We have to give it to the four Marx Brothers; a finer group of madcaps yet to be defined on the movie screen. All of the truly great comedy ‘teams’ from Hollywood’s golden age are unique; Laurel and Hardy, The Three Stooges, Gallagher and Shean, Wheeler and Woolsey, Abbott & Costello, etc. et al. Unlike their brethren however, The Marx Brothers are unhinged intellectuals, railing against authority – or at least, the appearance of it, repeatedly embodied by the long-suffering society matron, invariably played with irrepressible charm by Margaret Dumont (who never understood their humor and is, in fact, playing every last scene legit and for keeps). While some of their later features made away from Paramount Pictures included more elaborate production numbers and romantic scenarios designed to delay, compartmentalize and augment their insanity run amok, allowing audiences infrequent respites between their screwy repartee, the first five films the brothers Marx committed to make between 1929 and 1933 remain one of the few surviving links we have to Vaudeville: the premiere form of popular entertainment in America prior to the advent of motion pictures. One should never confuse Vaudeville with quote ‘the legitimate theater’; the latter, considered ‘highbrow’ and generally frowning on the former as cheap thrills and skits suitable for the masses. Yet, it is the combination of verbal and visual slapstick that has kept the Marx Brothers’ legacy fresh and alive for decades since; the audience treated with respect by these looney-tune incorrigibles.
Groucho (arguably, the most enduring and iconic of the brood) would have been thoroughly flummoxed to be referred to as anything less than antiestablishment. Indeed, in the late 1960s, he was to discover, much to his great surprise, an entirely new generation grown up to embrace the counterculture of controlled chaos inherent in all their classic films. Interestingly, the act itself seemed a long shot at best; the brothers’ matriarch Minnie, herself a Vaudevillian, basically foisting fame upon her sons by instilling in each of them the virtues of a life upon the stage. While Groucho arguably embraced his mother’s wishes from the outset, Harpo would later write at length how he felt shanghaied into the profession, and Zeppo – arguably, the slightest of the brood – barely waiting until his parents’ deaths before officially bowing out of the act altogether. The Marx Brothers gimmick – if one can call it that – lay in the curious assortment of caricatures assembled; Groucho, the self-appointed sourpuss authoritarian, sporting grease-painted brows and mustache, chomping on an ever-present, though usually unlit cigar as he ran through an ego-crushing barrage of nonsensical double entendre, puns and no sequiturs; mindboggling for their rapid fire delivery and scathing social commentary.
Running counterpoint to Groucho’s equivocation and one-line zingers and stingers was Harpo’s deafening silence, using only his horn, those hardboiled and expressive eyes and a Cheshire grin to portend of menace, elation, and a sort of impish deviance with a predilection for very young girls. Harpo’s pantomime has yet to be surpassed; a sublime visualist, who could conjure as easily to mind a sort of universal madness as innocence; the oversized, all-purpose Puck of each piece. Between these polar opposites came Chico; ever-present as a sort of slyly likable con, perhaps even affecting his accent along with his ignorance as camouflage, frequently to gain the upper hand in any situation and manipulate the variables on his own behalf. In the presence of such extroverts, Zeppo could never hope to compete. His response was first to assume the thankless parts of the ‘straight man’ (every comedy needs one); later, to adopt the least obscure or rather most mainstream character traits of any of his siblings. Running through a back catalog of family portraits, Zeppo is the least altered by make-up applications. Nevertheless, the role he frequently played on camera was that of the winsome male ingénue. It served its purpose.
