Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, March 31, 2018

Series Report Card: The Marx Brothers (1949)

13. Love Happy

The Marx Brothers' movies had been running on fumes for quite a while. After the anarchic highs of those first five Paramount movies, their output at MGM became less and less interesting with each new installment. By the time “The Big Store” limped on-screen, the Brothers rightfully decided to call it quits. They then reunited for “A Night in Casablanca,” which was equally uninspired and lacking in energy. As the forties drew to a close, the Marx Brothers would star in one more movie together. Groucho would dismiss “Love Happy” as the team's worst movie and many Marx Brothers fans agree with him.

The plot concerns a theater company, a friendly tramp, a can of sardines, and a priceless set of diamonds. The wicked Madame Egelichi wants the valuable Royal Romanoff diamonds for herself. She had a henchman hide the diamonds in a can of sardines. Through happenstance, that can would come into the possession of Harpo, a silent street performer. Harpo is friends with Mike and Maggie, two struggling actors attempting to assemble a stage musical called “Love Happy.” Soon, everyone – along with a mind-reader named Faustino and a detective named Sam Grunion – are after the diamonds for different reasons.

If “Love Happy” seems especially disjointed, there's a good reason for it. The film was conceived not as a proper Marx Brothers movie but as a solo vehicle for Harpo. That's all too apparent, as Harpo easily has the most screen time of the three. Supposedly do to his notorious gambling debts, Harpo insisted Chico have a role in the film. After Chico came on-board, the producers insisted all three Brothers appear in the film. Thus Groucho was added in the role of a narrator who barely interacts with the other two. This makes “Love Happy” a pseudo-Marx Brothers movie, an odd compromise that doesn't satisfy anyone.

As a Harpo starring feature, “Love Happy” is only mildly successful. The film actually works best when it puts comedy aside. There's a key scene where Harpo tries to perk up the sad heroine. He performs silly visual gags and listens intently. It's a sweet moment that even veers towards the surreal, when Harpo enters his shanty lean-too and has a wordless conversation with a pet duck. (It also sets up the inevitable harp playing scene, which is at least incorporate organically into the story, if not the pacing.) Considering Harpo has always been the most child-like of the Brothers, that sweetness is a good fit for him. If the movie abandoned broad gags in favor of slightly surreal whimsy, it probably would've been a lot better.

Even this late into their career, Harpo still had the most energy of the three brothers. Very few of the gags he's given are especially inspired. Jokes involving Harpo quickly catching food in his pockets or grabbing stuff with an extending ice-clamp are pretty lame. A long sequence where Harpo is tortured by the bad guys goes on and on, never getting a laugh from the viewer. There are a couple of quick little gags I like. When the villains are looking for the diamonds, they pull all sorts of items out of his coat pockets, including a sled and a barking dog. Later, the Madame stomps her foot in one room, causing Harpo to yelp in the other room. I also like it when he checks his hair in a mirror, only to turn it around and look at the back of his head.

Chico's role in the movie is fairly small. He has a few scenes with Harpo and a couple of gags on his own. (He never interacts with Groucho.) Once again, there's a scene where Harpo explains stuff to Chico using a game of charades. Of all the times the two have done this, this is by far the least inspired. Naturally, he also has a piano playing scene, a duet with a violin player that is mildly amusing. He also contributes one of the dirtiest jokes I've ever seen in a Marx Brothers movie. Upon seeing Egelichi, her dress blowing in the wind and rendered semi-transparent by the lighting, his hat noticeably grows. I can't believe they got away with that one.

If Chico's role in the movie is small, Groucho's role feels like an afterthought. Mostly, he hangs out in his detective office and narrates scenes, somewhere between being a omniscient narrator and an actual character in the story. It's not until the last act that he actively enters the plot at all. Groucho, who was sporting a real mustache by this point thanks to “You Bet Your Life,” is noticeably disinterested in these affairs. He gets one or two funny lines. One's about hiding an elephant. Another is when he attempts to frisk the villainess. His scenes were apparently not filmed apart from the rest of the movie but it certainly feels that way. Groucho's heart was obviously not in this one.

The non-Marx heroes of “Love Happy” are about as boring as usual. Paul Valentine's male lead is especially snore-inducing. The female side of things are slightly more compelling. Vera-Ellen, already a respected dancer by this point, at least projects a sense of vulnerability and sweetness as Maggie. Ilona Massey appears as Madame Egelichi. As a devoted fan of classic monster movies, I immediately recognized Massey from “Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman” and “Invisible Agent.” Massey, with her exotic accent and cold beauty, is perfectly cast as the steely and villainous countess. She also proves to be a formidable straight woman to the Marxes, playing along nicely and never cracking up. However, she still can't save a baffling scene where the Madame seemingly hypnotizes Harpo.

After the music taking a back seat in “A Night in Casablanca,” “Love Happy” returns to being a full-blown musical. Naturally, being set among actors performing in the theater, there's plenty of singing and dancing. As a musical, it's fairly weak. There's a likable scene, the so-called Sadie Hawkins number, where Ellen dances for a series of sailors. The choreography is interesting. None of the songs are too memorable, though the title track is mildly catchy. There's certainly no classics on the level of “Hoo-ray for Captain Spaulding” or “Lydia the Tattooed Lady.”

“Love Happy” is notable for another reason. It's an early example of product placement being used in a movie. Supposedly the production ran low on cash mid-way through. This led to a climatic chase across the rooftops, where Harpo interacts with a number of billboards. The advertisement are actually story relevant, with Harpo being saved by a cloud of smoke from a cigarette billboard. Or riding a neon light sigh across a roof top. Yes, this is “Love Happy's” required excessively wacky climax. No, it's not any funnier than the last couple times the Brothers' movies did this. The chase scene is interesting more for the heavy presence of product placement than anything else.

Aside from being the final Marx Brothers movie, “Love Happy” is notorious for another reason. It features an early appearance from Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn, immediately recognizable, appears as the sexy client who enters Groucho's office in one brief scene. Unsurprisingly, later posters and VHS releases would heavily promote her role in the movie. For the most part, “Love Happy” represents the Marx Brothers' cinematic journey limping to a sad conclusion. It's interesting more for the circumstances surrounding its creation than its content. As a comedy, it sadly fails, producing far too few laughs. The energy and chaos of the Brothers' earliest masterpieces are long gone, replaced with mediocre gags. “Love Happy” is a movie you're unlikely to love, that probably won't make you happy. [5/10]

"Love Happy" was not exactly the of the Marx Brothers' cinematic careers. All three brothers had cameos in "The Story of Mankind," though not together. Groucho starred in two movies of his own, "Copacabana" and "A Girl in Every Port," but found his greatest post-1940s career on television. In fact, Groucho's TV career would keep him in the public eye long after Harpo and Chico fell off the map. Look at the endearing cultural symbolism of the Groucho glasses. I guess, in 2018, the Marx Brothers are mostly known among movie nerds, their cultural significance long receding. But, I don't know, I still think they're pretty funny.  

