The Marx Brothers in ROOM SERVICE (1938) – Mid-level Marxes, but still fairly funny

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The following is my entry in the Made in 1938 Blogathon, being hosted by, respectively, Crystal and Robin at their blogs In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Pop Culture Reverie from Jan. 16-19, 2019. Click on the above banner to read bloggers’ takes on movies that were released in the year 1938!

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After ten minutes of watching Room Service, it’s perfectly obvious that the movie (a) has been adapted from a stage play and (b) was not originally written for the Marx Brothers. But if you can get past those barriers, it turns out to be one of their funnier late-’30s movies.

Its story is that Gordon Miller (Groucho), producer of a premiering play titled “Hail and Farewell,” is holing himself and his cast up in a hotel that is none too pleased about his non-payments. Gordon’s plan is to stall hotel boss Wagner (Donald McBride) until 10:30 of the night of the play’s debut, at which time it will be a solid hit and he can pay his debts.

Let’s get the movie’s contrivances out of the way first. For a movie that the Marxes did “on loan” (at RKO), its script looks like it came right out of the M-G-M Formula Book. The billing and cooing between the play’s author, Leo Davis (Frank Albertson), and an ingenue (Ann Miller) plays just like the sappy romantic subplots that stopped the Marxes’ M-G-M movies dead in their tracks. And the role of one-note villain Wagner wouldn’t have been at all out of line for Douglas Dumbrille or Sig Rumann to play. (History has noted that screenwriter Morrie Ryskind had to tone down the original play’s adult language for the screen. Still, you have to wonder about the managerial skills of a manager who constantly jumps up and down and yells, “Jumping butterballs!”)

But Jackie Gleason once said that there are three stages in a comic’s career. Stage One is when the act is fresh and surprising; Stage Two is when the act is familiar but the audience looks forward to the familiar gestures; Stage Three is when the act is stale and the audience couldn’t care less. Happily, Room Service finds the Marxes in Stage Two. (We’ll get to Stage Three when we discuss the later M-G-M movies.)

Groucho remains the fast-talking con man, Chico still has a one-track mind of non-sequitors (for no good reason, he wants to hang on to a prized, stuffed moose head), and Harpo remains startlingly resourceful. (When Groucho and Chico temporarily put on every piece of clothing they can in order to desert the hotel, Harpo makes his first entrance shirtless.)

And there are plenty of big laughs. Harpo’s insistence on chasing a live turkey to catch him for dinner, even after they’ve already eaten, is typical of his id-powered brain. And the eating scene itself is one of the Marxes’ funniest bits. (One great shot shows Harpo from a food’s-eye view, as though the camera is just one more thing waiting to be stuffed into Harpo’s mouth.)

This is a movie where the Marxes’ personalities have to carry the load, and unlike their later M-G-M efforts, they mostly succeed here. Lucille Ball, in one of her pre-“I Love Lucy” roles, also serves as an excellent foil to Groucho.

Room Service shows the Marx Brothers at a satisfactory mid-level — they’ll never hit the heights of their first M-G-M movies again, but it’s far better than their later M-G-M movies.

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The Marx Brothers in A DAY AT THE RACES (1937) – Long live Dr. Hackenbush!

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The following is my entry in the Medicine in the Movies Blogathon, being hosted May 26-28, 2017 at the blog Charlene’s (Mostly) Classic Movie Reviews. Click on the above banner to read bloggers’ tributes to medicos in the movies!

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

A Day at the Races is a bit of a comedown after The Marx Bros. smash hit A Night at the Opera, but then most things are.

Happily, the sense of worsening decay that marred the Marx Brothers’ final M-G-M films is not wholly present here, but there are some bad omens. The movie has two monstrosities that, if they’d been removed, would have lessened Races‘ load considerably.

One is the Water Carnival, an outrageously lavish production number that looks as though Broadway would be too small to hold it. The second, even more horrifying scene is when Harpo trundles through a black community containing every African-American stereotype known to man, and all of the blacks seize upon Harpo as “Gabriel.” This is only worsened when all three Marxes don blackface (!) as a supposed tribute to their black comrades. (Even when the Gabriel bit was reprised in At the Circus, it at least wasn’t the jaw-dropper it is here.)

That’s a great pity, because the comedy here is as great as anything the Marxes ever delivered. The premise is that sanitarium owner Judy (Maureen O’Sullivan) has 30 days to fend off the advances of Morgan (Douglass Dumbrille), who wants to foreclose on the sanitarium and turn it into a casino to complement his nearby race track. Judy’s fortune hinges on the huge fortune of Mrs. Upjohn (Margaret Dumont), who (shades of Duck Soup) will help Judy only if she will install her quack doctor, Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush (Groucho), as the sanitarium head.

Races might well be Groucho Marx’s finest hour with the Marx Brothers. Chico and Harpo are hardly lacking for laughs (the charade scene and their interruption of Groucho’s hot date are both superb), but Groucho is the star attraction here — wheeling, dealing, dancing (see below), and basically proving himself to be as much of a phony as the villains believe him to be. He never operated at such full steam again in a movie, with or without his brothers.

Actually, producer Irving Thalberg’s choice of a sanitarium as a setting seems a bit bizarre, or at least dated. People can still relate to operatic pretensions being smashed, but let’s face it, do we really care whether or not the sanitarium gets saved? But as a clothesline on which to hang some great scenes and gags, it serves its purpose — whatever that is.

As well-documented elsewhere, A Day at the Races was the Marxes’ last hurrah before settling into ’40s formula. So enjoy it — water carnival and all.

(Less than six degrees of Marx separation: Nearly 50 years after A Day at the Races, Maureen O’Sullivan played a supporting role in Woody Allen’s glorious Hannah and Her Sisters [1986], where Woody’s climactic scene shows him watching Duck Soup as an affirmation of the good things in life.)

