The Marx Brothers
Worst to Best
Thirteen features over twenty years, and the general consensus is that Paramount = the Marx Brothers’ golden era, before drifting into gradual decline after back-to-back hits on moving to MGM. That’s at least partly true, but… read on.
(1949) A fizzle of a final outing for the brothers, one that, due to Groucho’s largely bookended presence as narrator, barely qualifies as a film proper for the trio. Groucho is Detective Sam Grunion, enlisted to find the Royal Romanoff diamonds, hidden in a tin of sardines that Harpo has swiped – amongst other foodstuffs – for a cast of poverty-stricken players. Love Happy began as a Harpo vehicle (he gets a story credit), with sufficient Chico to make his role fairly standard, but the balance is off and laughs are thin on the ground.
Harpo is searched by heavies, his voluminous coat producing all manner of unlikely items, including various parts of a shop dummy, a block of ice, a sled and a live dog.
Female Client (who happens to be Marilyn Monroe in an early bit part): Some men are following me.
Grunion: Really? I can’t understand why.
Go West (Marx Brothers Go West)
(1940) Not the brothers’ final MGM affair, but definitely their slackest for the studio. The potentially rich pickings of a western parody fall mostly flat as they venture in the titular direction to find their fortunes and get mixed up in attempts by a dodgy railroad executive and a saloon owner to obtain an otherwise worthless property in order to build a railway through it. Harpo blows a safe and makes pals with an Indian chief. His legs also stretch to an inordinate length during the madcap train-chase climax. Groucho is the vulgarly named S Quentine Quale.
None are truly inspired, but the stagecoach ride features a cheerful free-for-all of misplaced bags, hats and seats.
Panello: If any trouble starts, we’ll telephone for help.
Quayle: Telephone? This is 1870. Don Ameche hasn’t invented the telephone yet.
(1938) The brothers trek across to RKO and squeeze themselves into an adaptation of an already established play. True, it’s lacking in the wanton anarchy we’ve become used to – and, rightly, expect – but on its own terms, Room Service is quite serviceable. Groucho’s Gordon Miller – a terribly pedestrian name – is staging a play (Hail and Farewell) and eating up a vast bill at his brother-in-law’s hotel. Somehow, despite all the impediments he faces, he manages to plough on through and put it on.
Harpo chases a – flying – turkey around the hotel room with a baseball bat. Chaos reigns.
Miller: (reneging on a deal for dinner) No, when I made that offer, I was prepared to go through with it. But now I’ve eaten, I see things a little differently.
The Big Store
(1941) Groucho’s Wolf J Flywheel is hired by Margaret Dumont’s interested party to serve as store detective and protect her nephew, who has recently inherited half the premises. There’s a lot of bloat in this one, thanks to numerous musical numbers (several courtesy of straight lead Tony Martin), but Grouch gets the amusing Sing While You Sell, which is something, and the final chase sequence through the store is actually rather good.
Dumont’s Martha Phelps visits Groucho in order to furnish him with the particulars of her case, while Harpo’s Wacky types notes. So loudly, it continually drowns out everything Dumont is saying.
Martha Phelps: … I’m afraid, after we’re married awhile, a beautiful young woman will come along, and, uh, you’ll forget all about me.
Flywheel: Don’t be silly. I’ll write you twice a week.
At the Circus
(1939) The brothers’ return to MGM following a brief stop-off at RKO, At the Circus is undoubtedly a step down from the A Day at the Races/A Night at the Opera double that did them so well when they first arrived there, but it’s also far from a write-off. The title says it all, with Groucho’s Cheever J Loophole drafted in by Chico to help save the circus and along the way offer lewd suggestions to Margaret Dumont, persuaded by Groucho to allow a performance at her dinner party (at the expense of French conductor Jardinet, who nevertheless shows up in time to be insulted by Groucho).
Groucho, Chico and Harpo cross-examine the diminutive Professor Atom, on the trail of the stolen ten thousand. Chico continually contrives to foil Groucho’s attempts to extract incriminating evidence of Atom’s brand of cigars, Harpo sneezes, and Groucho causes Atom to corpse.
Groucho: (to camera, on seeing Peerless Pauline hide ten thousand dollars down her top) There must be some way of getting that money, without getting in trouble with the Hayes Office.
A Day at the Races
(1937) Smoother running than its predecessor A Night at the Opera, but simultaneously more bloated and less inspired, I’m probably a little less high on A Day at the Races than the consensus. Groucho’s horse doctor Hugo Z Hackenbush, called in to pose as a real doctor at the sanitorium where Margaret Dumont is promising funding, while a tenuously-connected thread rests the hope for the institution on its owner’s boyfriend’s horse, with Harpo as a jockey.
Not sustained in the way the peak sequences of their earlier films are, but the examination of Margaret Dumont’s Mrs Emily Upjohn, designed to expose Groucho as a sham, is the pick of the pic. Includes Groucho’s memorable insult to Sig Rusman’s Dr Leopold X Steinberg from Vienna “And don’t point that beard at me! It might go off!”
Groucho: (examining Harpo) Either he’s dead, or my watch has stopped.
A Night in Casablanca
(1946) This really should have been their swansong, as they’d have gone out on a (relative) high. No longer attached to MGM, and post-WWII (their previous picture, The Big Store having been released the year America entered the conflict), A Night in Casablanca was self-financed and released through United Artists. The title may suggest otherwise, but this isn’t a spoof of the Bogart movie, even if there’s some surprisingly noir-ish lighting at points. Groucho is Ronald Kornblow, the new hotel manager of Hotel Casablanca (so shades of where they came in with The Cocoanuts), his predecessors having been successively dispatched, and Sig Ruman’s Nazi war criminal is attempting to put his hands on stolen art treasures hidden there.
