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.

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.

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.)

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 A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (1935) – And two hard-boiled eggs

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

I have what I call “The Pretty Woman Theorem.” Logic tells me I shouldn’t believe that with good luck, a hooker will be picked up by a rich man who will give her the life and love she deserves. But when it’s Richard Gere and Julia Roberts at their most charming, I’m willing to accept it…at least this once.

Similarly, for decades, movie-comedy lovers have debated whether or not MGM producer Irving Thalberg diluted the Marx Brothers’ zany style by making them cater to sappy lovers and elaborate musical numbers. But when you watch A Night at the Opera, somehow it all works…at least this once.

Indeed, Thalberg seems to have been the Marxes’ savior in more ways that one. Groucho was never shy about expressing his admiration for Thalberg and how he added a female audience to the Marxes’ movies without ruining their comedy. And Thalberg seems to have been the middleman between the Marxes and the Hollywood suits. Once Thalberg died, MGM plugged the Marxes into movies that seemed to follow the Thalberg formula but, as Roger Ebert might put it, knew the words but not the music.

The story — grandly constructed by former Marx scribes and revered playwrights George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind — concerns impresario Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho) and rich widow Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont). Claypool wants to get into high society; Driftwood wants to get into money. So he introduces her to Herman Gottlieb (Siegfried Rumann, one of the most effective Marx villains ever), head of the New York Opera Company.

Gottlieb and Claypool get along famously–too famously for Driftwood, who still wants to keep his hand in Claypool’s bucks, his every appearance to the contrary. (Driftwood’s first scene shows him having eaten dinner with another woman while Claypool unknowingly sat behind him.)

Meanwhile, the opera troupe’s egotistical star, Lassparri (Walter Woolf King), has designs on the troupe female star Rosa (Kitty Carlisle). But Rosa is in love with Ricardo (Allan Jones, kind of a less wooden Zeppo), who has a great voice that is ignored because of his lack of celebrity.

Surprisingly, the Ricardo-Rosa romance isn’t laid on as thick as is Lassparri’s vanity. As if we hadn’t already gotten the idea that Lassparri is not a nice guy, he literally turns his lackey Tomasso (Harpo Marx) into a whipping post. Geez, did Harpo soak his feet in Lassparri’s lemonade or something?

Somehow, though, all of the elements mesh instead of clashing. In the scene where Driftwood delivers a love note to Rosa, Groucho is surprisingly effective without being maudlin. Chico and Harpo’s musical numbers feature endless shots of onlooking children laughing and cheering. That’s usually a bad sign in a movie; actors laughing at the comics is usually a desperate attempt to get the audience laughing as well. But Chico and Harpo really seem to enjoy entertaining the kids, and the joy really spreads to the movie audience.

Indeed, the trio are unusually chipper here; they seem buoyed enough by the fresh surroundings, as well they should be. The level of this movie’s comedic value is such that you only have to mention some of its scenes by name. The party of the first part. The stateroom scene. The bed-switching scene. And of course, the all-stops-out climax (one of the few Marx endings that doesn’t dribble away), where the Marxes make mincemeat of the opera and Lassparri.

When people try to name the Marx Brothers’ best movie, it’s either Duck Soup or A Night at the Opera. Why quibble? Be glad they’re both available to enjoy. After this point in the Marxes’ career, the gems were few and far between.

Here’s how the movie starts — with a bang:

MONKEY BUSINESS (1931) – The Marx Brothers bust loose

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Monkey Business is where the Marx Brothers legend really begins. It’s as if the Marxes in Animal Crackers were wind-up dolls that Hollywood grabbed and ratcheted up their pace a few notches. Viewing the two movies in chronological order is like being Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, going from a nice, homey starting point to a Technicolor land of comedy.

The Marxes are stowaways on an ocean liner, passing the time singing “Sweet Adeline” while hiding in herring barrels, after which they take off the barrel lids and are even polite enough to bow for a non-existent audience. (They love applause in this movie. At one point, the four of them interrupt their own chase to noodle around on some instruments for thirty seconds, which gets them more audience response. And don’t even get me started on Harpo’s attempts to get undue attention.)

The ship’s captain is oddly wishy-washy about finding these stowaways. After spending the first few minutes of the movie declaring his vengeance on these guys, Groucho and Chico come into his quarters and blithely eat his lunch, at which point the captain declares his suspicion (twice) that Groucho might be one of the stowaways. The captain’s relationship to the stowaways turns out to be like Tom’s relation to Jerry; he acts like he wants to catch them, but he really doesn’t, because then the fun would be over and he’d have to go back to running the ship.

As always, the ostensible plot is in the movie mainly for the purposes of getting tossed aside. Seems that two rival gangsters are on board, and each needs a bodyguard. How do we first get a hint of this? It’s when Groucho, trying to escape the captain, ducks into the room of one of the gangsters, who is so macho that he doesn’t even let this intrusion break the pace of his ongoing argument with his wife (Thelma Todd). Groucho eventually makes whoopee with Todd in one of the finest courting scenes that doesn’t star Margaret Dumont. Then Groucho’s supposed to be all scared when the gangster returns and points a gun at his kisser. Hey, big fella, you didn’t notice this guy slipping into your closet earlier?

Later, the Marxes trump the captain’s apathetic attitude by being cavalier about the possibility of getting caught. When the ship is ready to unload the passengers, Zeppo discovers that Maurice Chevalier is on the ship and takes his passport. Groucho, Harpo, and Chico take this news blithely, as though Zeppo had just announced that the morning paper had arrived. How often do celebrities go around waving their passports to get them stolen, anyway?

As if that affront to reality isn’t wacko enough, the four of them decide that the only way they can possibly make it off the ship is to present Chevalier’s passport to the clerk and then present themselves as Chevalier by singing one of his songs. It’s not enough for one person to impersonate a celebrity. All four of them decide to play the same celebrity, and to do so by singing a song to some disinterested passport clerks. Offhand, I’d say that the Marxes don’t really want to get off that ship anymore than that captain really wants to catch them.

Monkey Business is like a great freeing of inhibitions, not the least of which are the Marx Brothers’ own hang-ups. You’d never guess these were the same guys who politely walked through Animal Crackers. If there’s any single scene that symbolizes the movie’s spirit, it’s that of Harpo dreamily exiting a Punch-and-Judy show on a kid’s cart — a beautiful long shot observing his wheeling away, as though the cameraman can’t believe it anymore than we can.

(Trivia: Arthur Sheekman, a good friend of Groucho’s who is credited in the movie with “additional dialogue,” was married to 1930’s actress Gloria Stuart, who made a memorable impression six-and-a-half decades later as the woman with a past, in James Cameron’s Titanic. Good thing the Marx Brothers weren’t stowing away on that ocean liner.)