Today! Because if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce, they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does –
Animal Crackers (1930)
Directed by Victor Heerman
Starring Groucho Marx (x7), Chico Marx (x7), Harpo Marx (x7), Zeppo Marx (x4), Margaret Dumont (x4), Lillian Roth, Louis Sorin, Hal Thompson, Margaret Irving, Robert Greig (x2), Edward Metcalfe
As mentioned previously, my roundabout path to discovering the Marx Brothers began with Go West, a lesser flick that nonetheless managed to find a place on this list. But I believe Animal Crackers is probably the gateway Marx effort for most people, after a certain age. It has the most famous songs from all their films – the later You Bet Your Life theme “Hooray For Captain Spaulding” as well as “Hello, I Must Be Going” – and is the role Groucho would forever be identified with, even if there aren’t a ton of shades between any of the brothers’ characters in their movies. It was the last of their stage efforts to be translated to the screen, while also working out a few of the technical kinks of their first film, The Cocoanuts, from the year before.
Animal Crackers had various rights issues for a number of years – due to the song copyrights reverting to the authors after a period of time, mistakenly not renewed by the studio – and so it remained out of circulation for decades, until the massive Marx revival of the 1970’s. Thus, I’d guess, if you’re a fan and over 60, you may not have seen this one for a while – but come on, you’ve had plenty of time to catch up to its greatness.
However, I’m not trying to push the idea that Animal Crackers is their second, third, or fourth best film, despite its placement way up here. The story was heavily reduced from the stage version, including lopping off the entire final ten minutes of the plot, while also excising a number of songs for timing. As improved as the quality was over their initial film effort, it still suffers greatly from being an early sound picture. Also, new edits of the film have continued to pop up over the years – including as recently as 2017! – so even by the time you read this, a longer, smoother version may exist. As it is right now, it’s still kinda glitchy, and more than a little distractingly stagey.
But as I’ve said, stagey isn’t a problem for me. The surrealism runs super high here, it has loads of famous Marx jokes and routines, and I would venture the best musical numbers featuring the brothers in all their films. Chico was often good for one rousing virtuoso piano number, usually done fairly straight, but this one also incorporates a whole comic bent in the living room concert. Harpo has a typically wonderful harp number, staged on a patio, a picture of which has hung in my various apartments for something like fourteen years, at present.
The movies in the following couple years (Horse Feathers, Monkey Business, Duck Soup, A Night at the Opera) are all probably better films – the sound technology advancing pretty rapidly, plus these movies weren’t just soundstage-locked adaptations – but I’ve always loved Animal Crackers. Figure, Go West was their tenth movie, and it feels every year of it. There are still decent gags, but the brothers (minus Zeppo, too) were coasting a bit by that point in their career. The zany zip of their routines was more or less dried up, plus, again, I only had the first 50 minutes of the film copied accidentally onto a VHS. Animal Crackers is the best, earliest look at what the team was like while still relatively young and hyper (even if Chico was already in his forties and Groucho had been performing as a singer and comedian in vaudeville for nigh on twenty-five years). I was at the mercy of whatever Marx films I could find at Blockbuster (at the corner of Green Ridge & Blakely Streets in Dunmore) or the Scranton Public Library (still my Amazon Smile charity!), and being one of the three or four most popular Marx vehicles, Animal Crackers was early in the rotation.
The year after I moved to Chicago, the great Goodman Theatre downtown staged Animal Crackers in the summer, creating some minor Marx mania in the city. The Music Box ran a program of their films for a month, and the Chicago Park District’s Movies in the Park series featured Duck Soup as a tie-in. At this outdoor screening, the Guinness Book World Record was set for most people wearing Groucho glasses at the same time, at a whopping 4,436 – a record that stands to this day. We were among those 4,436!
Groucho, Chico, and Harpo become the 19th, 20th, and 21st Seven-Timers, following #309 Go West, #261 The Cocoanuts, #149 Monkey Business, #173 A Day at the Races, #55 Horse Feathers, and #43 A Night at the Opera, while Zeppo and Margaret Dumont both advance to the Fours, with appearances in a mismatched selection of the above films. Only one Marx adventure left, folks! Stay tuned!