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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Marx Brothers Collection
Marx Brothers Collection
Warner Bros. // Unrated // May 4, 2004
List Price: $59.92 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by John Sinnott | posted May 3, 2004 | E-mail the Author
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The Marx Brothers were one of the biggest comedy acts of the 30's and 40's.  They made several classic movies, and they are still household words today.  They started out doing vaudeville, and eventually stared in their own broadway shows.  These plays got the attention of Hollywood, and the Brothers signed a contract with Paramount.  They made five films between 1929 and 1933 with that studio, the first two adaptations of their Broadway hits:  The Coconuts (1929,) Animal Crackers (1930,) Monkey Business (1931,) Horse Feathers (1932,) and Duck Soup (1933.)  The last of these, Duck Soup, was a horrible flop.  Zeppo left the group, and the remaining brothers thought their careers might be over.  But as luck would have it, Chico Marx played bridge with Irving Thalberg, a powerful executive at MGM.  Chico was able to talk his friend into signing the group to his studio, then the most powerful movie factory in Hollywood.  A boxed set of seven of the brothers movies is now available on DVD containing all six movies that they did for MGM, along with the single feature that they filmed for UA in their later years.

Three of the films are avalible in the boxed set and are also sold seperately.  Click on the link below to go directly to their reviews:

A Night at the Opera

A Day at the Races

A Night in Casablanca

The other four weaker features are avalible only in this boxed set.  These movies, Room Service, At the Circus, Go West and The Big Store, are presented on two DVDs.  Each double feature is a two-sided disc with one feature on each side.

Room Service:

Riddle:  When is a movie staring three Marx Brothers not a Marx Brothers movie?  When it's a movie that wasn't written especially for them, and doesn't use the screen personalities they so carefully developed.  All of Marx Brothers movies up to and including A Day at the Races were written with them in mind, and it matched their style of humor.  But the movie they made in 1938, Room Service, was based on a popular play and was never intended for the Marx', and it shows.

Gordon Miller (Groucho Marx) is the manager of a soon to be produced play.  It'll be produced just as soon as he finds a backer for it.  He and the entire crew have been staying in a hotel during rehearsals, and have run up an incredible bill.   Luckily, a rich man wants to finance a play.  He promises to return in the morning to sign a contract and hand over a check for $15,000.  But the hotel manager has had enough and wants to throw Miller, his treasurer Harry Binelli (Chico Marx) and their friend Faker (Harpo Marx) out on the street.  But the trio has to keep the room for a day until they can collect the money from their backer.  So the group, along with the play's author (Leo Davis played by Frank Albertson) who just happens to show up, comes up with one scheme after another to stay in the room.  But will they be able to hold the manager off long enough?

This was the first movie that the Marx Brothers made following the untimely death of Irving Thalberg, and his touch is notably absent.  Gone are the high production values of their previous two films.  Room Service was made on the cheap, with almost the entire movie taking place in a single hotel room.  There were no musical numbers either, something that I didn't necessarily miss, but which was a departure from the formula that had served the brothers so well in the past.

The film didn't fit the Marx Brothers either.  There was no fast paced banter between Groucho and Chico, Harpo, who barely appeared in the film, didn't have any pantomime scenes, and the pace of the movie was very slow compared with their previous efforts.  The personalities that audiences had come to know had been altered a bit.  Chico wasn't out to con Groucho, and Harpo didn't chase any women.  Even Groucho's name was sedate in this film.  Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush, Prof. Quincy Adams Wagstaff, and Rufus T. Firefly were what audiences had come to expect as a moniker for Groucho's character, not something as common as Gordon Miller.

Most notably absent from this film was Margaret Dumont, the perfect foil to Groucho's exuberant over the top style.  Her upper class bearing and pompous attitude, coupled with that dismissive look of hers, made her the ideal straight man.  She always looked like she never understood what Groucho was going on about, and by all accounts she didn't.  Apparently she never understood any of the jokes in the films.

There really isn't a love interest for Groucho in this movie.  The closest thing to that is the female lead in the play, a small part filled by Lucille Ball.  Unfortunately, Ball is wasted in this film since her role is a straight part, and you'd never guess what a talented comedienne she really is.

