THE UNKNOWN MARX BROTHERS (1993) – Excellent documentary that hits its Marx

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The title of this made-for-TV documentary, The Unknown Marx Brothers, is obviously meant to evoke memories of Unknown Chaplin, the astounding 1983 British documentary featuring much previously unseen footage of Charlie Chaplin. Unknown Marx Brothers isn’t quite in that league but is well done and quite eye-popping nonetheless.

Narrated by actor-turned-slapstick-comedian Leslie Nielsen, Unknown offers a wealth of facts, interviews, and TV and movie clips. There’s minutia that was little-known prior to this bio, such as the birth of a sixth Marx Brother, Manfred, who died shortly after birth. Interviewees include Groucho’s first daughter Miriam, Chico’s daughter Maxine, and two of Harpo’s adopted children, Bill and Minnie; Maxine and Bill, in particular, are most generous with their facts about the Marxes’ career and their anecdotes about growing up as Marx children.

Most astounding is the doc’s wealth of clips, many of them rarely seen. Trailers for nearly every Marx Bros. movie are shown. A scene from Harpo’s film debut in Too Many Kisses (1925) shows that, ironically, this silent movie was the only film appearance in which Harpo had dialogue (albeit in a subtitle).

Generous clips from the Marxes’ TV work include segments from: the TV pilot for Groucho’s quiz show “You Bet Your Life”; an attempted Chico pilot named “Papa Luigi”; a 1959 extended routine (beautifully preserved on video) between Harpo and Milton Berle; one of Groucho’s final TV appearances, on 1973’s “The New Bill Cosby Show”; and most interestingly for Marx buffs, reassembled footage from the Marxes’ final team work, the aborted TV pilot “Deputy Seraph,” depicting Harpo and Chico as pratfalling angels commandeered by heavenly boss Groucho.

There are nitpicking debits with the show. The background music, credited to Harpo’s son Bill, sounds like random spewings from a synthesizer. Many of the less savory details of the Marxes’ lives, such as mother Minnie’s overdominance and Groucho’s beleaguered final years, are simply ignored — as are, strangely, the final deaths of the Marxes, leaving any Marx novice to wonder if they’re still alive. And while much of the doc’s second half features very funny footage from “You Bet Your Life,” this seems a too-often-used source (perhaps because it has been used so much by less imaginative TV shows). But overall, Marx Bros. completists will find much to shout about here.

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The Marx Brothers in color

This is nothing new under the sun (it’s been posted on YouTube for years, literally), but if you’re not familiar with it, it’s worth seeing and sharing. It’s some brief, color footage of the Marx Brothers rehearsing Harpo’s entrance for the 1930 movie of their stage show Animal Crackers. Besides the early use of color, it’s noteworthy to see Harpo out of costume. Where this footage came from, the movie gods only know.

Billy Wilder and the Marx Brothers – A match almost made in heaven

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The following is my second entry in the second annual “Billy Wilder Blogathon,” being hosted on June 22, 2015 by the blogs Outspoken and Freckled and Once Upon a Screen. Click on the banner above, and read blogs devoted to Wilder’s huge catalog of film, TV, and written work! (And click here if you’d like to read my first entry in the “Wilder Blogathon.”)

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Did you know that Billy Wilder almost made an honest-to-gosh Marx Brothers movie? The film was to be titled A Day at the United Nations. And the project actually got to the point where Wilder and his partner, I.A.L. Diamond, wrote up a “treatment” for the movie, and its making was announced in the trade papers in late 1960.

Strangely, though, every source that has talked about this movie states that, because Harpo suffered a heart attack (from which he recovered) shortly after the movie’s announcement, Wilder was unable to get the movie insured. It would seem that, if any Marx Brother would have kept the movie from getting insured, it would have been Chico.

The three brothers had actually begun filming a pilot for a TV series titled “Deputy Seraph” in 1959 (clips of which you can see here on YouTube). But when doctors discovered that Chico was suffering from arteriosclerosis (which would kill him two years later) and thus could not be insured, the producers had to cancel the project. It seems strange that this issue never comes up in any discussion of the aborted Wilder movie. Are there any Marx Brothers buffs out there who know the full story?

