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.

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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.

Laurel & Hardy in THE DANCING MASTERS (1943) – Their worst Fox movie, and that’s saying something

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

In his great study of Laurel & Hardy, Charles Barr complains about the lack of continuity in The Dancing Masters: “[Stan and Ollie’s] job as dancing masters has no relevance to what follows.” But that’s okay–neither does much of anything else in the movie.

The funny thing is, a lot of L&H’s material is fairly laugh-getting and true to their characters. The trouble is that the movie’s plot, inconsequential as it is, operates almost entirely independently of them. The story of a would-be inventor (Bob Bailey, fresh off his bland stint in Jitterbugs) whose work L&H try to promote has almost nothing to do with L&H (how did this wanna-be heartthrob ever become friends with Stan and Ollie, anyway?). And L&H’s comedy has little to do with the main story.

The comedy direction, by Malcolm St. Clair (the most sympathetic director of L&H’s final Hollywood years) is tolerable, but the real winner here is the casting director. In another of Fox’s gangster subplots, you couldn’t get a more appropriate one than Robert Mitchum (in an early role). And somebody had the smarts to hire The Marx Brothers’ former straight-woman, Margaret Dumont. (If only they’d had the brains to give her something funny to do.)

Other than the cribbing of gags from earlier L&H movies, the only really painful part is the ostensible climax, where Ollie ends up on a runaway bus that happens onto a roller-coaster track (happens all the time), while Stan stumbles into a carnival and ends up as a bull’s-eye for a hit-the-target game. Between the characterization assassinations and the cheap special effects, it’s downright nausea-inducing.

(TRIVIA: The bar set shown in this movie was re-used in the W.C. Fields segment of the Fox movie Tales of Manhattan — which, strangely enough, also featured Margaret Dumont.)

The Marx Brothers in DUCK SOUP (1933) – Political-party hearty

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Duck Soup was initially a box-office flop — perhaps because it was released during the Great Depression, when the public didn’t want to believe that its leaders were hopeless. The movie was “re-discovered” by college students during the anti-Establishment 1960’s, and it has been rightly hailed as a comedy masterpiece ever since.

Its wisp of a story begins with Mrs. Teasdale (perennial sidekick Margaret Dumont), a wealthy widow who has singlehandedly financed the nearly bankrupt country of Freedonia. When pressed for another loan of $20 million, Mrs. Teasdale agrees to lend the money on the condition that her favorite politician, Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx), be allowed to rule Freedonia. (A wealthy contributor using her money to buy a candidate? Who’d have thought it?)

This Firefly guy certainly inspires confidence. In his first ten minutes as Freedonian president, he oversleeps through his inauguration; makes his entrance down a firepole; puts the make on his financier; and delivers a musical inaugural address (linked below) with the refrain, “If you think this country’s bad off now, just wait ’til I get through with it.”

The only thing Firefly gets right is his take on Trentino (Louis Calhern), his political rival in the country of Sylvania. Trentino wants only to win over Mrs. Teasdale so that he can take over Fredonia, a political strategy that Firefly has already usurped. Trentino hires two spies, Chicolini and Pinkie (Chico and Harpo Marx), in the hopes of uncovering some dirt that will discredit Firefly. This plan fails on two counts: 1) Firefly is more eager to discredit himself than any political opponent could ever be; and 2) Chicolini and Pinkie aren’t exactly married to their work. (Their idea of political rivalry is to monopolize the local peanut-stand concession and drive their competitor [silent-film slow-burner Edgar Kennedy] either out of business or around the bend.)

This political sub-intrigue is a lame excuse for some of cinema’s most superb sight gags, wordplay, musical interludes, and unique lessons in animal husbandry (in a blatant nose-thumbing at the censors, Harpo sleeps with a horse). Legendary comedy director Leo McCarey stuffs all of this into a lightning-paced 70 minutes, so even if you don’t like the movie (highly unlikely), you don’t have to bear it for very long.

