Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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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-]

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