Series Report Card: The Marx Brothers (1946)

12. A Night in Casablanca

“The Big Store” was meant to be the Marx Brothers' final cinematic offering. Yet, five years later, the three would reunite for “A Night in Casablanca.” I had always assumed that the film came about because some producer had the ill-conceived idea of reuniting a successful comedy team, long after they had given up the ghosts. Apparantly, however, the Marx Brothers themselves were the driving force behind “A Night in Casablanca.” The three produced the film, developing and sharpening the material with a road show before filming began. Why would the Marxes return to theater screens after saying they were done? Supposedly, the movie was made primarily to help Chico pay off his gambling debts. I don't know if this is true but, if it is, it says a lot about “A Night in Casablanca.”

As the title indicates, the film is indeed set in the Morocan city of Casablanca. Following World War II, an escaped Nazi officer is hiding out in the country, at the Hotel Casablanca. He hopes to reclaim the stolen Nazi treasure left inside the hotel. He's killed three managers to hide his identity. The latest manager, a largely incompetent oddball named Ronald Kornblow, is not so easy to deal with. Soon, Kornblow is paired up with a self-proclaimed and a mischievous (and silent) valet. They quickly become a thorn in the Nazi's side.

“A Night in Casablanca” is probably best known today for something that has nothing to do with the film itself. An urban legend, partially perpetrated by Groucho himself, says that the producers of “Casablanca” threatened the movie with a lawsuit unless they changed the name. This story is absolutely not true. However, it is clear that “A Night in Casablanca” was partially inspired by the legend Bogart/Bergman classic. But only in the loosest sense. Aside from its setting and its story involving Nazi officers, “A Night in Casablanca” has nothing to do with the other film. It can not be considered a parody. If anything, it was cashing in on the more popular film's title.

There's not too much interesting about “A Night in Casablanca,” except for one minor details. In his autobiography, Harpo would write about traveling through Europe in the years before World War II and being disturbed by the rising antisemitism he witnessed. What does that have to do with “A Night in Casablanca?” Like the majority of the trio's films, the plot features the mischievous brothers messing with various squares and stuffed shirts. Except, this time, the square just happens to be a former Nazi. Aside from one line from Groucho, a sarcastic reference to “the master race,” the film never acknowledges that it's about three Jews pestering a Nazi officer. Yet it certainly adds an interesting layer to the proceedings.

Groucho does produce some laughs here. One of his funniest lines is easily missed. It occurs near the film's end, when he turns to Harpo and says he “doesn't want to hear another word” from him. Haha. Though noticeably lacking in energy, Groucho still gives it his all. He cracks jokes about chewing gum to a camel. He harasses a cook by complaining about eggs. One of his funnier little lines occur when a complaining caller asks about his “trunks.” One of his best scenes has him flirting and joking with the film's femme fatale, making fun of her cigarette holder and cracking wise about lost and find.

Harpo is the first Marx Brother we see in “A Night in Casablanca.” He's introduced leaning against a building which collapses once he steps away. He does get some big laughs early on. The scenes of him messing with the bad guy, including sucking his toupee into a vacuum cleaner and messing with his jacket, are early highlights. That energy collapses during a long and largely lifeless scene, where he gets into a sword fight. There's a scene where he pantomimes taking a phone call from Salt Lake City by throwing salt at the receiver. Some of Harpo's bit recall gags in earlier movies. Such as when he starts eating candles and tea cups. Or when he combines the old leg-grabbing gag with a cigarette-eating shoe. It's not top-tier stuff but is worth a chuckle or two.

Once again, Chico gets the short end of the stick. He's mostly reduced following his Brothers around, rarely contributing too many jokes of his. His funniest stand-alone line involves a gag around the name of his camel taxi service. This leads to an amusing conversation with Groucho, about the difference between Chico's daytime and nighttime business, that almost makes it seem like the magic is back. Recalling a scene in “A Day at the Races,” there's a scene where Harpo has to explain a plot detail to Chico through pantomime. It's funny at first but definitely goes on way too long. Chico is also at the center of another gag that's funny at first but goes on too long. The trio are hiding from the villain in his room, hiding in suits, trunks, and closest, always just avoiding detection.

Being produced by the Brothers themselves, “A Night in Casablanca” mostly pushes the boring romantic leads to the side. Charles Drake, as the heroic Lt. Delmar, strikes one as a mildly compelling matinee idol type. Lois Collier is pretty as the female lead but isn't given much more to do besides that. The villainous subplot gets more attention. Sig Ruman, as the hiding Nazi, is likable hammy. He certainly digs into his ridiculous accent. Lisette Verea, as the femme fatale, probably gives my favorite performance in the film. She vamps nicely and has a rapport with Groucho during their scenes together.

Unlike most of the Marx Brothers' films, “A Night in Casablanca” is not really a musical. There's only one proper song. The lounge singer performs a rendition of “Who's Sorry Now?,” a song from 1923 that made its cinematic debut here. You might recognize the song, as it has been covered by many different performers, with Connie Francis' 1958 version being the most successful. Aside from that, “A Night in Casablanca” is pretty low on songs. Chico has his standard piano sequence. It's pretty fun, as he soon has the whole band intimated his movements. Harpo, after uncovering the hidden treasure, finds a harp to play. This scene is less memorable.

As has become all too common place now with the Marxes, “A Night in Casablanca” wraps up with another excessively wacky finale. This one begins with the bad guys escaping on an airplane. The heroes leap aboard, climbing across on a ladder. There's exaggerated fighting and shuffling on the plane. Soon, the plane gets airborne before crashing into the wall of a prison. Even that isn't quite the ending of “A Night in Casablanca.” Once again, there's very few laughs to be had in this extended climax, the movie collasping into some especially desperate physical comedy, far too wacky to be enjoyed.

Ultimately, “A Night in Casablanca” doesn't quite justify its own existence. As a parody of “Casablanca,” it could not be more half-assed. As a Marx Brothers reunion movie, it doesn't really distinguish itself from the Brothers' increasingly weak MGM output. Just as a comedy, it's pretty lacking in laughs, only getting a handful of chuckles that quickly fade from memory. I don't know how successful “A Night in Casablanca” was at the box office but hopefully it at least served its purpose of paying off Chico's gambling debts. Otherwise, the movie really didn't need to exist at all. [Grade: C]

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Series Report Card: The Marx Brothers (1941)

11. The Big Store

By 1941, the Marx Brothers had been making movies for over ten years. While not all where huge hits, their schtick had proven successful. While I'm sure none of them knew at the time that some of these films would become classics, they were certainly aware of their popularity. As the forties began, their contracts with MGM came to an end. Maybe the crowds were getting smaller or the Brothers were just aware of the lessening quality of each films. Either way, the decision was made to make “The Big Store” their big farewell film. This didn't stick but, nevertheless, the film was sold as the last Marx Brothers movie. If that had been the case, the film would be even more disappointing.

