Thursday, March 29, 2018
Series Report Card: The Marx Brothers (1941)
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.