In this reviewer's humble opinion, the Marx Brothers are the greatest of all the great comedy teams--better than Laurel & Hardy, better than Abbott & Costello, better than the Stooges. In their specific comic personas (honed and perfected over years of vaudeville and stage work--lest we forget, they were all pushing or past 40 by the time of their first film, The Cocoanuts), they offered their audience a little something of everything: Groucho gave them fast-talking wiseguy verbal comedy, Chico was a traditional con man dialect comic, and mute Harpo provided a healthy dose of Chaplin-style pantomime, slapstick, and (particularly in their later films) pathos. (Zeppo, the handsome youngest brother, only appears in their first five films, and then as a straight man, though a valuable one.) As a result, they're funny on several different levels. In their best films, their distinct styles merge into a perfect bouillabaisse of madcap comic anarchy, a spot-on balance of broad and intellectual humor that works for viewers of all ages and experiences.
The trouble with TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: The Marx Brothers is that it is not a collection of their best films. As expected with a TCM collection, it is culled from the MGM vaults, and their best film from that era--A Night at the Opera--was already used in the last wave of TCM releases. The rest of their best are from the earlier, Paramount era, compiled in the Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection; indeed, this TCM two-disc set is something of a bargain version of the earlier Marx Brothers Collection, which features all four of these films, plus A Night at the Opera, Go West, and The Big Store.
The four films that make the cut here are relatively weak sauce, with only A Day at the Races widely considered to be one of their best. Released in 1937, it was their second picture for MGM, where they were brought in and personally supervised by the studio's "boy genius," the tireless Irving Thalberg. The producer/studio head worked up a formula for the Marxes' box office success (their no-rules, just-laughs Paramount films had met with steadily decreasing financial returns): engage female viewers and more casual moviegoers by amping up the love stories and production numbers, and soften the brothers' characters by making them champions of the ingénues. The result was A Night at the Opera, the boys' biggest financial success to date.
True to Hollywood thinking, they didn't go messing about with a successful formula for the follow-up. Though the pre-production period was dampened by Thalberg's untimely death in 1936, the wheels were well in motion for A Day at the Races, which follows the broad strokes of Opera closely. Thalberg also saw to it that an important step in the screenwriting process was revisited; as with Opera, the script was taken on the road for a brief series of stage engagements, during which the brothers and their writers were able to tinker with the comic set pieces and try new variations. The result is a near-classic, too long and too beholden to its musical numbers, but filled with wonderful comic bits.
Chico plays Tony, loyal employee of Judy Standish (Maureen O'Sullivan), the owner of the failing Standish Sanitarium. Evil Mr. Morgan (Douglass Dumbrille) wants to take the sanitarium over and convert it to a casino, giving Judy only 30 days to pay off her debt. In desperation, she and Tony decide to bring in the favorite doctor of Mrs. Upjohn (the great Margaret Dumont), the sanitarium's richest (and most hypochondriac) patient: the wonderfully-named Hugo Z. Hackenbush (Groucho). What she doesn't know is that Hackenbush is a horse doctor, and though he'll apparently make sly references to it if there's a good joke to be had (when informed that his salary may be delayed, he retorts, "The last job I had, I had to take it out in trade--and this is no butcher shop. Not yet anyhow"). Meanwhile, Judy's singing boyfriend Gil (Allan Jones) has spent his limited funds on a racehorse, hoping that will make them some money; they've got a good jockey, Stuffy (Harpo), but the horse is a dud.
The screenplay by Robert Pirosh, George Seaton, and George Oppenheimer is smoothly constructed, with exposition fairly painless and comic sequences well-prepared. Hackenbush's welcome to the sanitarium has some robust laughs ("That looks like a horse pill to me." "Oh, you've taken them before"), but the film's most famous scene comes shortly after, when Hackenbush is pinpointed as a racetrack mark by con man Tony, who takes him to the cleaners for a horse tip, all the while sounding the sales call of "Get your ice cream, tootsie fruitsie ice cream." Their interplay is uproarious (Chico: "One dollar and you'll remember me your whole life." Groucho: "That's the most nauseating proposition I ever had"), and the sequence more than earns its reputation, though the scene that follows (in which Groucho works the phones and the intercom to frustrate and mislead the sanitarium's manager) is unjustly forgotten. Other classic scenes include Groucho's examination of Harpo ("Either he's dead or my watch has stopped") and the late-night rendezvous of Hackenbush and a slinky blonde (Esther Muir), whom the bad guys plan to put into a compromising position with the doctor for discovery by Mrs. Upjohn. That scene is a good old-fashioned door-slammer, with some of their broadest slapstick of the MGM era.
