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


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.

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.

Make me laugh!


This week, one of my favorite bloggers, TV scripter and novelist Ken Levine, asked: “Can comedy stand the test of time?” As an example, Levine cited Steve Martin’s once-famous catchphrase, “Ex-cuse ME!”, and posited that a current teenager wouldn’t have any idea why someone from the 1970’s would laugh at such a thing. Levine also mentioned how the Marx Brothers enjoyed a 1960’s and ’70s revival that seems to have dimmed down considerably since then.

Well, can comedy stand the test of time? My answer is:

If it’s comedy that you’re still talking about, then yes.

I grew up in that hallowed era of the 1970’s. All around me, on TV and in revival movie theaters, were testaments to the eternal comedic appeal of Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Fields, the Marx Brothers, and Laurel & Hardy. Then I got to witness the budding of comic masters such as Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, and Monty Python.

These days, my college-age son and daughter do the usual scoffing at their old man’s pop-culture tastes, yet they’ve managed to pick and choose things they like from that era. My daughter has enjoyed Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein and the musical version of The Producers with me. I’m not the Cheech & Chong fan that I was as a teenager, but my son definitely enjoys their streetwise humor. And while neither of my kids is a die-hard Monty Python fan like me, my son is head over heels over Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and my daughter has let down her guard enough to let the “Fish Slapping Dance” and “Argument Clinic” sketches make her laugh like crazy.

Conversely, the kids enjoy comedy that doesn’t terribly interest me, such as Amy Schumer (daughter) and Louis C.K. (son). I’ve watched some of their work and don’t particularly “get” them, but I can appreciate why the next generation does.

The thing is, there’s nothing more subjective than comedy. If someone enjoys the same comedy that you do, you have had some measure of bonding with that person. And if someone doesn’t pick up on a comedian who makes you tear up with laughter, expect the very definition of “stony bitch face” from that other person.

Anyway, I’m in my mid-fifties, and I’ve long given up on trying to apologize for or rationalize my tastes in pop culture. Like any comedy fan, I like what I like, and if you don’t agree…

Well, ex-CUUUUUUUSE ME!!!!!!!!


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


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.”)


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


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


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.

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


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!


(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.


(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.


(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.


(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).


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.)

Honorary Oscars: The Rodney Dangerfield of film comedy


The following is my entry in the “31 Days of Oscar” Blogathon, being held from Feb. 2 through 24, and sponsored by the blogs Paula’s Cinema ClubOutspoken & Freckled, and Once Upon a Screen.

Each week’s blogs have a different Oscar-related theme. I am contributing to the “Oscar Snubs” week being held Feb. 9 and 10. (Why am I contributing my blog five days before the deadline? Because that’s how I roll, baby!)

In any case, click on the blogathon’s poster (above) to read some interesting insights into various aspects of the history of the Academy Awards!

The Little Tramp cleans up after a very ambitious Oscar number.

The Little Tramp cleans up after a very ambitious Oscar number.

This blog is about three very deserving movie-comedy idols, all of whom were awarded Oscars. At this point, you’re probably thinking, How does such a blog fit in under the heading “Oscar Snubs”?


The answer is simple. Buster Keaton, Charles Chaplin, and Groucho Marx all received “Honorary Oscars” at the twilight of their lives. The Motion Picture Academy’s thinly veiled secret is that such Oscars are awarded only after Academy members suffer pangs of guilt over not properly honoring these comedy giants in the heyday of their careers.

So this is my way of righting the Movie Comedy Universe. The slate is thus wiped clean, and this trio of classic comedians are justly awarded Oscars for some of their best movie work.

(Before I begin, a full disclosure. Chaplin actually did win an Oscar of sorts, at the very first Oscar presentation, but it was the early equivalent of a Honorary Oscar. He was given a Special Oscar “for versatility and genius in writing, acting, directing and producing The Circus.” However [and sadly], this took Chaplin out of the running for acting, writing, directing, and Best Picture categories for which he had initially been nominated. Here’s your consolation prize, Tramp, now get off the stage.

(Also, I would gladly have included Stan Laurel in this list [He received an Honorary Oscar in 1961], had Laurel & Hardy’s The Music Box not won an Oscar for Best Short Subject of 1932. You got by on a pass on that one, Academy!)



Buster Keaton: Awarded an Honorary Oscar in 1960 “for his unique talents which brought immortal comedies to the screen.”

The movie for which he should have won an Oscar: The General (1926). 

(Somebody is bound to p*** on my parade about this one, so let me clarify some things. The first Oscar ceremony, held in 1929, was purposed to honor the best films of 1927 and 1928. According to Wikipedia, The General’s U.S. release date was Dec. 31, 1926 — which, of course, means that it technically doesn’t qualify as a 1927 film, although it was released in several other regions in ‘27. But in my just Movie Comedy Universe, are you really not going to cut 24 hours’ slack for a movie that has been widely regarded as one of the best of all time? I thought not.)