Employing a technique of mockery ascribed to the upper classes, one equally recalls, as example, the now famous incident from life where Groucho (born, Julius Henry Marx) deigned to get through to producer and MGM VP in Charge of Production, Irving Thalberg after their Paramount contract had lapsed; Thalberg, repeatedly stalled in discussing their contracts, distracted by more pressing matters in his daily management. Leaving the room for the umpteenth time, Thalberg was to return nearly an hour later to discover Groucho, Chico and Harpo seated in a semicircle before his roaring fireplace, completely naked and roasting baked potatoes from the commissary. It seems only the Marx Brothers would dare crack such a joke in front of Thalberg; the head of the whole menagerie and rather unaccustomed to being amused by the talent, most of who feared him without provocation. In retrospect, two aspects of the Marx Brothers legacy become immediately apparent: first, that their tenure in Hollywood was relatively brief (five trail-blazing movies at Paramount between 1929 and 1933) followed by two of considerable merit at MGM (in 1934 and 1935), before a speedy decline into B-grade fodder that, also in hindsight, bear no earthly resemblance to these stellar previous efforts. We must also consider that by the time The Marx Brothers made their movie debut in 1929, Groucho was already forty-one years old; seasoned in the art of subterfuge by the school of hard knocks; the urbanity of his loaded gibes boasting no formal education, though frequently sought after by the intellectual left for their cleverness and purity of wit.
Deliberately poised for success by an overbearing stage mother, The Marx Brothers went through various permutations during their Vaudeville and Burlesque infancy; 1904 marking Groucho’s stage debut with Gummo (a.k.a Milton), Harpo (Adolph ‘Arthur’) and Chico (Leonard) eventually following suit. As a team, The Marx Brothers specialized in a sort of frenetic energy and chaotic humor bordering on the ribald; naughty ripostes peppered in a sort of pseudo- academic trust, meant to deliberately insult and slap down the hoi poloi and give their supposedly more cerebral counterpoints a real run for their money. In 1924, The Marx Brothers had their first Broadway success with I’ll Say She Is; Zeppo Marx (a.k.a. Herbert) replacing Gummo, who had enlisted to fight in WWI. Garnering praise from noted theater critic, Alexander Woollcott, the brothers continued to hone their craft, along the way substituting the ridiculous for the sublime and vice versa as their anarchical style steadily gained in reputation within the cultural elite. The first two pictures made at Paramount, The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930) are, in fact, almost literal translations of their Vaudeville smash hits (Animal Crackers consolidating the acidity of their comedic genius by jettisoning all but two numbers from the stage show – both showpieces for Groucho). The Marx Brothers debut could not have been more perfectly timed, set at a juncture in American entertainment when the silent cinema had suddenly become a thing of the past; thanks to Warner Brothers debut of The Jazz Singer (1929); the first, partial sound movie. As so much of The Marx Brothers success lay in their verbalized screwball, in hindsight it seems as though ‘the talkies’ were invented expressly to capitalize on their legendary status as masters of the byplay and wisecracks.
In the days before formality and red tape crept into the business of Hollywood, the details of the brothers’ deal with Paramount would remain a little sketchy at best. Adolph Zukor initially approached the brothers with an offer of $50,000 to reprise their roles in his big screen recreation of The Cocoanuts; Zukor reportedly scoffing when word trickled back via producer Sam Harris, Groucho was thinking of asking for a cool $75,000; a figure causing Zukor to suggest he would spit in Groucho’s eye if ever the price was mentioned again. At this juncture, Paramount owned the rights to the play but not the performers; producer, Harris selling off his claims without giving away the whole store. However, Zukor – and perhaps even Groucho – had underestimated Zeppo’s friendship; plying the old mogul with a litany of plaudits and kudos, even going so far as to suggest it would be the act’s finest hour to bring their vast wealth of stage experience to the movie screen for a mere $100,000.00! Reportedly, Zukor turned to Harris after the fleecing had ended, adding, “So what’s the problem? Let’s do this.” If indeed this story is less than apocryphal, Zukor was to win the final hand in its high stakes game of bait and switch; offering the brothers fifty percent of all profits derived with the subtle ‘hidden’ clause - if any accrued beyond the expenses incurred by the studio to bring these movies to the screen. As Paramount was actually teetering on the brink of bankruptcy in 1928, Zukor saw to it the profits from the first two films were funneled elsewhere to shore up his company’s ailing bottom line. Hence, the brothers collected very few royalties; Zukor compounding the insult by casually creating a shell corporation to preclude any further payouts in the future. This shortsightedness would backfire when the Marx brothers made the decision to bow out of Paramount altogether; effectively becoming free agents and returning to the studio on a picture by picture basis from this point onward.