On the downside, the comic momentum is too frequently interrupted by the endless production numbers, particularly the snore-inducing "water carnival," which stops the movie cold. Chico and Harpo's piano and harp specialties are pretty enjoyable this time around (Harpo begins his by destroying Chico's piano and hauling the harp out from inside), but all bets are off by the time they get to the unfortunate "All God's Chillun Got Rhythm" number, which will have you lunging for the remote. The scene, which represents the kind of dopey race-baiting that they had sent up themselves in Duck Soup, finds Harpo stumbling into a makeshift ghetto near the brothers' barn hideout; he plays his little flute and they start singing a song about how he's Gabriel (?), leading to an enormous jitterbug dance number, and just when you think it can't get worse, yep, in order to hide in the crowd, the boys slap on a little of the ol' blackface. Ugh.
The film's strict adherence to the Opera formula feels a tad restrictive (Allan Jones returns as the male lead; Harpo is again made immediately sympathetic by giving him an abusive employer; the "tootsie fruitsie ice cream" duet is awfully similar to the "party of the first part" contract negotiation; the climactic sequence in which they delay the start of a big race is a clear counterpart to the wrecking of the opera's opening night) and though you can try not to think about it too much, the big win at the closing race is the result of about four levels of cheating. That's just dithering, though; it's erratic, and way too long and at 107 minutes, but A Day at the Races still sports some huge laughs and classic bits.
Due to the mastering of the discs (the second disc of this set maintains the Room Service/At the Circus flipper set-up from The Marx Brothers Collection), we now jump ahead nearly a decade, to the team's penultimate picture, A Night in Casablanca. The boys had announced that the final film in their three-movie deal with MGM, 1941's The Big Store (not included here, and we're all better for it), was to be "their first farewell picture," but five years later a reunion was put together--reportedly for the purpose (as with most of their later projects) of getting inveterate gambler Chico out of the red.
The plot is not connected to the Humphrey Bogart classic (though Warner Brothers was worried enough to fire off a pre-release missive, which resulted in a celebrated series of letters from Groucho). Groucho plays Ronald Kornblow, the new manager of a Casablanca hotel that has seen its last several managers die under mysterious circumstances. The deaths, it seems, are the result of a plot by Nazis in hiding to steal a treasure stashed somewhere in the hotel. Chico and Harpo are Corbaccio and Rusty, buddies and resourceful men-about-the-hotel, while Charles Drake and Lois Collier play the now-required dull romantic leads.
The project, assembled by independent producer David L. Loew, is considerably better than its less-than-stellar reputation (I'll take it over their final film, Love Happy, any day of the week and twice on Sunday); whether it was lack of inspiration or genuine reunion enthusiasm, the picture plays like a bit of a greatest-hits curtain call, full of deliberate callbacks to themes and bits from their earlier films. Groucho plays a hotel manager (shades of Cocoanuts), Chico is briefly engaged as Groucho's bodyguard (all four brothers worked as bodyguards for competing gangsters in Monkey Business), Harpo explains a plot to frame Groucho via some very funny charades to Chico (as in Races), and Harpo, as his brother's "guinea pig," engages in some inventive eating (as he did in A Night at the Opera and Room Service). The invaluable Sig Ruman, their foil in Opera and Races, returns as the villain (predictably, he is Harpo's boss who beats up on him). And there are several truly funny scenes: Harpo's memorable entrance, his swordfight with one of Ruman's henchman, Groucho's uproariously mean-spirited encounter with a would-be guest (He: "Sir, this woman is my wife. You ought to be ashamed." Groucho: "If that woman is your wife, you should be ashamed"), and Groucho's classic and quotable flirting with the femme fatale ("Oh, come now, you wouldn't say no to a lady." "I don't know why, they always say no to me!")
There's a scene late in the film where the brothers try to sneakily unpack Ruman's trunks while he packs them, and while there are laughs in it, the timing is way off and the pushy score keeps smothering the scene. Groucho brings off some good lines, but the frequency of his takes to camera feels like desperation. Harpo fares well too (an uncredited Frank Tashlin helped devise his gags), but poor Chico doesn't get much to do. There's no mistaking A Night in Casablanca for a classic; director Archie Mayo lets the pace run slack, and the bargain-basement production values are occasionally distracting (particularly at the climax). But it's a treat for fans nonetheless.