The Marx Brothers in AT THE CIRCUS (1939) – Peanuts to you!

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The following is my contribution to the At the Circus Blogathon, being hosted Nov. 11-13, 2016 at the blogs Critica Retro and Serendipitous Anachronisms. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ take on a wide range of circus-themed movies!

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Everything that’s wrong with At the Circus is encapsulated in its first ten minutes. Before two whole Marx Brothers are together on-screen at the same time, we’ve had:

* Margaret Dumont being fourth-billed in the supporting-cast credits;

* MGM’s fancy idea of a small-time circus, complete with neon lighting;

* two musical numbers from The Couple Nobody Cares About; and

* Kenny Baker as part of that couple — easily the simpiest romantic lead in a Marx movie (and that’s saying something).

And when two Marxes finally do get together, it’s no cause for celebration. The movie’s premise is that all that’s standing in the way of would-be circus owner Jeff Wilson (Baker) and his true love Julie Randall (Florence Rice) is the $10,000 that the circus’ owner stole from Jeff so that he couldn’t pay off his circus bill. So Jeff’s cohort Tony (Chico) brings in his “best friend in the world” J. Cheever Loophole (Groucho) to solve the case.

With best friends like Chico, Groucho doesn’t need enemies. Tony, the very man who called for Loophole’s help in the first place, keeps pushing Loophole out into the rain because he doesn’t have the proper badge to get on the train. Once he finally gets on the train (and the movie never shows how he gets on — he just is on), Loophole tries to extract a cigar from a midget suspect (Jerry Maren, a quarter-century before he strew confetti on “The Gong Show”) to match some of the crime scene’s evidence — only Tony keeps offering Loophole his own cigars instead, at the same time complaining that Loophole isn’t getting any evidence. These, sadly, are the movie’s first attempts at Marx Bros. comedy scenes.

Also, villainess Peerless Pauline is played by Eve Arden. Although she was only 28 years old at the time of filming, and her circus costume certainly shows her long legs off nicely, her character is such a priss as to make Our Miss Brooks come off as a siren. Margaret Dumont exudes more sex appeal than Arden does in this movie.

The one who comes off best, at least for a while, is Harpo, who keeps making silent but wacko commentary on the sidelines and is funnier than the main performers. But then MGM has to drag that “Svengali” stuff from A Day at the Races into the movie, apparently trying to prove again that the only hope for the future of African-Americans is Harpo Marx.

When Loophole finally gets the bright idea of hitting up Jeff’s rich aunt (Margaret Dumont) for the missing money, the movie turns into the comedy it was supposed to have been an hour before that. Groucho’s usual wooing of dame Dumont, Harpo and Chico’s subsequent burglary of the strong-man/suspect’s den, and most of the movie’s climax are quite hilarious.

Even the climax, filled as it is with cheap slide-whistle sound effects and obvious back projection, is so frenetic that it comes as a relief after the movie’s dirge-like beginning. It’s a case of the Marx Brothers rising above the movie’s intended comedy instead of causing it. But in the Marxes’ latter MGM days, that almost counts as a triumph.

Here’s a definite highlight of the movie, from the same songwriters who brought you the score for The Wizard of Oz:

Trump Soup

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I’ve been a Marx Brothers fan all of my life, and I can’t believe I never made a connection between their classic comedy Duck Soup and the wackiness that is the Donald Trump Presidential bid. But Luke Epplin of Slate.com did. Click here to read his on-point comparison between the two.

THE INCREDIBLE JEWEL ROBBERY (1959) – The Marx Brothers’ day at the finish line

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Today is the 57th anniversary of the TV broadcast of the Marx Brothers’ final filmed appearance together. (Whew, that was a mouthful!)  Harpo and Chico Marx appeared as Harry and Nick, two inept thieves who try to pull off a jewelry heist, in “The Incredible Jewel Robbery,” an episode of “General Electric Theater,” a CBS anthology series that was hosted by future U.S. President Ronald Reagan.

(From here on in, this blog entry is one big SPOILER, if you care.)

The episode is primarily noted for its cameo appearance by the stars’ brother Groucho at the end. The episode is played completely without dialogue until the final scene, where Groucho joins his brothers in a police line-up and says, “We don’t talk until we see our lawyer!”

CBS’ press release for the show stated, “If you watch the show you’ll see a familiar face equipped with mustache and leer. Because of his contract terms [Groucho was still doing ‘You Bet Your Life’ on NBC], his name can’t be mentioned, but he is not Jerry Colonna.”

I was 11 years old when I first read about this TV episode, and I felt as though I’d have given anything to see it. Now it is readily available for viewing on YouTube — it’s embedded below, in two parts — and it couldn’t be more disappointing.

First, the entire premise is played out at such a literal level that even a kindergartener would be rolling his eyes at it. At one point, Harpo is trying to paint a police-car logo onto his car to make it look like a cop car. The logo is circular, so Harpo gets a spare tire, holds it up to the car, and traces the outside of it with his paintbrush in order to paint a circle. Haw-haw.

Second, the silent-movie conceit would be a lot more enjoyable if the show was truly silent. The episode’s musical score is loud and intrusive, and worse, there’s a laugh track all the way through the show to tell us when we’re supposed to guffaw. Since when do the Marx Brothers need a laugh track to tell us they’re funny?

Sadly, this is a show for comedy completists who feel as though they have to see everything their heroes ever did, rather than having entertainment value on its own. Once you’ve viewed “The Incredible Jewel Robbery” one time, your curiosity will be more than satisfied.

Here’s Part 1:

And Part 2: