventually becoming more a comic hero and defender of the helpless. But post-Paramount Groucho was often more the butt of the joke than the perpetrator — often willingly letting himself be led astray by the vamp, or suspecting that Chico is conning him but not quite catching on. But that fallibility made him a more effective hero, since it introduced the risk of failure.

I don’t think I can really decide which era I prefer. I think both are essential to the whole. And I’m glad I have the complete set, though now I know there are a couple I can skip in the future.

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