Their 1938 film Room Service is also somewhat unfairly maligned; its detractors sniff that it's "not really a Marx Brothers movie," and they're right--but what the hell, there's plenty of great comedies that aren't really Marx Brothers movies either. It does mark (as far as we know) the only occasion in which the boys performed material that hadn't been written expressly for them; the film is based on the long-running hit Broadway comedy by Allen Boretz and John Murray, and was purchased by RKO with the notion of adapting it into a Marx vehicle. Brother Zeppo (now an agent) negotiated the loan from MGM; Morrie Ryskind (who co-wrote The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, and A Night at the Opera) was brought in to rework the play into a Marx Brothers vehicle.
The story centers on the production of heavy drama called "Hail and Farewell," being produced on a shoestring by fly-by-night producer Gordon Miller (Groucho). He's been utilizing rooms and rehearsal space for the show at the White Way Hotel, managed by his brother-in-law Joe Gribble (Cliff Dunstan); Chico is the show's director, Harry Binelli, and Harpo is Faker Englund, a resourceful actor. Two arrivals complicate Gordon's scheme: the play's starry-eyed author, Leo Davis (Frank Albertson), and Gribble's irritable manager, Mr. Wagner (Donald MacBride), who wants to throw the whole lot of them out on the street.
It's a funny script, and surprisingly adaptable--sure, it's missing some of the usual scenes (a Groucho/Chico duet, the music specialties, the singing ingénues, etc), but those elements were starting to get stale and formulaic by this point anyway (as evidenced by their next film). It's interesting to watch the boys trying their hand at a different type of material--the ingenious plot twists and clever turns of the original Boretz and Murray script require a more disciplined approach, and it's a pleasure to watch the notoriously anything-goes performers take that notion out for a spin.
It wouldn't have hurt if someone would have lit a fire under director William A. Seiter, who keeps the pace moving too slowly for it to truly catch fire as a great comedy; the cue pick-ups and multiple entrances and exits just aren't fast enough for the screwball farce that you feel Room Service wanting to be. The supporting performances are pretty weak as well; MacBride is an awfully good foil, but Albertson (who later played Sam Wainwright in It's a Wonderful Life) is just terrible, and up-and-comers Ann Miller and Lucille Ball are mostly wasted in their thin roles. However, the brothers Marx are on top of their game, and stagebound though it may be, Room Service is a pretty decent little comedy.
By the time the Marxes returned to MGM, the absence of Thalberg was being keenly felt in the preparations for their next picture; studio chair Louis B. Meyer never cared much for the brothers, and they were assigned mostly second-class talent for At the Circus. Try as they might, they couldn't convince Meyer to let them road-test the material, even though that process had paid handsome dividends on their last two films. As a result, At the Circus is one of their most strained and least funny movies.
The couple in trouble this time is Jeff Wilson (Kenny Baker) and Julie Randall (Florence Rice); he's a circus proprietor, she's a performer, and Antonio (Chico) is his all-around go-to guy. Jeff plans to pay off his debt and own the circus outright, freeing him to marry Julie, and Antonio suggests Jeff brings in his lawyer pal J. Cheever Loophole (Groucho) to close the deal. But Jeff is robbed and the money is stolen, so the "legal beagle" and his intrepid assistant try to figure out which of the circus performers did the deed. Harpo plays Punchy, the assistant to Goliath the strongman (Nat Pendleton); Harpo is, shockingly, mistreated by his employer.
At the Circus' biggest problem is the relative weakness of the comic bits. For example, Grouch and Chico's big duet, the "badge scene," doesn't work because the premise doesn't make any sense; Chico has been instructed not to let anyone on the train without a badge, and then Groucho (who he has summoned) arrives, and Chico thanks him for coming but won't let him on the train without a badge, and that's pretty much the bit. Chico isn't being crafty or funny, he's just being a moron, so the scene doesn't play--their other great duets (like "tootsie fruitsie ice cream" or the "swordfish" scene in Horse Feathers) at least had a logic to them, tortured though it might have been. The same trouble invades the scene where the trio tries to get the circus midget to offer Groucho a potentially incriminating cigar, which Chico keeps screwing up by giving Groucho cigars of his own--the premise doesn't hold water, because it's just based on Chico being irritating.
That said, the scene has one great line (Groucho tells Chico, "I'll bet your father spent the first year of your life throwing rocks at the stork"), and there's another wonderful moment later, when Grouch catches performer Eve Arden hiding the stolen money in her cleavage and then says, directly into camera, "There must be some way of getting that money without getting in trouble with the Hays Office." Some of their music is fun as well; Chico's piano number is particularly entertaining, and Groucho gets to sing one of his most (justifiably) famous novelty songs, "Lydia, the Tattooed Lady."