As the titles indicates, “The Big Store” takes place around a huge in-door department store. The owner has recently passed away, willing ownership of the successful establish to Tommy, his nephew and a popular singer. He plans on selling his half, letting his aunt Martha decide what to do with the rest. A villain by the name of Grover conspires to kill Tommy and marry Martha, thus taking full control of the building. Suspecting something is up, Martha hires an unconventional detective named Wolf J. Flywheel. Flywheel brings Wacky and Ravelli, two wild friends of his, into the investigation as well.

I know complaining about the plot in a Marx Brothers movie is a futile and useless gesture but “The Big Store's” premise seems especially tossed together. It seems the main purpose of the film is to let the Marx Brothers rampage through a shopping mall. Surely there was an easier way to accomplish that then with a rather morbid gangster plot? The criminal elements, involving a conspiracy to commit murder and a detective (albeit flippantly) investigating things, stick out badly when compared to the wackiness around it. At times, it really does feel like two unrelated scripts, a comedy inside a department store and a crime picture, were stitched together randomly. It's not the smoothest combination.

In many of their MGM's films, the Marx Brothers' antics were considerably softened. You were unlikely to see the Brothers hassle random strangers to the degree they did in, say, “Duck Soup.” No lemonade stand owners were going to be tortured after 1933. We don't see anything of that level in “The Big Store.” However, at least the Brothers are fucking with the squares again. When Groucho is introduced to the villain, he immediately begins to push his buttons. Later, he handcuffs two guys he suspects of being bad guys. At least putting the guys at odds with a stiff-lipped villain reminds me of their earlier, better films.

However, “The Big Store” seems more focused on music than comedy at times. Tony Martin, as Tommy, has two musical numbers of note. The first has him serenading his love interest over a piano. Later, he performs a big number in front of an audience, singing with a full orchestra. Yet even this is not the biggest musical number in the film. That occurs when Groucho leads a dance through the department store, encouraging the employees to “Sing While You Sell.” The number goes on and on, shifting through several genres, showing Groucho selling dresses and rugs. At one point, the song pauses so a woman next to a bassinet can sing. Her delivery is monotone, her expression is wide-eyed, and her body language is stiff. It's an odd moment during a number that's already too long and haltingly paced.

During my review of “Go West,” I noted how the big physical gags in the Marx Brothers' movies were getting increasingly sweaty. “The Big Store” is, by far, their most desperate movie yet. The visual comedy tends towards the excessively zany. One long bit is devoted to the various Murphy beds in the store. A full tent unfolds from the wall. Another, huge bunk bed rolls in and out of the floor. I'm not sure why the film finds this stuff so inherently amusing. As unfunny as that scene is, it's nothing compared to the big finale. The bad guys chase the Brothers around the store on roller skates. There's exaggerated gags, of Harpo leaping off lamps and in-between shelves. Wacky sound effects are layered over these sights. It's all painfully unfunny and shows a deep miscalculation of why people found the Marx Brothers funny in the first place.

Uncomfortable racial representations have cropped up in the Marx Brothers' movies from time to time. Such as exaggerated black dancers or unfortunate Indian stereotypes. “The Big Store,” I'm sad to say, features both of these things. A series of black performers sing a song about picking cotton. At one point, a Chinese family wanders into the store, accompanying by chopsticks playing on the soundtrack. Immediately afterwards, an Indian chief in a full headdress wanders into the scene. From a modern perspective, this stuff is deeply embarrassing. Even looking at the time period, it seems the writers were leaning on this stuff in hopes of generating easy laughs.

There aren't many laughs to be had in “The Big Store” but the ones that do exist mostly belong to Groucho. He gets a few good lines. A phone call mentions Trinidad, in an amusing twist. He name-drops Basil Rathbone in a funny way. An aside to a mannequin got me to chuckle. One of the funnier bits has Groucho breaking the fourth wall again, pointing how expensive Technicolor is. Most of Groucho's laughs come from him messing with other people, including Margaret Dumont, happily appearing again. He aces a job interview by admitting to be a shoplifter. Honestly, one of the funnier bits in the film is one of the smallest, when he casually tosses his hat at a lamp and misses.

Harpo gets the most exaggerated gags, not all of which work very well. It seems wacky props have become a standard part of his schtick. He types on an overly loud typewriter while Dumont attempts to speak. It's a mildly funny gag that then goes too far when the reed flies across the room. Similarly, a bit about Harpo and Groucho hiding their breakfast inside a desk starts out funny. However, when the smoke starts to billow out, it's too much. Harpo's funniest bit has him messing with a female spy sent by cutting away the back of her dress when she doesn't notice. As you'd expect, Harpo also gets a lengthy harp playing sequence. This one is a fantasy scene where he imagines his reflection playing against him. It's an interesting attempt to spice up a require part of the movie but doesn't keep it from being rather dull.

As has become commonplace by now, Chico is the brother given the least amount of stuff to do. Once again, he's introduced as a helpful friend of the boring romantic lead, preventing him from getting funny for far too long. It's not until he meets his brothers that he get any laughs at all. And its usually little stuff. Like scratching Harpo's back like he's a dog. Or ducking his head down so Groucho can shake someone else's hand. Chico does get two notable bits. Such as when he encounters an Italian family, one of the few times Chico's fake nationality has been referenced in the movie. Or when he plays the piano alongside Harpo, an amusing attempt for the brothers to square off. Otherwise, Chico just doesn't get much to do.

“The Big Store” is the Marx Brothers in decline. They don't have the energy of their earlier movies. Now, instead of building a movie around the Brothers' style, the films are awkwardly forcing the Brothers into oddly constructed stories and comedic shenanigans. When it comes down to it, “The Big Store” just isn't that funny. There aren't very many laughs and many of the attempts to get big chuckles fall horribly flat. You can't blame the brothers for deciding to call it quits at this point. “The Big Store” is a gasping, wheezing comedy that is desperate for your approval but too tired and weak to earn it. [Grade: C]

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Series Report Card: The Marx Brothers (1940)

10. Go West

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.

How do the boys adapt to the western genre? Well, “Go West” packs in singing cowboys, horse rides, white hats and black hats, and the occasional shooting duel. Notably, the Marx Brothers rarely participate in any of these things. “Go West” is not really a proper parody of the western, so much as a western movie that just happens to star a trio of famous comedians. You have the traditional good guys and bad guys of the genre, with the Marxes cracking wise around them. The Marx's characters are frequently anachronistic, adding some deliberate contrast to a story that is otherwise not very special.

