Wednesday, March 28, 2018
Series Report Card: The Marx Brothers (1940)
Hollywood once made a lot of westerns. During the golden age of cinema, stories of cowboys and gunslinging outlaws were the dominating, populist genre. If westerns were super common in this day, goofs on westerns were nearly as common. I think every major comedy team of the thirties and forties did a riff on the western. So it was only natural that the Marx Brothers would eventually put their own mark on it. Their film, “Go West,” shares it title with at least two other farcical takes on the western, showing you how common this idea really was. But is the Marxes' goof on cowboy adventures inspired or insipid?
“Go West” has the Brothers slipping into familiar roles. Set in 1860, the film has Groucho playing S. Quentin Quale, a con man who heads west in search of gold. Similarly on this journey are out-of-place Italian Joseph and his miming brother Rusty. Upon arriving in the west, none of the men find gold. Joseph and Rusty do get involved in a bidding war over a plot of desert line, soon to become valuable thanks to the growing railroad. Hero Terry Turner and his fiance Eve hope to reclaim the deed from Red Baxter, a cold-blooded gunslinger.
The plot, as far as these things go, struck me as needlessly convoluted. The MacGuffin is a deed, granting its owner rights to a swatch of desert. Initially, it seems like gold or oil will be discovered there. Instead, the railway rights is what makes the land valuable. Naturally, a good guy and bad guy are bother after this. There are various supporting characters working for the villain, which are sidelined and bested by the various heroic characters. The land deed is switched hands so many times, that you forget why its so valuable in the first place. Moreover, the man who is giving the land away vanishes mysteriously early on. The plot in a Marx Brothers movie has never mattered less and overcompensated for that irrelevance with unneeded complications.
A side effect of watching movies from the thirties and forties is, sometimes, you need to overlook some less than enlightened depictions of other races. We've already seen it before, with the overly broad black dancers in “At the Circus” and “A Day at the Races.” “Go West” gives the same treatment to American Indians. Boy, is it a little hard to watch. The Indian chief babbles in a nonsensical language, while Groucho makes snide comments. A horned medicine man leaps from a tent, being mocked by Chico and Harpo. There are mentions of “how” and “fire water.” There's even a fairly cringey line about casinos. These things are what they are and you just have to bare through them.
There's one brief moment in “Go West” where it feels like the old, anarchic Harpo is back. It occurs while the three brothers are riding in a stage coach, alongside some stuffy land managers. Harpo begins messing with the guy by switching their hats around, just because it's fun to mess with someone who takes themselves so seriously. It's a good gag though feels suspiciously similar to earlier ones, as does a scene where Harpo attempts to steal cash back from Groucho. Still, Harpo's slapstick shenanigans produce some solid chuckles. Like a scene involving desk drawers that refuse to cooperate. That builds to an even wackier gag involving a cannon.
The endings to the Marx Brothers' movies just keep getting excessively wackier. It's as if MGM's plan to create more accessible, crowd-pleasing films also had to include an increasingly bigger finale. If “At the Circus” had a climax that was a little sweaty, “Go West” has things officially feeling a little desperate. The Marx Brothers and the bad guys jump on a train. Lots of mayhem follows. Harpo gets stretched between two cars. The train goes off the track in a circle. It collides with a house, which is dragged along. Cows awkwardly dance back and forth, the Brothers spin through the air, popcorn pops, and Harpo is dropped out a moving house. And not a single bit of it generates any laughs. The movie gets louder and wackier at the end but also far less funny.