For decades, countless people — including many involved in the making of this film — have argued that Duck Soup is not a political satire. Try telling that to the makers of the films Primary Colors (of whose Clinton burlesque the Marxes surely would have approved) or Wag the Dog (whose view of war as a means to a political end seems to have been mainlined from Duck Soup). Every year, this mind-bending comedy looks more and more like a documentary.

Here’s my favorite number from the movie — maybe my favorite Groucho number ever…

The Marx Brothers in ANIMAL CRACKERS (1930) – Never leave out a Hungadunger

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(WARNING: Major spoilers ahead!)

Animal Crackers, besides being about a ton funnier than its predecessor The Cocoanutsis quite elucidating on the matter of what constituted a hit Broadway show in the 1920’s. From singing butlers to unmemorable tunes warbled by equally unmemorable love interests, it feels like this movie version of the stage show did not leave a darned…thing…out.

History tells us that the Marx Brothers were such a sensation, in their previous shows as well as this one, that the “straight” leads, and loads of exposition, were needed to offset their dynamic effect. Film-buff viewing, on the other hand, tells us that the Marxes ought to arrive on-screen a whole lot sooner than they do here.

The movie’s “straight” story is that Mrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont), a rich Long Island dame, is hosting a big shindig to both honor an African explorer named Geoffrey Spaulding (Groucho–and it’s spelled “Geoffrey” right in the opening scene, not “Jeffrey”) and to unveil a famous and valuable painting she has acquired. Unfortunately for Mrs. R., the painting gets stolen before the opening, and nearly everyone in the movie gets involved in trying to find it.

Of course, hindsight has its benefits. Still, I don’t know of anyone who watches Animal Crackers nowadays and says afterwards, “Wow, how about that mystery about the painting? I was on the edge of my seat waiting for them to get it back!” I’m not so sure anybody really cared about it 85 years ago, either. For one thing, when you’ve got a Marx Brother (Harpo) who can steal a man’s birthmark right off his arm, who cares about the theft of such an Earthly thing as a painting?

(Harpo also gives us a glimpse into his unique love life. When a woman asks if there’s anything he really loves, Harpo produces a photo of a horse. It must have been a pretty steady and serious relationship; he kisses the horse two years later in Horse Feathers and sleeps with her in Duck Soup a year after that. No word on whether they broke up after she saw Harpo riding another horse in A Day at the Races.)

Funny thing about that painting, too. Even though it’s said to be immensely valuable, the thieves and others carry it around with all the finesse of someone shoving a Post-It note in his pocket. Curators at the Louvre must have been flipping out when they saw how this “priceless” work of art was being manhandled.

So much for the plot–let’s get to the good stuff. Groucho’s a hoot. He carries on and on to anyone who will listen to tales about his fearless adventures, even though he faints in front of everyone when he discovers that a caterpillar has crawled onto his sleeve. And Margaret Dumont is the most straight-faced straightman (sorry, straight-person) you’ll ever see. Whenever she’s confronted with one of Groucho’s ever-increasing anti-social behaviors, she just clucks it off and shakes her head, as though Groucho was just some poor guy with Tourette’s Syndrome who couldn’t help himself.

Chico and Harpo are a delight, too. After seeing their first burglary attempt turn out completely laughless in The Cocoanuts, it’s a relief to find that their attempt in this movie to steal the painting is so hysterical that they repeated the motif in later movies. When they’re trying to steal the painting in the dark, and Chico keeps asking Harpo for “the flash” (flashlight), Harpo reaches into that ethereal jacket of his and pulls out everything but the flash. (Speaking of flash, Harpo has an opening scene that’s one for the books.)

And Zeppo, for all of his maligned place in the annals of Marx history, has a great scene with Groucho dictating a letter to him. He’s probably the only guy on the planet who could destroy Groucho’s letter, paragraph by paragraph, and not come out of it skinned alive.

Animal Crackers is the kind of movie for which the term “photographed stage play” was invented. Still, it’s a heartily funny photographed stage play.