Saturday, March 31, 2018
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Thursday, March 29, 2018
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Wednesday, March 28, 2018
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.
Tuesday, March 27, 2018
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Monday, March 26, 2018
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.
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.
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.
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” 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.
Sunday, March 25, 2018
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
Saturday, March 24, 2018
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Friday, March 23, 2018
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.