In this movie (based on a real-life Civil War story), Keaton plays Johnnie Gray, a Georgia train engineer who wants to enlist in the war as badly as anyone. But the local recruiter refuses to enlist Johnnie because he is needed in the South as an engineer. However, nobody imparts this information to Johnnie or his peers, leading Johnnie’s girlfriend Annabelle to snub him because she thinks he’s a coward. Later, when Annabelle is kidnapped by Northern rebels, Johnnie takes it upon himself to rescue her, using his train The General as a one-man sabotage operation against the North.

This synopsis does not begin to do justice to one of silent film’s most powerful movies. Keaton told his crew that he wanted the movie to be “so authentic it hurts,” and as a result, this marvelously photographed film looks like a Civil War photo come to life. The movie’s plotting is wonderfully symmetrical, as Johnnie becomes a hero by pulling the same tricks on the Northern soldiers as they had previously pulled on him. Most of all, Keaton spared no personal effort on this movie, constantly jumping off, on, over, and on top of a moving train and making it look as effortless as riding a bike.


Sadly, by the time the first Oscar presentation took place, Keaton was a movie marionette whose strings were being pulled by M-G-M’s Louis B. Mayer — who, by no small coincidence, had founded the Motion Picture Academy and had created the Academy Award basically to curb some of Hollywood’s most swelled heads by giving them the tributes they felt they deserved. There is no way that Mayer would have recognized any of Keaton’s pre-M-G-M work with an award. It took several decades of re-viewing for critics and movie buffs to realize what a classic The General was and is.

The next time you see some movie star being aided in his myth-making by stuntmen and CGI, remember that one comedian previously did eye-popping stunts on his own, long before anyone even conceived of a computer in which special effects could be created.



Charles Chaplin: Awarded an Honorary Award in 1972 “for the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century.”

The movie for which he should have won an Oscar: City Lights (1931).

Chaplin conceived of City Lights in late 1929, just as talkie fever had engulfed Hollywood. Chaplin considered making his new movie as a talkie. But in the end, he opted for the Tramp’s universal silent appeal, realizing that once he talked on screen, he would be “like every other comedian.” So Chaplin bucked the tide and went ahead with the movie as a silent picture.

In this movie, Chaplin’s Tramp falls in love with a blind flower girl. (She was played by Virginia Cherrill, who by Chaplin’s account could not convey the simplest actions plausibly and required take after take of each scene. But in the end, Chaplin realized that only Cherrill could suitably convey the flower girl’s charm.)

The Tramp tries various odd jobs to earn money for an operation to restore the girl’s eyesight (and these “jobs” are some of the movie’s highlights). The Tramp also ends up making friends with a rich drunk (Harry Myers) who adores the Tramp while he’s in his cups but has no memory of him when he’s sober.

All of this results in some wonderful comedy, mostly because Chaplin does indeed use sound, but uses it mostly to comment on the character’s actions (as when Charlie swallows a whistle and it makes noises at inopportune moments). And it certainly results in some risible drama, particularly in the movie’s final scene, where Chaplin and Cherrill’s minimalist acting has left generations of moviegoers either stunned or teary-eyed at movie’s end.


As with The General, City Lights is an example of being seen and re-seen for generations to rightly earn its place in the film pantheon. Too bad the Academy couldn’t see a good thing when it was right on movie screens across the country.



Groucho Marx: Awarded an Honorary Oscar in 1974 “in recognition of his brilliant creativity and for the unequaled achievements of the Marx Brothers in the art of motion picture comedy.” 

The movie for which he should have won an Oscar: A Day at the Races (1937).

My Oscar choice is sure to rankle many Marx Brothers buffs. The popular choice would probably be Duck Soup (1933), which is certainly my own all-time favorite Marx Brothers movie. But actors’ Oscars are meant to recognize individual acting achievement. And I contend that no single Marx Brother made as much of an impact on a Marx Brothers movie as Groucho did in A Day at the Races. 

The movie’s story is that a sanitarium is about to be torn down and replaced with a race track, thanks to the sanitarium’s unscrupulous landowner. But the sanitarium’s richest patient (Margaret Dumont) decides to help save the place by bringing in her most cherished doctor: Hugo Z. Hackenbush (Groucho) who, unbeknownst to the patient but soon discovered by others, has earned his medical title by serving as a horse doctor.