In any case, if you’d like further details about A Day at the United Nations, you are advised to click here to visit a meticulously researched Marx Bros. website that will tell you more about this erstwhile Wilder movie.
(By the way, the “movie poster” shown above is purely my own creation. I couldn’t resist.)

The Marx Brothers in THE BIG STORE (1941) – Way off the rack

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The Big Store is a summing-up of all the perversities that a post-Irving Thalberg M-G-M inflicted upon the Marx Brothers. There are moments (albeit, most of them musical rather than comedic) that are as good as anything the Marxes ever did. Then there are moments where the movie takes the bad elements of At the Circus and Go West and expands upon them.

The story is that Tommy Rodgers (Tony Martin), an up-and-coming singer (of course), wants to sell his half of an inherited department store and use the money to beef up his music school. Unfortunately, Mr. Grover (Douglas Dumbrille), the owner of the store’s other half, plans to marry Martha Phelps (Margaret Dumont), Tommy’s rich aunt, and then have Tommy and Auntie slaughtered because they’ll find out he cooked the books. He couldn’t just buy them out, right?

Anyway, Tommy is knocked unconscious at one point (not for the whole movie, sadly), and Martha brings in Wolf J. Flywheel (Groucho) and his wacky assistant (Harpo) named, er, Wacky, to investigate the goings-on. The best comedy scene in the movie involves Groucho and Harpo trying to impress Mrs. Phelps that their fly-by-night operation is a top-notch detective agency. It seems strange that the same minds who decided to get Groucho and Harpo together (in a rare outing as partners) couldn’t conjure up some decent gags for the rest of the movie.

The remainder is a musical in search of a comedy. Chico and Harpo are well-served musically, especially in another Marx rarity, their piano duet. And Harpo’s harp solo is both lovely and a technical miracle, showing him playing along with mirror versions of himself. On the other hand, Groucho’s number is this…thing called “Sing While You Sell,” apparently the songwriters’ attempt at a department-store version of “Whistle While You Work.” Is it just me, or would anyone else think it strange to find counter clerks singing to you?

Then there’s Tony Martin who, let’s face it, is just too darned smug to care about. His every number invites us to swoon over his handsomeness and inner warmth. Sorry, he put me off as soon as he got equal billing with the Marx Brothers.

Oh, and you’ll love M-G-M’s condescensions to minorities and the poor. When the store decides to hold an impromptu press conference, Tommy responds with an elaborate musical number called “The Tenement Symphony,” in which he sings about how the Irish and Italian families living in flats inspire him to sing. Yeah, right, how about a donation, pal? (According to a Mel Brooks biographer, Brooks found this scene so bombastic, he initially intended to put a scene in Blazing Saddles where the black, Chinese, and Irish railroad laborers join hands and listen to Tony Martin sing the song to them.)

And the stereotypical blacks of A Day at the Races and At the Circus, as well as the stereotypical Indians of Go West, are here joined by stereotypical Italians and Chinese, who have nothing better to do than get lost in the bed department. (You gotta love Groucho’s nonchalance at parents’ losing most of their offspring. He’ll knock himself out to get a detective job, but lost kids? You’re on your own!)

Lastly, there’s the frenetic climax, an obvious attempt to repeat the rousing ending of Go West. The trouble is that it’s so obvious in its use of fake doubles, trick photography, and a frantic score, it makes you think of a lesser driver’s-ed movie.

The few good things in The Big Store make you wonder why the movie’s makers went to such elaborate trouble to create the bad things. Everyone in the movie uses every last ounce of energy to convince us that this monstrosity is worth watching. Didn’t they read the script?

Here’s the movie’s trailer (mostly funnier than the actual movie). The Big Store was originally intended as the Marx Brothers’ final Hollywood film, hence such references in the trailer. The opening announcer is Henry O’Neill, later seen in Laurel & Hardy’s M-G-M feature Nothing But Trouble.

The Marx Brothers in A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA (1946) – Mostly a rerun, but still a funny one

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A Night in Casablanca is one of those movies where the Marx Brothers are funny in spite of their surroundings rather than because of them. But if you’ve seen their final M-G-M movies, you’re used to that by now.