But there's no motor to the comedy, and Kenny Baker may very well be the most smug and irritating of all their handsome romantic leads--Allan Jones wasn't exactly an exhilarating screen presence, but at least you didn't want to punch him, and at least he never had to sing a song as maddening as "Step Up and Take a Bow." And speaking of terrible songs, you'd think the last thing they'd want to repeat from A Day at the Races is that horrible Gabriel bullshit, but lo and behold, here's another number with Harpo leading the ghetto kids to the promised land (it may not be more enlightened than its predecessor, but at least it's shorter).
The third act appearance of Margaret Dumont give the picture some much-needed juice, and though her and Groucho's scenes may not have the same bite as their earlier flirtations, they still give the viewer some chuckles for old time's sake. There's also a couple of great sight gags late in the film, as a wide shot reveals Groucho counting out loud as Dumont enters an opulent dinner party for 400 ("98, 99, 400... Looks like they all showed up. No going back for second helpings"), and as a French orchestra is cast off into the sea. But then there's a goofy climax, with cannons shooting people through the air unconvincingly and everyone cowering from a laughably tiny gorilla, and the whole thing kind of peters out. At the Circus is far from vintage Marx Brothers; it's a shame they couldn't have included its far superior follow-up Go West instead.
The four films are spread out over two two-sided discs, utilizing the same transfers and special features as the previous Marx Brothers Collection.
For the most part, the 1.33:1 full-frame black and white transfers are clean and mostly free of heavy grain or print damage. Room Service is in noticeably rougher shape than the other three pictures; perhaps RKO's library wasn't quite as well-maintained.
All four films are presented with their original mono audio presentations. The audio is occasionally thin or hissy, but only sporadically; as a general rule, dialogue is strong and clear and musical numbers are as full and robust as can be expected from films of this age.
Only one of the films has much in the way of bonus features, and that's A Day at the Races. First up is a feature-length running Audio Commentary by author Glenn Mitchell (The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia)--it's got lots of information, but the presentation is arid dry, as if Mitchell is reading from prepared note cards and not really talking about the film in front of him. "On Your Marx, Get Set, Go!" (27:36) is a well-done overview of their style and influence, as well as on the production of A Day at the Races; recent interviews with everyone from comic legends Carl Reiner and Larry Gelbart to historian Robert Osborne to collaborators Irving Brecher and Maureen O'Sullivan add significant insight. The disc's Audio Vault feature includes an outtake of Jones singing "I've Got A Message From The Man on the Mon" (a song cut from the finished film, though it pops up in "reprise" form, from Groucho no less, in the closing moments) and MGM's promotional "Leo Is On The Air" broadcast in support of the film.
We also get original Theatrical Trailers for all of the films, save A Night in Casablanca. The rest of the bonus features are all Vintage Cartoons and Short Films, as part of the original discs' "Warners Night at the Movies" set-up. A Day at the Races includes the very funny Robert Benchley short "A Night at the Movies" (9:59), and three cartoons: "Old Smokey" (7:35), "Mama's New Hat" (8:25), and "Gallopin' Gals" (7:26), directed by a couple of young upstarts named William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. A Night in Casablanca includes the Bugs Bunny short "Acrobatty Bunny" (7:43) and the Joe McDoakes short "So You Think You're a Nervous Wreck" (10:56). Room Service gives us the Our Gang short "Party Fever" (9:34) and the early black and white Looney Tunes cartoon "The Daffy Doc" (6:58). At the Circus has another Our Gang short, "Dog Daze" (10:36), as well as "Jitterbug Follies" (8:44), a cartoon featuring "Count Screwloose and J.R. the Wonder Dog."
Cecilia Ager wrote (and Joe Adamson reprinted) of A Night in Casablanca that "the Marx Brothers have never been in a picture as wonderful as they are." It's a statement borne out by most of the films in TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: The Marx Brothers, which, while not the bottom of the brothers' barrel (that distinction would go to The Big Store or Love Happy), are certainly not their best. And yet all of them at least have their moments, a throwaway gag here or a charming interaction there, that makes them worth a look, at least for fans. But I'm not sure where that positions this set--it's not a good introduction to their humor, but true Marxists will already own the four pictures within, in the superior Marx Brothers Collection. Still, it's like twenty bucks. There's worse ways to spend it.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.