Working on a Marx Brothers movie proved trying for both sides. Used to spontaneity, only possible by performing their routines uninterrupted in front of a live audience, the brothers felt constrained by being forced to hit their marks; camera operators struggling to keep the boys in focus as they leapt about the proscenium. Shooting The Cocoanuts was further hampered by the fact the brothers had not yet finished their live stage run in Animal Crackers; making their first movie by dawn’s early light and well into the afternoon, only to leave the sound stages to give a full performance of their subsequent show each night. This strain was compounded when, in Sept. 1929, Minnie died; the emotional wreckage left behind from her sudden absence, enough to give Groucho pause to continue working without her. Almost simultaneously, the American stock market suffered its most devastating crash; Black Tuesday virtually wiping out Groucho and Harpo’s frugally amassed and individual net worth of $250,000 in savings. Bloodied, but unbowed, Groucho pursued Paramount’s attractive offer to trade the east coast for the west; though he would never purchase a house in Hollywood, believing their popularity in the movies a mere fad. Christmas Eve marked a truce with Paramount. Although Groucho was reportedly mortified after seeing an advanced screening of The Cocoanuts, his chagrin was abated when the movie proved an unqualified smash hit with audiences, ringing cash registers around the world. Hence, a new 3 picture deal was outlined. After Animal Crackers the brothers agreed to star in three original properties; Monkey Business (1931), followed almost immediately by Horse Feathers (1932) and finally, Duck Soup (1933).
Like virtually all of their work at Paramount, the strength of these movies is not plot-based. Rather, it is the skits audiences have come to see, teeming with naughty pre-Code sexual innuendo alluding to sex without actually swatting at it heavy-handedly. The stories are slight to say the least and, essentially, can be summed up in single sentence synopses with a few minor embellishments. The Cocoanuts revolves around the slick and tart-mouthed Mr. Hammer (Groucho), owner of a posh but foundering Floridian resort, desperate to woo a wealthy dowager, Mrs. Potter (Margaret Dumont) into hosting her daughter, Polly’s (Mary Eaton) engagement party there. Jamieson (Zeppo) is Hammer’s right-hand man, overseeing the hotel’s daily operations in his absence. But Polly is in love with hopeful, yet penniless, if aspiring architect, Bob Adams (Oscar Shaw) who has great plans to expand the hotel’s prospects as Cocoanut Manor. Mrs. Potter doesn’t think much of Bob and plots instead to inveigle her daughter into a grand amour with the seemingly more socially acceptable and affluent, Harvey Yates (Cyril Ring). Unfortunately, Yates is a con artist, conspiring with an accomplice, Penelope (Kay Francis) to lighten Mrs. Potter of her $100,000 diamond necklace. When the scheme falls apart, Penelope plants evidence to suggest the foiled robbery was all Bob’s doing and Polly is forced to accept a proposal of marriage from Yates. Meanwhile, in the backdrop are Chico and Harpo – basically playing themselves - exploiting Hammer’s absent-mindedness and reoccurring distractions to stir the early rumblings of the hotel’s foreclosure into some truly hilarious and unbridled mayhem.
