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.  

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