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.

Yes, “Go West” is another musical too. Chico gets to play his piano in a saloon. Harpo plays a harp placed inside an Indian village for some reason, in an especially long-winded sequence. The actual songs are not that energetic or memorable. The love ballad “As If I Didn't Know” is a total snore. “You Can't Argue with Love,” sung in a saloon, features the peculiarly deep-voiced styling of June MacCloy. The only song I actually like is “Ridin' the Ridge,” as it features Groucho singing and plucking the guitar alongside the movie's romantic lead. Even in their best moments, the songs seem stuck in more because of the expectations of the times than because they suited the film or the story.

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.

Groucho Marx continues to dance around the rules and regulations of the Production Code. Some of the funniest bits in “Go West” are its raunchiest. Most of these double entendres are directed at the saloon girls. Groucho says he doesn't recognize one girl while she's standing up, for just one ribald line. He also gets the chance to break the fourth wall again. There are some very silly lines about the invention of the telephone and “the best gag in the picture,” both of which draw attention to the artifice of the story. Besides that, there's plenty of top one-liners in the film, concerning tape measures and conversations with bull skulls.

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.

It seems, the later we get into the Marx Brothers' cinematic career, the less Chico has to do. The brother's one-liners are cut down to almost a minimum here. He gets the translate during that cringing Indian scene. (Though a line about Indianapolis may get a guilty laugh.) He also gets some laughs during the scene where, alongside Groucho, he interacts with some showgirls. There's a couple of good lines, comparing the west and the east or cracking a joke about an engineer named Manuel, but otherwise Chico is left with pretty thin gruel to spin laughs out of.

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.

“Go West” isn't too bad. There are still laughs to be had and, when left to their own devices, the Marx Brothers are still very good at their jobs, an embarrassing Indian segment or two aside. However, a sense of desperation is beginning to settle in. “Go West” is entertaining but uninspired. Its best skits feel derivative of the Brothers' earlier films. If you'll excuse the pun, the film runs out of steam hard once the train set piece begins. Perhaps mixing the Marxes up with westerns was not a surefire formula for success, though the movie is still far from being bad. [Grade: B-]

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Series Report Card: The Marx Brothers (1939)

9. At the Circus

Following their one-year sideline at RKO, the Marx Brothers were back at MGM. The screenplay for “At the Circus,” their ninth feature, would by partially written by Buster Keaton. That may sound like a classic comedy dream team but don't get too excited. Keaton strictly took the gig because he needed the money. The Brothers did not think their styles blended well with Keaton's set piece-heavy humor. Keaton agreed and said he was just doing what he was paid to do. Though “At the Circus” is not especially well regarded by Marx fans, I found myself having a good time with it.

The plot concerns the Wilson Wonder Circus. Bad guy Carter hopes to buy the circus and has employed strongman Goliath and dwarf Professor Atom in stealing it away. Julie, the horse trainer, is in love with Jeff, the circus' partial owner. Goliath steals ten thousand dollars from jeff. In order to get it back, Julie employs a lawyer named Loophole. Some of the other circus works, like the silent Pinky and the verbal Tony, soon join him on this adventure. The story begins at the circus, winds through a train, and concludes by the coast.

The Marx Brothers have formally been on a boat, gone to college, gone to war, gone to the opera,  and gone to the race tracks. Their ninth feature is obviously about the Marx Brothers going to the circus. So there's lot of big top antics here. Harpo rides an ostrich and throws one of its eggs. A giraffe puts in a surprise appearance. Elephants are referenced repeatedly. Lions and gorillas and more appear. Trapeze artist and strong men drive the plot. There's certainly some novelty to this setting, especially since the circus has increasingly become a rare species in recent years. I feel like the circus setting was a common one in films at the time and it was only naturally for the Marxes to put their own spin on it.

Yet “At the Circus” is also the Marx Brothers' take on the mystery genre. After being hired, Loophole and his buddies become detectives of sorts. They go about interrogating Professor Atom and Goliath. They snoop around rooms and attempt to dig up clues. In fact, Chico spends a lot of time talking about clues. A large portion of the film is even set on a train, which can't help but bring other famous train-set mysteries to mind. So that makes 'At the Circus” an odd genre mash-up: A big comedy with a romantic subplot and musical numbers, set at the circus that is also a mystery.

After taking a break from song-and-dance numbers in “Room Service,” the songs make a big comeback in “At the Circus.”  To the film's determent. Kenny Baker and Florence Rice have several lengthy songs, including two separate renditions of “Two Blind Loves,” their romantic themes. Both performances go on for far too long. “A Day at the Races” built a musical number around a embarrassingly stereotypical black performers. This, disappointingly, also makes a comeback here. “Swingali” features Harpo playing with some dark-skinned singers and dancers, whose treatment has not aged very well. Despite most of the musical numbers being either too long or racially insensitive, there's at least one classic here. Groucho performs “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” in a crowded train car. Its complex, witty, and slightly ribald lyrics combine with a catchy melody and Groucho's spirited delivery. No wonder it would become one of his trademark songs.

While the songs aren't always a welcome return, I'm happy to see Margaret Dumont working with the Marxes again. Once again, she's in the role of a rich widow that Groucho is trying to con out of her fortune. (If a scene where he appears wearing a bathrobe is any indication, it's seems his attempted seduction was more successful than usual.) Her late film entrance into the film signals another genre shift. At that point, “At the Circus” becomes another Marxian comedy about contrasting the rambunctious brothers with high society type. This is most apparent in an aghast orchestra leader being set out to sea.

Groucho, oddly, doesn't enter into the film until about ten minutes. Once he does, he's cracking jokes as usual. One of the film's best running jokes has Groucho wearing a jacket that formally belonged to a magician. So he's repeatedly pulling magic tricks out of nowhere, with scarves, a bouquet of flowers, and a pigeon. On his quest to uncover the stolen check, Groucho ends up interrogating the trapeze artist. What follows is the film's most ribald sequence. At one point, Groucho even breaks the forth wall and addresses the Hays Office directly. There's also good lines about lodges, monkeys, Esperanto, and an inspired performance of “Oh Susannah.”

Harpo gets to work alongside several animals in “At the Circus.” This works well, giving the child-like character his own animal sidekicks. He begins the film by joking around with a lion. Later, he puts out an umbrella for a seal as he boards a train. That seal also helps Harpo play checkers, which is a delightful gag. He naps with a sheep and hides his head in the sand with an ostrich. Not all his best bits are animal based. A scene where Chico and Harpo sneak into the sleeping Goliath's room provides some solid laughs. Such as Harpo ending up inside a hanging jacket or dressing up like Santa Claus.