The Cocoanuts is, of course, based on the Broadway smash hit by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, with an unusually forgettable score by Irving Berlin. To accommodate the Marx Brothers Broadway commitments on Animal Crackers, the picture was made entirely on sound stages at Paramount’s Astoria production facilities, with studio-bound painted backdrops subbing in the for the sunny shores of Florida. Personally, I don’t mind the staginess of the piece. It adds a quaint verisimilitude without actually doing a literal ape of the Broadway original. As in the Broadway incarnation, the movie heavily relies on the Marx Brothers rare and distinct gifts to carry to load: Groucho’s caustic and insulting byplay, Chico’s fractured English and misunderstandings, complete with an electric piano solo interlude and Harpo’s impulsive and oversexed antics that, when viewed today, border on aggressive and predatory obsession. Recalling that The Cocoanuts was made during the absolute start of Hollywood’s infancy with sound recording, all of the numbers performed live with an orchestra just out of camera view (no post syncing to pre-recordings then), co-directors Robert Florey and Joseph Santley achieve a remarkable fluidity in camera movement quite uncharacteristic of the period. Just look at 1929’s Oscar-winning Best Picture, The Broadway Melody for comparison. Fair enough, there remains a distinct ‘theatricality’ to the exercise as a whole; but the musical numbers in particular are given ambitious scope and attention to detail, some nice overhead shots for which choreographer, Busby Berkeley would later spark a tradition over at Warner Bros. Berlin’s score never goes beyond the pedestrian; a shame and, frankly, a shock for the composer who gave us so many memorable songs during his lengthy career.
Regardless, all the necessary trademarks one expects from a Marx Brothers show are here in spades: The Cocoanuts greatly benefiting from its well-seasoned pros: Groucho’s flagrant flippancy, Chico’s eloquent befuddlement, leading to more frustration for Groucho during the now infamous ‘viaduct’ (a.k.a. ‘why a duck?’) skit; Margaret Dumont’s starchy dowager, unapologetically unknowing of Groucho’s doubletalk, and Harpo, either chasing skirts, devouring virtually everything in sight or pickpocketing the silverware. The production is only slightly hampered by the virtually nondescript ‘young lovers’ of the piece: Oscar Shaw and Mary Eaton about as memorable as undressed Melba toast. Kay Francis and Cyril Ring are an amiable pair of monsters conspiring against the house, but destined to get their just deserts in the end. We must also tip our hats to opera star, Basil Ruysdael as the dour house detective, Hennessey who nevertheless gets to warble ‘The Toreador Song’ from Bizet’s Carmen; also, the Berlin specialty, ‘I Want My Shirt.’
The filmic adaptation of Animal Crackers jettisons all but two of the Broadway show’s songs, telescoping the tale of a weekend party given at the grand estate of Mrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont) to show off a priceless work of art entitled ‘After the Hunt’. The painting’s society debut perfectly dovetails with the highly anticipated arrival of big game hunter, Capt. Jeffrey Spaulding (Groucho), newly returned from his African safari, and ushered into Rittenhouse’s manor by a flamboyant parade of native bearers. However, a bit of petty larceny is afoot. Rival society matron, Mrs. Whitehead (Margaret Irving) conspires with her jealous daughter, Grace (Kathryn Reece) to switch the masterpiece with a cheap copy Grace did in art school. In tandem, Rittenhouse’s own daughter, Arrabella (Lillian Roth) has less circuitous plans to replace ‘After the Hunt’ with her boyfriend, John Parker’s (Hal Thompson) near perfect replica, thus proving his merits as an aspiring artiste. Once again, Chico and Harpo are the outsiders of the piece as party crashers, Emanuel Ravelli and ‘the professor’ respectively; accomplices in Arrabella’s bait and switch until all three paintings suddenly go missing, necessitating the involvement of Det. Hennessey (Edward Metcalfe).