Ruman’s Heinrich Stubel, planning to make his escape, is packing up his entire wardrobe to increasing frustration and mystification, since Groucho, Harpo and Chico, hiding in wardrobes and trunks, are systematically undoing all his hard work.
Kornblow: (Harpo and Chico are testing his food as a means to a free meal) This food doesn’t look any more poisoned than any other hotel food.
(1929) The brothers’ first movie, adapted from their stage play, with Groucho’s Hammer trying to offload his Hotel de Cocoanut on Margaret Dumont during the Florida land boom. Dumont is trying to engineer her daughter’s marriage to – unbeknownst to her – a conman (naturally, there’s a thoroughly decent suitor to take up the eventual slack). Chico and Harpo arrive, possibly with thievery in mind, but mainly to cause upset. Harpo eats a telephone.
During a theme party, after Harpo steals it, Bail Ruysdael’s detective launches into “I want my shirt” to the music from Carmen (I want my shirt! I want my shirt! I’ll not be happy without my shirt! Guests: He wants his shirt! He won’t be happy without his shirt!)
Bob Adams: Oh, Mr Hammer… There’s a man outside who wants to see you with a black moustache.
Hammer: Tell him I’ve got one.
A Night at the Opera
(1935) The brothers’ first foray with MGM, in which they took hit-making advice from Irving Thalberg and only went and had their biggest by far. Events revolve around bringing the world’s greatest tenor to perform in New York, which involves an ocean crossing, insulting Margaret Dumont, insulting Sig Ruman’s theatre director, and impersonating three famous aviators. There are some very fine sequences here, but there’s also a definite feeling of a neutering the brothers’ most anarchic urges in tandem with increasing time devoted to the straight romantic plotline, something that would only escalate as their tenure with the studio continued.
The state-room scene, in which Groucho’s Otis B Driftwood, already shown to a very small cabin, must contend with the arrival of stowaways Fiorello (Chico), Harpo (Tomasso) and tenor Ricardo (Allan Jones). The cramped quarters only become more cramped as he is prodded into ordering them food, and a procession of maids, an engineer, a manicurist, the engineer’s assistant, and a mopper upper arrive, followed by four stewards with the food itself.
Driftwood: On account of you, I nearly heard the opera.
(1932) Possibly a contender for the highest number of classic Groucho lines, Horse Feathers posits his Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff as the new president of Huxley College, who focusses his attentions on obtaining some pro football players to boost the team. The advice on which comes from his son Frank. Played by, er, Zeppo. No Dumont again, but the returning Todd is once again a godsend.
Harpo and Chico escape kidnap by sawing their way out of a locked room… In circular fashion, around themselves.
Connie: Oh, professor, you’re full of whimsy.
Wagstaff: Can you notice it from there? I’m always that way after I eat radishes.
(1931) Not to be confused with the shipboard antics of A Night at the Opera, this is the one where they all go by their own names, must elude the captain and first mate, fall in with duelling gangsters, one of whom has a daughter for Zeppo to date, and end up at a party on dry land, and then in a barn fight. It’s their first written especially for the screen, and if Margaret Dumont is notably absent, Thelma Todd is very game.
Unsurprisingly, the one with Maurice Chevalier’s passport, passed from brother to brother in turn as they attempt to steal their way through customs by posing as the star. With Maurice’s photo failing to match up, they each offer a rendition of You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me (“If the nightingales could sing like you…”). Highly dubiously, that is until Harpo comes on hitting every note. When his voice becomes slurred, it’s revealed he has a phonograph tied to his back.
Alky Briggs: I want to get a guy on this boat.
Groucho: Well, it’s too late to get him on now. You should have said something before we set sail.
(1930) The brothers’ second feature, and like The Cocoanuts, adapted from their stage play. So much here is sublime, with Harpo fully unhinged and Groucho in magnificent flow. Even Zeppo is given a really good moment (putting down Groucho, of all people). Dumont is marvellous as Mrs “Rittenrotten”, hosting on a party in honour of Groucho’s returning Captain Jeffrey Spaulding (“Hooray for…”), while also overseeing the display of a Beaugard painting that inspires a medley of complicated substitution schemes.
A difficult one, but for me it must be the surreal attempt by Grace (Kathryn Reece) to get back the painting from the Professor (Harpo), during which Harpo reveals he’s five years old and that his true love is a horse.
Spaulding: Why, you’re one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen. And that’s not saying much for you.
(1933) Peak Marx Brothers in so many ways, Duck Soup was their final fling with Paramount, although not so much because the picture bombed (it didn’t) but due to a dispute over unpaid royalties. Groucho, as the wonderfully named Rufus T Firefly, is premier of Freedonia, at dotty Dumont’s insistence, and proceeds to lead the country into war after insulting the ambassador of Sylvania. It’s a razor-sharp war satire. When it’s focussing on the war, that is. It’s also unusual for ditching any pretence at imposing straight romantic leads upon the brother’s antics, and just sticking to the anarchy itself.
Surely the best piece of comedy the brothers put to film, as Chico and Harpo dress up as Groucho, complete with glasses and moustaches, and proceed to confuse first Dumont and then Groucho himself, as Harpo mimics his every movement in front of what Groucho believes to be a mirror. Quite masterful.
Roland: General Swift reports a gas attack. He wants to know what to do.
Firefly: Tell him to take a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda in half a glass of water.