Chico, as always, works best when playing off other. He appears walking through the circus, saying hi to everyone and immediately following up by saying he doesn't have time to talk. There's a strong skit where Chico, as the ticket-checker on a train, refuses to let Groucho board without a badge. Absolutely the funniest scene in the film also features the two brothers. While attempting to investigate the dwarf, suspected of helping steal the money, Chico continues messes up Groucho's plan. The way he repeatedly pulls out a new cigar or bumps his head on the low ceiling just gets funnier and funnier each time its repeated.

It's not uncommon for the Marx Brothers' movies to peter out during the excessively zany last acts. This is very much the case for “At the Circus.” A gorilla – a man in a suit, naturally – escapes his pin and goes running through the big top. The great ape ends up helping save the day, the boys running across the ape's outstretched arms at one point. Aside from being the closest the Marxes ever got to doing a monster movie mash-up, it's otherwise a joke that simply tries too hard. The same climax has Margaret Dumont launched out of a cannon and every main character swinging wildly on the trapeze.

“At the Circus” was one of the few Marx Brothers films I hadn't seen before starting this retrospective. Considering the overall low opinion of their later MGM films, I went in with low expectations. Maybe that helped because I found “At the Circus” to be a lot of fun. Yes, the romantic subplot and musical numbers are a drag, like always. No, the chaotic energy of their earlier films will never be replicated. But this one is still a lot of fun, with several classic gags and a generally strong sense of fun. [Grade: B]

Monday, March 26, 2018

Series Report Card: The Marx Brothers (1938)

8. Room Service

As I started to watch “Room Service,” I was surprised. Not because of the opening credits, which features likable animated versions of Groucho, Harpo, and Chico. No, it's the production logo that threw me. All the prior Marx Brothers I've watched this month begin with the vintage Paramount or MGM logos. “Room Service” begins with the RKO logo. There's a good reason for this. Though under contract with MGM at the time, Zeppo negotiated a deal that allowed his three brothers to star in an adaptation of the popular Broadway play for a rival studio. The film was not successful in 1938 and, due to either that or being produced outside the Brothers' usual studios, is widely overlooked.

Somewhat shifty stage producer Gordon Miller, along with his assistants Binelli and Faker, has been attempting to get a new play produced. The script, “Hail and Farewell!,” is supposedly good but Miller is completely broke. He's currently living out of a hotel room and has the manager breathing down his back, asking for the rent. Things get even more convluted as Leo Davis, the writer of the play, shows up at the hotel. The attempt to fund the play, pay the hotel, and not get kicked out drives the plot further.

“Room Service” is something of a departure for the Marx Brothers. Being based on a Broadway play from another author, it is the only time the Marxes would play roles that were not originated for them. Thus, “Room Service” is not really a Marx Brothers movie that, for some reason, stars the Marx Brothers. The script has a completely different comedic rhythm than the team's usual films. The film leans less on hyper-verbal sparing and wacky visual gags. The pacing is much slower, the film making more room for the non-Marx players. There are also no musical numbers, Harpo going without his harp and Chico without his piano. On one hand, it's interesting to the Marx Brothers play in a slightly different style. At the same time, it's not a mode especially suited to the three's style.

The Marx Brothers had starred in films based on plays before. Despite being several years older than “Room Service,” even “The Cocoanuts” and “Animal Crackers” were less obviously stage adaptations than this one. Almost all of “Room Service” takes place in one hotel room. Characters and events are frequently said to appear just off-screen, a device that made sense in a stagebound play but less so in a motion picture. Director William Seiter throws in a few cinematic moves, like an occasional close-up, but his direction is very stage-like as well. I have no idea why the film's producers took the stage-to-screen transition so literally.

Owing to its origins as an unrelated play, “Room Service” features a much larger cast and more developed characters than the brothers' other films. Most notably, a young Lucille Ball appears as Christine, the actress who is helping Miller fund his play. Though it's neat to see her in the part, Ball sadly isn't given very much to do. Frank Albertson plays Davis, the playwright. This is the part that would've once been played by Zeppo. Yet Davis gets more screen time and personality than the Brothers' straight men usually get, even getting a laugh or two of his own. Donald MacBride, who borders on obnoxious as the hotel manager, has nearly as much screentime as the Brothers.

Despite sharing the screen more than usual, the Brothers are still the stars of the show. Groucho still gets most of the laughs. He proclaims a man that doesn't wear shirts an “atheist,” asks how someone without a fireside can listen to the president's speeches, or proclaims frustration that he can't sue anyone. A conversation has him launching into a rendition of “I'll Be in Scotland Before You.” An attempt to convince someone that the playwright is in a mental institution takes an amusing detour towards a maternity hospital. Groucho even sneaks in some naughtier lines. After being taught he's been given the bridal suite, he asks for three brides. He gets to dance too, at the conclusion of a kind of lame skit that opens the film.

Considering the play wasn't written with the Marxes in mind, one can assume that Harpo's part had to be extensively rewritten. In one scene, what I suspect was the character's dialogue is replaced with a whistle being played. Harpo's trademark ingenuity is present here. He uses a strainer and some iodine to make it look like Davis has measles. He sneaks a live turkey into the hotel under his jacket. When asked if he's ever been in love, he pulls out a squeaking kewpie doll. One of his better gags has him entering the room while wearing a cape and a flaming hat, for no apparent reason. He even gets to hit someone over the head. Not all these skits work, as the turkey bit goes on way too long, but he still gets several laughs.

Chico has a couple of sharp lines too. He doesn't hit the circular arguments he brought to the earlier films but he's still funny here. He propels one of the films' better reoccurring gags, by insisting on carrying a stuffed moose head around with him. Supposedly, it was hard to get through a revolving door. He also gets good lines when confusing a would-be actor/waiter's acting ability with his aptitude for carrying dishes. Perhaps in a bit of a meta touch, considering the Brothers supposedly felt washed-up following their exit from Paramount, Chico actually makes a joke about being washed-up here.

“Room Service” is actually full of running gags. Some of them are better than others. On two occasions, the Brothers start putting on multiple copies of the same clothes, a mildly surreal gag. More than once, someone runs into a room stacked full of stuff. Yet frequently the repeated jokes here do not successfully hit their target. MacBride's manager is given the annoying catchphrase of “Jumping butterballs,” which the movie repeats over and over again. There's also a running joke about characters bidding someone else goodbye. It says a lot that one of the funniest moments in the movie is simply a knowing glance between the three Brothers as they try to pull off a scheme.