Morrie Ryskind’s screenplay leaves room for only two of the Broadway shows songs; ‘Hurray for Captain Spaulding’ (later to become Groucho’s reoccurring anthem), and a new ballad, coauthored by the legendary Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmar, ‘So Romantic’ – a duet for Arrabella and John, later reprised by Harpo in an eloquent harp solo. Minimizing these distractions helps to promote the picture’s undiluted Marxian mayhem. More than any other picture in this collection, Animal Crackers is devoted to more of what made the brothers Marx renowned; Groucho’s brittle exchanges with Chico, Zeppo and Dumont are the veritable highlight. But there is also room for Chico’s unique isometrics on the keyboard, often described as piano ‘gunfire’, and an insane game of poker brilliantly executed by Chico and Harpo against two thoroughly nonplussed society matrons destined to lose more than their good name and social standing by partaking. Many today will forget Groucho’s infrequent addresses to the audience throughout Animal Crackers, in effect pausing the onscreen action, is a droll burlesque of the motif used by playwright, Eugene O’Neill in Strange Interlude; then, a Pulitzer Prize-winning drama on everyone’s lips; another smack in the puss of high art vs. its more mainstream lowbrow derivatives. Victor Heerman’s direction lacks the inventiveness of The Cocoanuts. Indeed, Animal Crackers remains the closest thing to a filmed stage show; the camera stationary for long periods. To compensate, the sets depicting Mrs. Rittenhouse’s Long Island estate are uber-lavish in the then-trending deco style; gorgeous, absurd architectural atrocities of chic good taste and utterly enormous to a fault.
Norman Z. McLeod’s Monkey Business (1931) marked a pensive departure; the Marx Brothers relying on brand new material rather than a pre-sold title with proven audience-pleasing antics inherited from a stage hit. Producer Herman J. Mankiewicz, newly appointed at Paramount, was taking no chances, assigning crackerjack writers, S. J. Perelman and Will B. Johnstone to come up with some situations to inveigle them. Relying on the formula of their previous two movies, Monkey Business has a wafer thin plot, immeasurably fleshed out by silly skits. Unforgivably, the picture lacks the participation of Margaret Dumont, whom Groucho once referred to as ‘the fifth Marx Brother’. Indeed, Dumont is ‘the commodity’ greatly missed in Monkey Business, replaced by the lithe Thelma Todd (whose mysterious death from presumed asphyxiation barely four years later, discovered by a maid slumped over the wheel of her Lincoln with a bashed in nose, neck lacerations and two cracked ribs, was rather idiotically ruled as an ‘accidental suicide’ by the Los Angeles Coroner). In Monkey Business the boys play stowaways aboard a European luxury liner bound for Manhattan. Caught unaware, they come into conflict with each other after taking sides in a gangland rivalry between Alky Briggs (Harry Wood) and J.J. ‘Big Joe’ Helton (Rockliffe Fellowes). Helton hires Chico and Harpo as his bodyguards, while Briggs takes on Groucho, who is actually mad for his employer’s wife, Lucille (played by Todd). Bringing up the rear, Zeppo becomes enamored with Helton’s wide-eyed daughter, Mary (Ruth Hall) whom Briggs kidnaps during a lavish costume party, thus necessitating all the brothers valiant in coming to Mary’s aid and rescue.
Monkey Business is by far the most uneven of the Marx Brothers movies; Perelman and Johnston, with further assistance (i.e. tinkering) from screenwriter Arthur Sheekman, creating an utterly pointless patchwork, borrowing ideas and skits wholesale from the Marx Brothers own Vaudeville repertoire. Groucho is as Groucho does; unerring in his verbal assault on the Captain’s first mate (Tom Kennedy), Chico, both gangsters, and, of course, Thelma Todd, the beautiful brunt of his wicked humor. The picture also features two irrefutable highlights: first, Harpo’s ‘Punch and Judy’ pantomime; a tour de force of daft and breathtakingly original sight gags; second, a sequence near the end where each of the brothers attempts to get past customs without their passports, lampooning Maurice Chevalier. Prior to the making of Monkey Business, Zeppo had dropped hints of his eagerness to retire from the act, and, in response, the writers here have really beefed up his part. There are whole scenes devoted to Zeppo, a couple exhilaratingly hilarious ‘love scenes’ with Ruth Hall, and a chance for the vastly underrated Marx brother to be the most competently chivalrous during their eleventh hour rescue of Mary.