The odd thing is that the Marxes financed this movie and, Thalberg-style, took it on a brief tour before committing it to film. So you’d think it would be a lot funnier than it is. Groucho went on record long ago as blaming the director, Archie Mayo, calling him “a fat idiot” who ruined their movie. But let’s face it — he didn’t write the script. (He also didn’t write the music, for which we can blame Werner Jannsen for a terrible, tone-deaf score, probably second-worst only to that of The Big Store.)

Worst of all is going to all the trouble to name a movie A Night in Casablanca and then doing almost nothing with its satirical target. There are a few minor (almost invisible) pokes at the movie’s setting, but the crux of the plot is Groucho (his name here is Ronald Kornblow, a moniker which fully deserves his patented eye-roll) becoming the fifth manager of a Casablanca hotel — the previous four having been bumped off by an unrepentant Nazi (Sig Rumann) who wants to get hold of the valuable art treasures stashed in the hotel. What any of this has to do with Casablanca (the city or the movie) is anyone’s guess. They might as well have titled this movie The Big Hotel.

And if the Marxes had a hand in reviving the romantic-interest subplot of their Thalberg years, they should have made the characters a little more than ciphers. At least in the lesser M-G-M movies, the romantic leads had enough character for you to despise them. Here, Charles Drake is so negligible as to make Zeppo Marx look like Robert DeNiro.

But whenever they get the apathetic Casablanca stuff out of the way, the Marx Brothers still prove to be funny enough as the Marx Brothers. Much of Groucho’s material plays like it was written by a bad Groucho Marx imitator, but he still puts most of it across pretty well. (As the hysterical scene shown below proves, you should never refer to Groucho as a clerk.) Chico is still his blithely belligerent self, adding tables to a crowded dance floor to earn tips, or continually pestering Groucho.

And just as A Day at the Races was Groucho’s show, Casablanca is Harpo’s. From his clever opening gag (reportedly contributed by an uncredited Frank Tashlin), to his brief but superb send-up of the femme fatale leading lady, he does wonders with practically nothing.

Movie legend has it that Warner Bros. planned to sue the Marxes for ripping off their Casablanca motif until Groucho wrote them a series of hilarious letters (re-printed in any number of Marx Bros. books, as well as posted online here). But spoilsport movie critic Richard Roeper now claims the whole thing was a publicity stunt to gain notoriety for the Marxes’ movie. Stunt or not, read the letters — they’re funnier than much of the movie.

POPEYE MEETS RIP VAN WINKLE (1941) – Not exactly an historic occasion

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There appears to have been, Superman-style, some perverse bizarro world in which Dave and Max Fleischer were told, “That Popeye Meets William Tell [1940] cartoon of yours was a riot. How about a sequel? And be sure to stick in another non sequitor Marx Brothers gag, okay?”

(For those who care, this cartoon features a “cameo” by Chico Marx. The most probable reason for this, and the earlier cartoon’s nod to Groucho, is that Fleischer animator Shamus Culhane was married to Chico’s daughter Maxine, so apparently Culhane felt compelled to make cutesy show-biz nods to his famous in-laws. Click here to go to the Internet Movie Database’s scorching critique of Culhane’s live-action short Showdown at Ulcer Gulch [1956], in which Culhane pressured Groucho and Chico to make nervous cameo appearances.)

Popeye happens upon infamous sleep-king Rip Van Winkle being evicted from his apartment for failure to pay 20 years’ worth of rent. Popeye feels sorry for the guy and decides to take him in and protect him. That’s about all the story there is, except for a bizarre subplot about bowling that features more of the Fleischers’ Gulliver’s Travels midgets.

Unlike the color “specials” in which Popeye interacts with thought-out storybook characters, there’s no compelling reason for this cartoon’s existence. Rip could have been any old homeless sleeper from the way he’s characterized here. I rate this cartoon a half-star about William Tell solely because of the animation quality and a couple of chuckle-worthy gags, but the cartoon hardly qualifies for inclusion in the National Film Registry.