“Room Service” takes a surprisingly morbid turn in its last act. When it becomes clear that they won't be able to pay the bill they owe, the Brothers decide that Davis should fake suicide. This leads to him writhing on a bed, pretending to have drank poison, until he ends up faking his death. When that isn't enough, Harpo fakes suicide too, dropping out of a closet with a knife in his back. All of this happens in the film's final ten minutes, feeling increasingly sweaty and a bit off-putting as “Room Service” runs towards its sudden ending.

According to the sages over at Wikipeida, “Room Services” recorded a loss of 330,00 dollars, which couldn't have been good for RKO in 1938. Needless to say, the Brothers wouldn't make another movie with that studio. Though the more subdued style of the MGM films supposedly were a hit with audiences at the times, perhaps “Room Service” was too subdued, even for 1938. It's the rarest of characters, a Marx Brothers movie that doesn't really feel like a Marx Brothers movie. While I admire the trio for attempting something new, the result clearly did not play to their strength as well as their usual style. [Grade: C+]

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Series Report Card: The Marx Brothers (1937)

7. A Day at the Races

What happens a night at the opera? If you're familiar with the Marx Brothers or Queen, then you know the answer to that question is “A Day at the Races.” The Marxes first feature as MGM was such a success that they immediately went to work on a companion film of sorts. The Brothers' seventh film would continue their previous one's formula for success: Slapstick and witty humor combined with a more story-focused direction and far more singing and dancing. The result would be the only Marx Brothers movie to be nominated for an Academy Award. “A Day at the Races” was nominated for Best Dance Direction, a short-lived category that was only given out from 1935 to 1937.

The Standish Sanitarium is on the verge of closing down, much to the chagrin of its owner, Judy Standish. The only thing keeping her in business is Mrs. Upjohn, her richest client, who insists on hiring Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush. This is despite Hackenbush actually being a veterinarian. Judy's boyfriend, a singer named Gil, has an idea to save the hospital. He's raised a race horse named Hi-Hat and hopes he can win some prize money at an upcoming big race. With the help of Hi-Hat's jockey, Stuffy, and a friend named Tony, the gang hope to make their scheme work and avoid detection by those that wish to buy the sanitarium for their own needs.

To me, “A Day at the Races” seems to better compromise between the anarchic style the Brothers displayed in their Paramount films and the more restrained approach MGM insisted upon than “A Night at the Opera.” Yes, the plot, romance, and music are big parts of the film. But the Brothers are a little zanier than last time. Chico is still helping out the boring romantic lead but he spends more time hassling Groucho and being a nuisance. Harpo is still a bullied victim, instead of a public menace. However, the three do get to mess with some stately authority figures here, inflicting some comedic mayhem on square fuddie-duddies. It's not the level of chaos witnessed in “Monkey Business” or “Duck Soup” but the elements are balanced better.

Groucho is back in the role of a con artist attempting to hoist some money from a rich woman, played once again by Margaret Dumont. Groucho's character is given another excellent name, one that went weirdly unused by Rob Zombie. Dr. Hackenbush is a horse veterinarian posing as a shrink, fleecing Dumont's Mrs. Upjohn out of her fortune. What's unusual is how the dynamic is changed. See, Groucho is usually the one pursuing Dumont – when he's not insulting her anyway – in the hopes of getting her riches. In “A Day at the Races,” Dumont is the one in love with Groucho, spending the film trying to get him to marry her. It doesn't change their dynamic too much, other than explaining why Dumont puts up with Groucho's acerbic insults.

Of course, one of MGM's big miscalculations with this comedy team was assuming that anyone goes to a Marx Brothers movie for the plot. “A Day at the Races” features, thus far, the most inane story line out of any of the films. Despite the title, the race track only occupies about half of the film. The other half is concerned with the Standish Sanitarium. How MGM's writers decided that a horse racing plot and a mental institution plot made for a natural pairing, I don't know. The film has to jump through some odd loops to justify the connection. The reveal at the end that Gil's horse is actually an adapt jumper, especially the way this information is discovered, is a hacky bit of screenwriting.

But at least there's no opera this time. In fact, “A Day at the Races” holds off until the forty minute mark before getting to its first song and dance number. The movie was just bidding its time though. That first number, involving Allan Jones floating out on a boat and dancing girls leaping into a pool, goes on and on. There's an even longer number later called “All God's Chillun Got Rhythm.” It begins with Jones reassuring his love interest before Harpo's flute playing attracts the attention of a group of stereotypical black dancers. These Aunt Jemima antics only get more cringe-inducing as the scene goes on. The dance number concludes with the Marx Brothers applying black face in an attempt to escape unnoticed. Boy, could I have done without that.

Dr. Hackenbush's status as a veterinarian pretending to be a human doctor produces some fine comedic material in “A Day at the Races.” Groucho's quick-wit is well deployed as usual. He pulls a puppy out of his coat sleeve early on before he's cracking jokes with a horse. He soon begins to mess with the staff at the hospital. By making a comment about trying to marry an old man, discovering late that the college he used to work at was a girl's school, or an especially brilliant bit of verbiage involving bridges in mouths. A highlight has Groucho on the phone with his adversary, messing with the guy by assuming different voices and improvising various sound effects.

As I said, Harpo is more an antagonized victim here than randomly annoying people. He's introduced being chased around the horse stalls by the film's villain. However, he still gets to raise a little hell throughout. While Chico feeds another man some cash, Harpo sneakily picks the same dollars back out of the man's pockets. When a femme fatale instructs him to blow out of a room, Harpo instead blows on her compact, sending powder into her face. Later, he mishears “take her pulse” and attempts to steal Dumont's purse. There are gentler gags that are just as solid. When Groucho attempts a check-up on Harpo, a bubble grows from an unusual place. At one point, he has to explain some plot relevant information to Chico through a game of charades. There is a long harp sequence but at least it begins with a fun scene of Harpo destroying a piano.

Chico is not quite relegated to being the romantic lead's sidekick this time. He has a really funny bit with Groucho. Meeting him outside the ticket booth at the race track, he sells him more and more books out of his ice cream cart. The absurdity in that scene mounts and mounts until the older brother is completely fed up. That kind of chaotic abuse reaches its peak  in a scene where all three brothers meet Dumont in an examination room. It begins with them repeatedly washing their hands, builds to an attempted shaving, and concludes with the three riding out on a horse. Good stuff.

“A Day at the Races” is the longest of any of the Marx Brothers' films, going on for 109 minutes. That's probably way too long for a gag-based comedy. Even some of the Marxes' better films start to drag in the last act. This especially holds true for this one. By the time we actually get to the climatic horse race, the audience's interest has seriously started to wane. Most of the jokes in this sequence, involving Harpo racing a water tanker onto the track or the guardrail being moved around, are fairly weak. Instead of the laughs getting bigger and bigger as the film goes on, they peak somewhere in the middle and tapper off until the movie finally concludes.