Monkey Business was a solid and sizable hit, followed almost immediately by Horse Feathers (1932). Once again, Leonard McLeod directed; writers, Perelman, Johnston and Sheekman contributing to the creative badinage, but this time with Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby adding their own spin to the experiment. Horse Feathers is a delicious farce, centered on the future welfare of Huxley College; an institute whose top-heavy Board of Directors (a lot of old men with white beards) have only just either sealed their own fate or saved the day by appointing Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff (Groucho) as their progressive voice for reform. After some early deliberations, Prof. Wagstaff deduces all Huxley really needs to be put back on the path to fiscal solvency is a good football team. To hell with academics (…and academics – if you catch my drift); the seats of higher learning supplanted by the decision to train a team of athletes capable of winning just one season on the playing field. It all sounds good to Jennings (David Landau), the corrupting influence who secretly supports rival Darwin College and aims to discredit Huxley by recruiting a pair of pro bruisers for Darwin’s team (played with affecting dimwittedness by muscle-headed drunkards, Nat Pendleton, James Pierce). A case of mistaken identity ensues as Wagstaff fallaciously books Baravelli (Chico Marx) and Pinky, the dog catcher (Harpo) for Team Huxley. Wagstaff is monumentally disappointed in his son, Huxley senior, Frank (Zeppo) who is courting college widow, Connie Bailey (Thelma Todd again). However, all is fair in love and revolution; Baravelli, and Pinky vying for time with Connie, much to Frank’s chagrin.
Horse Feathers is the most ‘plot-driven’ of the Marx Brothers movies at Paramount; Kalmar and Ruby writing a pair of catchy ditties for Groucho (I’m Against It, and, I Always Get My Man) and ‘Everyone Says I Love You’ – a ballad invariably taking on unique meaning as each of the rival Lochinvars warbles it to Connie in their own inimitable way. The picture is very much slanted in Groucho’s favor and plays to his strengths. The caustic taunts and quips crackle with cohesiveness; much more than just a series of one-liners loosely strung together. But the highlight of Horse Feathers is unequivocally the football match; gussied up with tethered pigskin and a metal garbage can tricked out to replicate the climactic chariot race from the 1929 silent version of Ben-Hur. Arguably, after Horse Feathers there was nowhere else to go but down. Today, the Marx Brothers penultimate movie made at Paramount – Leo McCarey’s Duck Soup (1933) is near universally, and I would suggest, justly regarded as the pinnacle of their movie careers. Alas, in its day it was a critical disaster, performing badly at the box office. It is difficult to understand the reasons for such open hostility. Perhaps this hilarious spoof, penned by Sheekman and Nat Perrin, with songs by Kalmar and Ruby, cut too close to an insult for all those brave lads who had defended America’s honor in WWI. Or maybe, the idea of an absurd oligarchy threatening its neighbors was a might too forecasting of the recent appointment of Adolf Hitler as Germany’s outspoken Chancellor.
Whatever the case, critics in its time railed against Duck Soup with uncharacteristic venom. The plot concerns a bankrupted principality, Freedonia; its gaggle of wily politicos largely kept afloat by the auspices of the wealthy, Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont at long last restored to this mirthful milieu). With no money to back their nation, Freedonia is in very real danger of being absorbed by neighboring nation, Sylvania; its ambassador, Trentino (Louis Calhern) maliciously plotting the downfall. Teasdale, however, favors the appointment of Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) to the presidency and refuses to budge before signing any more checks to shore up Freedonia’s national debt. Trentino is appalled by Teasdale’s blind faith in Firefly. In turn, Firefly wastes zero time making a very bad enemy of the Ambassador. In reply, Trentino hires a pair of spies, Chicolini (Chico) and Pinky (Harpo) to unearth some dirt he can use to launch a political scandal that will oust Firefly from his seat of power. Unsuccessful in his endeavors, Trentino vows to take his nation into war. But the outnumbered and ill-equipped Freedonians nevertheless withstand his assault.