Without an upper class person to poke fun at, this movie lacks a lot of the edge and social commentary that the other Marx movies have.  But that isn't to say that this film is horrible, it isn't.  The movie would have been pretty good had other comedians been cast as the leads.  Some of the lines are funny, and the plot is pretty humorous in itself.  But there are no memorable lines or quotes, something the earlier movies all had.  In the end, Room Service comes across as an average late 30's comedy, not a classic madcap comedy like the earlier Marx Brothers movies had been.

At the Circus:

Jeff Wilson (Kenny Baker) is the owner of a small circus.  He owes John Carter (James Burke) $10,000 and the note is about to come due.  Carter would rather have the circus than the money, but Wilson isn't worried, the circus is doing well and he has the money.  His assistant, Antonio Pirelli (Chico) isn't so confident and wires his old attorney friend J. Cheever Loophole (Groucho) to meet the circus.  As soon as Groucho arrives, Carter's men ambush Wilson and steal the $10,000 he's saved.  Now time is running out.  Loophole, Pirelli and their friend Punchy (Harpo) only have a few days to find out who took the money and retrieve it.  But Carter won't stand by and idly let the circus slip from between his fingers.

This movie is a lot better than its disc mate.  There is a lot of the banter and jokes that we've come to expect from the Marx Brothers and a great deal of madcap hi jinx, but you can tell that the boys are starting to run out of steam.  This movie is a much more standard type of comedy, with a lot of the zaniness that made their earlier films so delightful missing.  Musical numbers pop up more frequently in this show, including a lively jazz number that was reminiscent of A Day at the Races.  The acting wasn't as fresh in many parts and the show feels a little tired.

The most glaring change in this movie over their earlier ones is that the brother's personalities have been toned down. Groucho isn't trying to marry Margaret Dumont for her money any more, and Chico isn't an unrepentant con man.  They are now upstanding citizens, albeit zany ones, that are selflessly helping a circus owner.

Having said that, this is still a funny movie.  Not one of their best, but still worth owning.  There are some hilarious scenes, my favorite being when Harpo and Chico search the strong man's room while he's sleeping.  Another great moment is when Groucho believes he has discovered the stolen money in a female tightrope walker's room.  She takes the wallet and puts it down the front of her shirt.  Groucho turns to the camera and says "There must be some way of getting the money.... without getting into trouble with the Hayes office."
This movie still has enough of that Marx Brother's magic to make it a delight for fans of classic comedy.  The songs are interminable (with the exception of when Groucho sings
"Lydia the Tattooed Lady") but the jokes and gags more than make up for it.  This is an amusing film.
 
Go West:

MGM continues to cast the Marx Brothers in more mainstream comedies with their next picture, Go West.

Joseph Panello (Chico) and his brother Rusty (Harpo) set out for 'The West" by swindling S. Quentin Quale (Groucho) out of the train fare.  Once they arrive, they start prospecting, and obtain a deed to some land as collateral for a $10 loan from an old prospector.  Unbeknownst to the pair, the railroad wants to buy that land for $50,000.  Meanwhile Quale has managed to hitchhike his way out west.  He runs into Joseph and Rusty just in time to stop them from being cheated out of the deed by the villains of the picture, John Beecher (Walter Woolf King,) and Red Baxter (Robert Barrat.)   The rest o fthe picture is taken up by Beecher and Baxter trying to get the deed, while the Panellos and Quale try to hand on to it.

It is sad that the Marx brothers weren't able to continue to make the kinds of movies that made them famous.  This film is dull and witless for the most part, with many of the gags either duplicated or derivative of the stunts they pulled in earlier movies.  The pacing of the movie is horrible, with the show slowing down terribly in the middle.  While there were some funny bits, like the chase on the train at the end, much of the movie just fails.  The section that takes place in the Indian camp was not funny at all, with every joke falling flat.

Groucho really suffers in this movie.  Margaret Dumont doesn't appear, and he has no one to unleash his barbs upon.  The jokes he does tell are one-liners, not a string of insanity that was his trademark.  And even that he does too infrequently.  With most of the gags being slapstick, Groucho doesn't have the chance to shine like he did in the earlier movies.

While not the worst movie in this set (that honor goes to the movie on the other side of the disc, The Big Store) it is one of the Brothers weaker works.