On a rating scale of 1 to 4 spinach cans, I give this cartoon: CanCanHalf

The 4 Marx Brothers in HORSE FEATHERS (1932) – Everyone sings I love you

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The following is my second contribution to “The Pre-Code Blogathon,” running through Apr. 3 at the blog Shadows and Satin. Click on the above banner, and read terrific critiques of racy Hollywood films released from 1930 to 1933, prior to the enforcement of the censorious Production Code!

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(WARNING: Spoilers abound!)

The majority of Horse Feathers involves Groucho Marx as the head of a college, but in the end, the college has about as much relevance to the story as the painting had to the Marxes’ Animal Crackers. The college itself figures only in a couple of scenes: the introduction of Prof. Quincy Adams Wagstaff (Groucho) as Huxley College’s president, where he belittles and yanks the beards of the faculty, only to have them follow him unquestioningly with a lot of heigh-de-ho; and Groucho’s wayward biology lecture, which ostensibly takes place in a college classroom but, for all of its idiocy and puns, might as well be a vaudeville stage where the Marxes used to perform “Fun in Hi Skule.”

The crux of the movie involves (a) football and (b) the college widow. Let’s cover the more crucial topic first. Wagstaff’s primary reason for becoming the college’s president is to keep an eye on his collegiate son Frank (Zeppo), who is busy making time with Connie Bailey (Thelma Todd), the college widow.

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(As casting goes, Zeppo playing the son of Groucho [in real life only eleven years older than him] is unmatched in outrageousness until Hitchcock’s North by Northwest [1959], where Jesse Royce Landis plays the mother of Cary Grant, who was two years older than her in real life.)

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I don’t know much about 1930’s slang, but was “college widow” a euphemism for “master’s degree in slut”? And did every college have one of these widows? Groucho, Chico, and Harpo certainly don’t need any introduction to the term. Groucho’s only real resentment of Zeppo’s dating Connie is that he didn’t get to her first, and whatever slackness Groucho exercises in this task is more than taken up by Chico and Harpo.

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(As if it wasn’t already clear enough what being a college widow entails, Groucho’s every entrance into Connie’s room shows him closing a very phallic umbrella he brought with him [even though it’s not raining] and removing his rubbers. No further comment.)

Then there’s the topic of football. Seems that Huxley hasn’t had a winning football team in 44 years, and Wagstaff shows his priorities when he asks Frank where he can find some decent football players. Frank tells him to go to a local speakeasy where two great football players hang out.

Strangely enough, Groucho’s “speech” to the college students in the previous scene had segued into the medley “Whatever It Is, I’m Against It / I Always Get My Man.” Then he goes to the speakeasy and, after about ten seconds of interviewing Chico, he determines that Chico and Harpo are the two great football players. So he doesn’t get his man, and what he’s against appears to be ever having a hope of winning a football game.

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(And check out that duo who really are the great football players. They’ve been in college for so long, even their football is growing whiskers.)

Some of the Marxes’ most memorable scenes and one-liners occur in Horse Feathers (as well as a somewhat disconcerting sight gag showing Harpo shoveling books into a fire, one year before Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany and started doing the same thing in earnest).

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But even by the loose standards of Marxian farce, that football-game climax is one “Oh, brother”-inspiring scene after another. Wagstaff turns up in the football game himself — evidently, college presidents’ perks include playing on the team whenever you want — and frequently goes off to the sidelines to continue making time with Connie, even while her thug-boyfriend is sitting right beside her. Oh well, it figures that a bunch of guys who never went to college would do a college movie about a bunch of guys who can’t play football right.

“Why, that’s bigamy!” – “Yes, and it’s big-o’-ME, too!”

(P.S. Two trivial notes, both shown in the clip below: First, Horse Feathers has my favorite Chico piano solo. I first heard the tune on a Marx Brothers compilation LP when I was a kid, and it has stuck with me ever since. Only decades later did I notice that Thelma Todd is a little surreptitiously free with her hands during Chico’s number.)

(Second, this is the movie with Groucho’s famous comment to the movie audience prior to Chico’s piano solo. It’s a pity they couldn’t have inserted this line as a public service announcement into the Marxes’ later M-G-M movies.)