Duck Soup is irrepressibly anarchical; its screenplay, a veritable concentration of astringent digs at political uncertainty, with Kalmar and Ruby contributing an almost operatic leitmotif to the two extended numbers that open and close the show. ‘These Are The Laws of My Administration’ is a sublime assault on the bureaucratic ‘red tape’ afflicting most political machinery (the U.S. being no exception), while ‘The Country’s Going to War’ is a sort of march, lockstep and minstrel show set to big band swing; Firefly, the bastion of his nation, constantly changing clothes to represent his ever-elevating rank as Commander and Chief. Best of all is Groucho’s verbal brutalization of Margaret Dumont, who takes virtually every pointed insult in stride with never-waning affection. But the absolute highlight of the piece remains the “mirror sequence” where Harpo, dressed as Groucho, uncannily mimics Groucho’s every subtle gesture and befuddlement at seeing ‘a mirror image’ of himself in a doorway. Duck Soup has the great luxury of Leo McCarey in the director’s chair; McCarey a master craftsman in the art of storytelling. Despite the fact Duck Soup may be the most heavily skit-laden and set piece-driven vehicle ever designed for the Marx Brothers, the picture never feels disjointed or clumsily stitched together; each vignette effortlessly folding into the next with the plot’s trajectory always caught in a forward moving motion.
For years the rumor was the Marx Brother Paramount contract was not renewed because of Duck Soup. Actually, Groucho had already managed to free the act from its oft tyrannically mismanaged tether. By 1932, the Marx Brothers were free agents. They chose to make Duck Soup at Paramount after plans for their independent passion project, ‘Of Thee I Sing’ were repeated delayed and finally laid to rest, never to be resuscitated. By this time, Chico, an avid poker player, had managed to befriend MGM’s VP, Irving Thalberg, resulting in an official meeting set up to discuss other options in furthering their careers over at Metro. Thalberg was, in fact, genuinely ecstatic about acquiring the act; a move that, at least in hindsight, proved the Marx Brothers undoing. For starters, Zeppo formally announced his retirement before the ink had dried on their contract. And although the movies the Marx Brothers made at MGM would be lavishly appointed (and, in the case of their first two projects: A Night at the Opera, 1935, and, A Day at the Races, 1937) class acts imbued with Thalberg’s impeccable knack for good timing and great storytelling; each movie increasingly watered down the effectiveness of the brothers wild-eyed insanity, until what we get are more fitful flashes of controlled comedy, cleverly sandwiched between a love story and well-oiled songs and dances, meant to rival the brothers’ crazy quilt in comedy skits.
There is no getting around it: the Marx Brothers at MGM are not what they had been over at Paramount. Worse for the future of the act was Thalberg’s unforeseen death in 1936, right in the middle of making A Day at the Races. Thalberg’s passing sent seismic shudders through the whole of Hollywood (the community in fact, observing an entire day’s shutdown to mourn him). It also meant the brothers had lost their biggest proponent on the backlot. MGM had never enjoyed lasting success with comedy, perhaps because even under Thalberg’s dominion, the studio edicts sought to wrangle and, in effect, place a stranglehold on the true comedy geniuses of their era, forced to conform to Metro’s uber-suave and ultra-sophisticated glamor factory precepts. Louis B. Mayer’s transitional involvement with The Marx Brothers did not go smoothly; Mayer, arguably bungling the alliance, first by loaning out what he considered his ‘contract players’ to RKO; then, by recalling them to appear in pictures of questionable artistic merit, before cancelling their contract outright. While A Night at the Opera (1935) and A Day at the Races (1937) yielded the greatest profits of any of their movies, many today argue neither represents the true temerity of their artistry.
