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 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…

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.)

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.

The Marx Bros.’ THE COCOANUTS (1929) – Satire of Florida land boom goes bust

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(WARNING: Spoilers abound!)

If you go back to the first movies of comedians you’ve loved, the debuts might not be as great as the later movies, but you can still see how they became stars. In their first real movie as a team, Duck Soup (not the Marx Bros. one), Laurel and Hardy look rough around the edges, but they’re still the familiar Stan and Ollie. Kid Auto Races at Venice looks like a home movie, but Charlie Chaplin, in his first appearance in the Tramp outfit, wins you over by sheer force of personality. On the other hand, when you watch The Cocoanuts, you’ll either pinch yourself to keep from falling asleep or stare wide-eyed at the Marxes’ housebroken versions of their later, more wacko personas.

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The Cocoanuts is reported to have been a satire of the 1925 Florida land boom, but only one scene actually relates to that scenario, and the satire in this scene is as curdled as old milk. Most of the action occurs around the Florida hotel where Mr. Hammer (Groucho) is manager, but his behavior is strangely self-defeating. He bemoans the lack of hotel guests, but whenever one of the current guests phones him at the lobby to request something for their room, Hammer puts them off with some stupid wisecrack that seems guaranteed to soon make them pack up and leave.

About the only people he manages to subdue are the bellhops who, in Groucho’s opening scene, haven’t been paid for two weeks and demand their salaries from him. Groucho makes a weak speech that boils down to, If you ever flirted with socialism, you might as well go whole-hog on it now because I have no intention of paying you. And the bellboys shut right up. Somebody at Paramount got it wrong–these are the Marxes that do comedy, not Communist speeches.

Those bellboys are a tad ambivalent, by the way. Although there’s no mistaking them for males, Groucho constantly refers to them as “boys” in his intro speech, but then when all of them are accosted by Harpo later, he chases them just as he usually chases girls. This can’t be a subtext that anyone truly intended for the movie.

But then, ambivalence seems the order of the day here. As male love interest Bob Adams, Oscar Shaw has lips as bee-stung, and carriage as fey, as any ’20s flapper. As Bob’s girlfriend Polly, Mary Eaton has a painfully prolonged dance number (titled, I kid you not, “The Monkey-Doodle-Doo”) that features many ant’s-eye-view camera shots of her dress swirling long enough to get a pretty clear assessment of her panties.

Most unforgivable of all is Margaret Dumont as Mrs. Potter, Polly’s mother. Mrs. P. disapproves of Bob because he’s not in the same social class as Polly, and her insistent demand that Polly marry a nearby rich guy (and not caring in the least whether or not Polly even likes it) is just this side of pimping.

If this sexual deconstruction of the movie seems a bit protracted, that’s only because nothing else of interest is going on in the movie. The Marx Brothers do some things that could have turned out pretty funny if only the pacing had been goosed up a bit, but since it’s an early talkie, it’s all the cameramen could do to keep the Marxes in the shot. Legend has it that the reason the Marxes’ Broadway shows had romantic relief to start with was because the Marxes were so anarchic, they needed more “normal” characters to offset their insanity. Here, their insanity is so offset that they hardly get to even do any comedy.

Legend also tells us that Irving Berlin, who wrote the show’s songs, despaired about not having a hit number for Cocoanuts. But it sure wasn’t for lack of trying. His song “The Skies Will All Be Blue When My Dream Comes True” gets repeated a few thousand times in the movie, even gumming up Harpo’s first movie-harp scene.

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The Cocoanuts only proves that the Marx Brothers’ insanity is pointless without something to get insane about. You’d think sparks would fly when Groucho tries to woo Margaret Dumont in their first movie together. But the movie fails to either (a) connect Hammer’s wooing to the fact that he needs Mrs. Potter’s money to keep his hotel afloat, or (b) doesn’t even try to get Groucho to score points off of Mrs. Potter’s trying to pimp her daughter. (Indeed, it’s Hammer who caters Polly’s engagement party, which comedically bites the dust right after the Marxes make their entrance in funny costumes.)

It’s reported that when the Marx Brothers saw this movie version of their hit Broadway show, they were so appalled that they tried to buy the movie’s negative so that they could burn it. Happily, it still exists, if only for the pleasure of having future generations of film critics express their wish that the Marx Brothers should have burned the negative.