It's apparent to me that the glory days of “Monkey Business” and “Duck Soup” may have been behind the Marx Brothers by this point. However, “A Day at the Races” is at least an improvement over “A Night at the Opera.” The trio doesn't seem totally tamed and there are several really stand-out gags. The film is far too long and the dragging moments keep it from really shooting out into the atmosphere. But it is still a decent generator of chuckles. [Grade: B]

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Series Report Card: The Marx Brothers (1935)

6. A Night at the Opera

If you listen to legend, you'll believe that “Duck Soup” was a box office flop, clearly being too ahead of its time. This led to the Marx Brothers being let go from their lofty positions at Paramount Studio, forcing them to uproot themselves and go across town to MGM Studios, where they began the next phase of their career. As appealing as this story is, it's simply not true. “Duck Soup” was a moderate success and its box office performance had nothing to do with the Marxes' exit from Paramount. Instead, the change in studio was due to boring contract disputes with Paramount. The move led to a change in style for the Brothers but “A Night at the Opera,” their film at MGM, was a success in 1935 and is now considered a classic.

Beginning in Milan, “A Night at the Opera” is – obviously – concerned with opera. Groucho steps into the role of Otis B. Driftwood, a shaky business manager hoping to con some money out of wealthy Mrs. Claypool. He talks her into investing money into the New York Opera Company, especially its tenor Rodolfo Lassparri. Lassparri hopes to marry soprano, Rosa. Rosa, however, is in love with aspiring singer Ricardo. Ricardo's friend Fiorello and Tomasso trick Driftwood into hiring Ricardo instead. Soon, the five guys are on a boat ride across the ocean, the lovers being reunited. Upon arriving in the states, a plan is formulated to get Ricardo on stage at the opera.

When the Marx Brothers came to MGM, studio head Irving Thalberg had some suggestions. He feared that the brothers' chaotic antics made them unsympathetic, especially to female viewers. He demanded a more story driven screenplays. This change is very evident in “A Night at the Opera.” The Brothers are, simply put, not the big jerks they usually are. They occupy themselves in the film by trying to get two young dreamers together. They spend much less of the film hassling the squares. Adding further insult is that the middle portion of the film, in which the Brothers play stowaways on a cruise ship, is obviously recycled from the superior “Monkey Business.” This story-driven direction cuts down on the rapid-fire jokes and gags, resulting in a much slower, at times painfully slow, motion picture.

In the time between “Duck Soup” and “A Night at the Opera,” Zeppo Marx would retire from performing, focusing instead on opening a successful talent agency. Since Zeppo rarely added much to the films, you'd think MGM would be happy to ditch the dead weight. While Zeppo is gone, the role he would usually play – the boring romantic lead – is a bigger part of the movie than ever. Allan Jones plays Ricardo, the aspiring opera singer being kept apart by circumstance from Rosa, the girl he loves. This romance motivates nearly the entire plot, forcing Jones and Kitty Carlisle into way more scenes than are necessary.

While the musical numbers played an increasingly smaller role in the Paramount films, “A Night at the Opera,” perhaps as the title indicates, is more focused on song and dance.  Yes, there's some opera throughout the movie, though it's usually at the sidelines. Music takes center stage in several extended sequence. Such as when Ricardo and Rosa sing to each other as the boat starts to take off, a scene that just seems to go on and on. Nearly as laborious is a scene near the end where Harpo and Chico entertain some party-goers on the boat. That's where we get the required piano and harp playing scenes. The harp scene is especially extended. These moments drain any momentum from the movie.

Though “A Night at the Opera” is clearly not as funny as the Marxes' earlier movies, there are definitely some gags that work really well. The movie's most famous scene has Groucho arriving at his room on the boat. Which turns out to be a tiny stateroom. After carrying in his giant suitcase – which Harpo, Chico, and Ricardo have hidden inside – more and more people arrive at the room. The scene quickly escalates. Maids, a plumber, a manicurist, the plumber's assistant arrive and that's before the group of waiters show up. Each one attempt to squeeze into the tiny room. Another highlight has Harpo and Chico continually moving around a room, carrying around a bed, in order to confuse the detective pursuing him. They are successful as the guy is driven totally batty.

However, a lot of the really broad gags in “A Night at the Opera” do not grab the laughs they reach for. Sped-up motion is employed in at least three moments. One has Harpo racing down a staircase. Later, there's an extended scene of him being flung around on ropes outside the boat. Both gags come off as overly desperate and aggressively wacky. During the movie's titular night at the opera, the brothers interfere, leading to curtains and inappropriate backdrops falling on-stage. While this gag is okay, as it features the heroes being pursued across the catwalk, it also feels similarly desperate for laughs.

Regardless of the quality of the overall movie, Groucho Marx could always be counted on to deliver some memorable one-liners. “A Night at the Opera” certainly has its share. Margoret Dumont is back, allowing a springboard for some of Groucho's best lines here. Like an extended, and lively, introduction to Mr. Dudley and Ms. Claypool. Or his attempt to arrive deliberately late to the opera. Later, he refuses to leave her room on the bed, leading to some decent lines. Such as “They'll probably say you're a very lucky woman!” The stateroom sequence has some stand-out lines, especially when he comments on the size of the suitcase or the quality of his shirts. And then there's just some good old fashion silliness, like lines about milk-fed chicken and spaghetti and seltzer.

While Groucho's typical antics get out of “A Night at the Opera” more-or-less unchanged, the other two brothers were not quite so lucky. No longer allowed to be a huge asshole to people, Harpo's anarchic tendencies are reeled way in. He still gets some funny scenes. At one point, he revives the film's villain just to conk him on the head with a hammer. His refusal to wake up during the chaotic stateroom scene is a highlight. So is the way he signals for more hard-boiled eggs by honking his horn. A small, but especially amusing gag, has him attempting to start a sword fight in the orchestra. This proceeds a random rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” However, Harpo gets a huge duds as well. Such as a long scene devoted to him eating ordinary objects at the breakfast table. Or a scene where he continually drinks water, to avoid answering a question.

Chico really gets it the worst though. In the early scenes, he's actually reduced to trading normal dialogue with Ricardo, helping set up the plot. It's really not until he starts to interact with the other Brothers that he actually gets to start telling some jokes. Now, these are solid moments. A scene where he negotiates a contract with Groucho, which gradually whittles at the actual paper, is a high line. And he certainly gets to deploy some of his trademark puns. Such as when confuses duplicates and quadruplets. Disappointingly, Chico gets the short end too often here, his absurd conversations cut down to almost zero.