While we patiently wait for the Warner Archive to mine their Marx Brothers gold bullion, Universal Home Video has inaugurated the team’s first 5 films in an ambitious Blu-ray collection, the result of considerable efforts to turn back the hands of time on these almost 90 year old masterpieces of caustic counterculture comedy. The results, while thoroughly impressive, have not been altogether successful in achieving that goal. This, to be sure, is no fault of the tireless work, time and money Universal has spent to salvage what was possible from decidedly ‘less than perfect’ surviving elements. Let us be clear about something first: The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers and Duck Soup were never going to find their way to Blu-ray nirvana; chiefly, because of the shortsightedness derived from previous administrations at Paramount, and later, Universal; who acquired these films and became their custodians only after they had already and repeatedly been butchered, re-edited for TV reissues, used to make multiple prints, and, generally archived with all the foresight of a junk dealer leaving priceless Rembrandts out in the dampening snow of late January to molder with the past and eventually decay.
What Universal has done here is perform a minor miracle with what has survived, despite fate, employing every digital tool in their arsenal to arrest, set back, and, on occasion, wipe clean the ravages of time. For the most part, their endeavor has been a great success, with whole portions of each film looking decades younger and renewed with unblemished images, mostly free of age-related dirt and scratches. What cannot be undone is the loss of first generation – or even second generation – excised footage; intermittently replaced by grainy dupes that continue to suffer from obvious degrading in terms of overall clarity and quality, with weak contrast and other inevitable distortions, fading, shrinkage, etc. et al built in. Universal has gone to great pains to eradicate these anomalies and stabilize the image as much as is technologically possible. The results are imperfect and, alas, must always remain as such. This, however, should not negate all of the effort poured into achieving the very best visual presentation each of these films has ever had on home video. The audio has equally been given the attention it deserves. Owing to its live recordings, The Cocoanuts is in the roughest shape; Duck Soup sounding marginally more strident and occasionally garbled during its songs than the other three movies in this collection. Again, it’s all about source materials and the proper care and maintenance of them over time. The Marx Brothers legacy was afforded no such luxury until very recently and it shows.
A complete surviving print recently discovered and preserved by the BFI in England allows, for the very first time, a complete release of Animal Crackers, minus the distracting cuts that were later made, with all first generation materials presumably junked somewhere along the way. There is occasional twitter and noise present on all these releases; resulting in background and fine detail jitter. Universal has minimized this effect. They have been unable to entirely eradicate it. Regrets. Forgivable, perhaps; though regrettable nonetheless. In all cases, the audio is 2.0 DTS mono; variable and tinny. The best news is arguably had in the extras: each film given its own expert commentary, drawing on such imminent historians as Anthony Slide (The Cocoanuts), Jeffrey Vance (Animal Crackers), Robert Bader – together with Harpo’s son, Bill (Monkey Business), F.X. Feeney (Horse Feathers) and Marx Brothers aficionado, Leonard Maltin (Duck Soup). Best of all is The Marx Brothers: Hollywood’s Kings of Chaos; at just a little under an hour and a half, a thoroughly comprehensive homage, appreciation, tribute and history, drawing upon a host of contemporary critics, historians and other new and vintage discourse. The least prepossessing of the extras is ‘Inside The NBC Vaults’; what amounts to a few badly truncated snippets from appearances made by Groucho and Harpo on The Today Show. We also get a handsomely produced 10 page booklet, providing a thumbnail history of the Marx Brothers early Vaudeville and Hollywood careers.
Bottom line: The Marx Brothers are an acquired taste, meaning that once seen, it has been immediately acquired. I cannot think of a single person alive today who does not find at least something memorable about these four legendary performers and geniuses, their impressive contribution to the world of comedy in general and film comedy in particular, impossible to accurately quantify, but likely to endure as long as the memory and Universal continues to treasure their legacy with the utmost care paid, as they have so obviously done herein. Very highly recommended, folks! Buy today. Treasure forever.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
The Cocoanuts - 4
Animal Crackers - 5
Monkey Business - 4
Horse Feathers - 4.5
Duck Soup - 5+
Overall – 3