The Big Store:

This was the last movie the trio created for MGM, and it is regarded as one of the worst films the Marx Brothers made.  It's sad to see how low they've fallen over the course of the movies in this set.

Tommy Rogers (Tony Martin) has inherited half of a large department store and want to sell his interest so that he can create a music conservatory for children.  But the man who owns the other half, Mr. Grover (Douglass Dumbrille,) has been embezzling and knows that if the books are audited prior to a sale, he'll be caught.  So he sends some thugs out to kill Tommy.  Tommy's best friend Ravelli (Chico) worries that something might be up and acts as a bodyguard.  When the first attempt on his life fails Martha Phelps (Margaret Dumont,) Tommy's aunt, hires detective Wolf J. Flywheel (Groucho) and his assistant Wacky (Harpo) to guard her nephew.  But even with three guards, Grover won't give up.

This was a poor film.  Just from watching the credits, you know something different is going on in this movie:  The Marx Brothers share top billing with Tony Martin.  As sad as it sounds, it's true.  What's worse is that Martin probably deserves it because his part is as big as that of any of the Marx Brothers.  There are many problems with this movie, but it basically boils down to the fact that it isn't funny.  The Marx Brothers have a much smaller role, and the plot takes precedent over the humor.  The brothers are almost regulated to supporting characters.

This movie just doesn't flow well.  There were way too many songs in this film, most of them interminable. The Tenement Symphony sticks out as a particularly bad number, even for a Marx Brothers film.  The big climax, something that was good even in Go West, falls flat here, a slapstick chase where the film has been sped up to make the action more frantic and only serves to suck any humor out of the situation.

This film is a sad ending to the Marx Brothers relationship with MGM that started out so well with one of their best movies, A Night at the Opera.
 

The DVD:

Audio:

All of these movies have a mono soundtrack as they were originally presented.  There is a small amount of hiss present, but it is not distracting.  The dialog is easy to hear though some of the s' are distorted.  Given the age of the film, the movie sounds very good.  Subtitles are available in English, French and Spanish.

Video:

The black and white full frame video image is very good overall.  The prints had a good amount of contrast and excellent detail with very little grain.  The movies were soft but this wasn't a major problem.

There were two prints used to create the master for Room Service.  The majority of the film is made from an excellent print that is slightly soft but otherwise very fine.  The second print that was used only for a few scenes was more worn and scratchy.

The Extras:

There is a trailer for each movie, and at least two shorts accompanying each film.

The first short on the Room Service DVD is Party Fever, a 1928 Our Gang comedy. Butch and Alfafa are trying to win the "Mayor for a Day" competition because the winner gets a date with Darla.

The second short is The Daffy Doc, a black and white Looney Tunes cartoon featuring Daffy Duck and Porky Pig.  This cartoon was pretty funny, as most of the Looney Tunes shorts are.  It was a treat finding this cartoon on the disc.

At The Circus had Dog Daze, another Our Gang film, and Jitterbug Follies, a cartoon featuring Count Screwloose and Jr.

The shorts included with Go West are Quicker 'n a Wink, a film showing some high speed photography that was very fun to watch.  There was also Cavalcade of San Francisco, a travelogue about the city, and The Milky Way, a cartoon about the 'poor little kittens who lost their mittens.'

Go West also features an audio promotional spot for the movie, Leo is on the Air.

The Big Store featured Flicker Memories a great parody of silent movies.  They took a silent drama and dubbed a voiceover to it, in the style of Mystery Science Theater 3000.  It was very funny, much funnier than the movie it accompanies.

There is also Officer Pooch, a Technicolor Hanna-Barbera cartoon, and the audio to a song that was cut from the movie, Where's the Music.
 
Final Thoughts:

I'm glad that A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races are finally available on DVD.  They are both great movies, and have some fabulous extras.  A Night in Casablanca and At the Circus are both good too, though the others in the set are mediocre or worse.  Warners has created an interesting pricing scheme for these movies though:  The three individual DVDs retail for $19.97 each, or $59.91 for all three.  The boxed set with those three plus four more movies retails for $59.92.  For the extra penny, I'd definitely recommend getting the extra movies and bonus materials.  As for the set itself, the later films drag the rating down a bit:  Recommended.

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