But what do I know? Wikipedia says the movie was a “smash hit” in 1935. The Brothers considered it one of their best movies. After “Duck Soup,” its the team's most critically acclaimed and discussed movie. Of course, it would also inspire the title of one of Queen's album. Yet, watching the movie, I couldn't help but find myself missing the more wild, anarchic laughs of the movies the guys made for Paramount. The weak stuff in this film is really weak and prevents me from liking the movie more overall. [Grade: C+]

Friday, March 23, 2018

Series Report Card: The Marx Brothers (1933)

5. Duck Soup

History has a way of rewriting things. The narrative of a masterpiece being ignored in its time is irresistible to many people. But here are the facts. “Duck Soup” was released to slightly lower box office than the Marx Brothers' previous four films but it was not a flop. The reviews were positive but it was generally accepted that their earlier efforts were better. In time, especially once the Marxes' cult following grew in the sixties and seventies, “Duck Soup's” reputation would grow substantially It's generally considered the Brothers' best, most important film. Some even go so far as to call it one of the greatest comedies of all time.

Rufus T. Firefly has recently become the new leader of Freedonia, a small European country, at the insistence of rich old Mrs. Teasdale. Freedonia is a country in turmoil. Its finances are in ruin. The neighboring country of Sylvania is interested in annexing the country. Sylvanian ambassador Trentino attempts to move this mission along by sending two (largely uncooperative) spies, Pinky and Chicolini, to spy on Firefly. In-between their antics and Firefly’s disregard for traditional ethics, war between the two nations is soon brewing.

“Duck Soup” is, by far, the most enduring cult classic among the Brothers’ films. Earlier, I noted how the anti-authority attitudes present in “Animal Crackers” and “Monkey Business” surely appealed to hippies and punk kids in the sixties and seventies. “Duck Soup” pushes these ideas to the forefront. “Duck Soup” is, by far, the most anti-authoritarian Marx Brothers of them all. Groucho’s Rufus T. Firefly is a smart-ass who wiggles his way into a position of power and then uses it exclusively to mess with people. Harpo and Chico spend the entire movie irritating and sabotaging every stuffed shirt they encounter. The entire movie laughs in the face of anyone who takes them seriously at all.

If “Monkey Business” could be summed up as “The Marx Brothers on a Boat,” and “Horse Feathers” was “The Marx Brothers Go to College,” “Duck Soup” could be accurately be described as “The Marx Brothers Go to War.” That anti-war perspective is likely another reason why the film would become popular with counterculture types. “Duck Soup” depicts war as nothing but a clashing of masculine egos. In one brilliant scene, Rufus T. Firefly manages to talk himself out of peace talks simply but assuming that Trentino might insult him. Firefly goes to war essentially because another head-of-country called him an “up start.” In ‘Duck Soup,” war occurs because of petty men, scheming among themselves. The film plays all of this as farce but it’s easy to see its subversive ideology.

The musical numbers in the Marx Brothers movies are always a bit of a drag, interrupting the comedy and slowing things down.  In “Duck Soup,” however, they are actually used fairly well. There aren't very many, firstly. There’s really only two big numbers. “These Are the Laws of My Administration” introduces Rufus T. Firefly. The song is reasonably catchy and has Groucho cracking jokes throughout, keeping the audience amused. Near the end, there’s a big song-and-dance production called “The Country’s Going to War.” It’s a lively production, featuring people drumming on helmets and concluding with Harpo bringing down a chandelier. Music is almost a reoccurring joke of the film, as people have to rise and sing the Freedonia national anthem every time Mr. Firefly enters the room.

Grouch is, naturally, on fire throughout “Duck Soup.” The quibs start flying fast early, with a cute bit about playing cards. From there, he's goofing on Margaret Dumont, greatly missed after her two movie absence. As always, Dumont slips into the role of stocky woman that Groucho alternatively mocks and romances. Putting Groucho in a seat of government gives him ready access to serious-minded people he can fuck with. Such as the cabinet's concerns constantly being dismissed as “old business.” Or his sarcastic response to being called “Your excellence.” His indifference to politics are best summed up in small visual gags, such as when he eats crackers in bed or steals one person's doughnut and dunks it in another person's cup of coffee.

If Groucho is extra snarky in “Duck Soup,” then Harpo is extra rambunctious. There are long scenes devoted solely to him messing with a lemonade stand owner, pretty much for no particular reason. Harpo gets some of the movie's best running jokes. Such as his preoccupied with cutting off people's ties or coat tails. Or a gag with a motorcycle that builds to a fantastic conclusion. His ability to produce anything from his coat pockets – a record, a blowtorch – reaches its surreal crescendo when his tattoo springs to life in one scene. There's also very little harp playing, mostly isolated to a scene where Harpo pulls on some piano strings, which is not exactly a complaint.

Chico doesn't get quite the enormous laughs his brothers get but he's still certainly very funny in “Duck Soup.” As always, his mastery of puns and ability to spin conversations into circular absurdity is his strength. A long scene where he explains to Trentino where Firefly has been that week digresses into a conversation about baseball and married women. One of my favorite bits in “Duck Soup” has Chico being put on trial. There's asides about Texas, dollars, elephants, and people randomly objecting.

One joke in “Duck Soup” has grown so iconic that people often forget it more-or-less originated here. (At least cinematically, as I imagine there was likely a vaudeville predecessor.) I'm talking about the legendary mirror gag. Proceeded by a long scene where Groucho and his brothers pretend to be each other, the scene involves Harpo pretending to be a mirror reflection of Groucho. There's zero music and no sound in this scene, the joke playing out strictly as a piece of visual comedy. The gag grows more and more absurd, the brothers eventually not even noticing they are carrying different hats or walking around each other. It's such a beautifully choreographed piece of comedy that there's no surprise it would be imitated in countless cartoons and television episodes.

As “Duck Soup” crashes towards its conclusion, it only gets wilder. In its last act, the film truly becomes the brothers' irrelevant take on military history. The Paul Revere legend is bagged, with Groucho mocking the number of lambs in windows and Harpo abandoning his proud ride to chase after women. (And then he wakes up in bed with a horse, a joke so dirty I'm not sure how they got away with it.) Dumont's singing is mocked, Groucho shoots at his own men, and the day is saved with a food fight. As if the film's complete disregard for the very concept of war wasn't clear enough, it freely mashes together different historical elements. World War I's trenches exists alongside Civil War and Revolutionary era uniforms and weaponry.

Reading too much into the deliberate silliness of the Marx Brothers is probably a bridge too far. Yet it's clear to me that “Duck Soup” has survived as their most iconic and beloved film precisely because its absurdity actually contains a degree of satire. The boys came of age during the first World War and the second one would soon begin. So it's fair to say they had some insight on the trivial reasons behind cataclysmic conflict. Even if you take all of that away, “Duck Soup” stands proud as a hilarious and inventive comedy, packed from beginning to end with riotous laughs. [Grade: A]