Groucho’s most memorable Marx Bros. outings display him as a pre-supposed man of society, while Groucho outwardly displays himself as a phony to citizens who are either too dumb or too spineless to show that this emperor wears no clothes. (Think of explorer Geoffrey Spaulding in Animal Crackers, who faints when he finds a caterpillar on his sleeve; or Freedonia leader Rufus T. Firefly, who sings in his inaugural address, “If you think this country’s bad off now, just wait ‘til I get through with it.”)


And when it comes to comedy (we’ll politely ignore this movie’s gaseous musical interludes), you can barely think of A Day at the Races without Groucho. Other than the superb charades scene involving only Harpo and Chico, every major comedy moment in this movie involves Groucho. Either he’s putting one over on the sanitarium’s sleazy administrators, skittering from one woman to another during a society dance, or demonstrating (with his brothers) the paramount importance of washing one’s hands in lieu of performing an actual operation.

In my humble opinion, Races was Groucho’s finest hour with the Marx Brothers; with or without his brothers, he never operated again at such full steam in a movie. So why wasn’t he nominated for an Oscar? 

What?? Not King Louis again!

What?? Not King Louis again!

This is quite a reach, I’ll admit, but I’d like to think that the smoking gun again lay at the hand of, yes, Louis B. Mayer. Ironically, Races was an M-G-M production, so you’d think that Mayer would have been supporting such an Oscar nom. But sadly, Mayer was no friend of Groucho’s after having been snubbed by him. One day, Mayer and Groucho happened to pass each other in an M-G-M corridor, and Mayer, trying to make friendly small talk, asked, “Well, how’s the picture going, Groucho?”

Groucho, beholden to M-G-M producer Irving Thalberg and no one else, curtly replied to one of Hollywood’s biggest movers-and-shakers, “I don’t think that’s any of your business!” and moved on down the hall.

If there had ever been even the slightest possibility that Groucho could have been nominated for an Oscar, that exchange certainly put the kibosh to it. Happily, we still have A Day at the Races and many other Marx Brothers movies available for the purpose of anti-establishment hilarity.


So there you have it. Three comedy greats who were basically awarded a “guilt Oscar” rather than a worthy award for any of their great work. Is it any wonder that Woody Allen snubbed the Oscars when Annie Hall swept them in 1977?

“Look! There are those silly people going to the Oscar ceremony again!”

The Marx Brothers in GO WEST (1940) – Cut to the chase


Go West is a great pair of comedy bookends with a lot of useless filler in the middle. The movie begins promisingly, with one of the best fleecings that Chico and Harpo ever gave to Groucho. Unfortunately, after that, there’s a plot.

Terry (John Carroll), the good guy, wants to sell his land to a railroad company to end a family feud. But the bad guys (including Walter Woolf King, formerly Lassparri from A Night at the Opera) confiscate the deed to the land, thanks to Groucho’s ineptitude.

Groucho’s ineptitude?? Isn’t this the same guy who used to hold off gangsters with double talk? Here he comes off like the wise-guy grade-schooler who shuts his yap as soon as the bully puts him in his place. After a while, Groucho’s one-liners seem only to amuse himself, and you really wish he’d shut up for a while. (Strangely, exactly this kind of material worked perfectly for Bob Hope 12 years later in his Western take-off, Son of Paleface. For Groucho, it works only as character assassination.)

Chico’s no help, either, whining, “We no wanna no trouble.” This from a guy who earned $70 for his train ticket by using and re-using a ten-dollar bill. Did these guys leave their cheekiness and con artistry at the train station?

Of the brothers, Harpo comes off best here. While Groucho and Chico are getting liquored up by the bad guys’ floozies, Harpo is smashing safes, getting deeds back to rightful owners, and turning whisk brooms into loaded revolvers. Maybe Harpo should ditch these losers and go look for some diamonds to finance a Broadway show.

Turns out that the Marx Brothers aren’t comic anarchists at all. They’re the idiots whom the good guy puts up with because he’s so darned sweet. It’s almost as if MGM was punishing them for having been too funny in the past.

And since there aren’t any black people around (other than some monosyllabic porters in the first scene), the movie stereotypes Indians for a while, getting as much juice as it can out of “How!”-type characterizations. It’s doubly painful to watch the Marxes make fun of them, considering how moronic they themselves have come off in this movie.

Then the movie does a strange thing at the end — it turns hilarious. The elaborate climax involves the Marxes taking over the bad guys’ train in order to beat them to New York (Terry having reclaimed the deed from them). It’s a miracle of comic timing and editing, and it’s so wowing, you can hardly believe it’s done by the same people who put together the previous 70 minutes.

Here’s how to watch Go West: Savor the opening and closing scenes, and then, when the Marxes start to get embarrassing, look away from them, like the people at a party who back off from the drunken guest to show that they aren’t in any way related to him.

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


(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…