Today! Because you should have come to the first party. We didn’t get home until around four in the morning. I was blind for three days –
A Night at the Opera (1935)
Directed by Sam Wood (x2)
Starring Groucho Marx (x6), Chico Marx (x6), Harpo Marx (x6), Margaret Dumont (x3), Kitty Carlisle, Allan Jones (x2), Sig Ruman (x5), Walter Woolf King (x2), Edward Keane, Robert Emmet O’Connor, Billy Gilbert (x2)
So if you want to get really technical, the Marx Brothers have three distinct periods of their film career – The terrific Four Marx Brothers years (’29 through ’33) and the mediocre Three Marx Brothers years (’38 to ’49), bookending the shortest but most successful period, the two film set of great Three Marx Brothers pictures under Irving Thalberg, A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races. They are no longer the zany, joke-heavy antics of the early films, plus the romantic lead duties have fallen to non-relative Allan Jones, in lieu of Zeppo. There are more songs, slightly more runtime, bigger budgets thus larger set pieces, and far bigger box office receipts at Thalberg’s MGM than their Paramount films before or RKO/UA/non-Thalberg MGM ones later.
A Night in Casablanca was a disappointment on all fronts
Today! Because I thought my razor was dull until I heard his speech. And that reminds me of a story that’s so dirty I’m ashamed to think of it myself –
Horse Feathers (1932)
Directed by Norman Z. McLeod (x2)
Starring Groucho Marx (x5), Chico Marx (x5), Harpo Marx (x5), Zeppo Marx (x3), Thelma Todd (x2), David Landau, Robert Greig, Nat Pendleton (x2), James Pierce, Florine McKinney
Admit it – you’ve missed the brothers Marx on this list! Nearly a hundred films have sailed by with nary a reference to the quiet one’s virtuoso harp skills or a discussion about how increasingly bitter the youngest must’ve gotten at his lack of jokes. Well don’t worry – even though we’re rapidly approaching the end, there are still a bunch of madcap Marx vehicles to come.
If differentiating between their early films is tough for you (which it shouldn’t be, come on), Horse Feathers is the one at the college. Groucho’s Professor Quincy Wagstaff is the newly appointed president of Huxley College, currently attended by his son, portrayed by his eleven years younger brother Zeppo. Chico and Harpo play their typical seedy types, brought in to steal football signals for a rival school, but obviously are out for themselves first and foremost, and so ending up switching sides, amidst much frivolity and spit balling.
No, literal spit balling
Today! Because I worked myself up from nothing to a state of extreme poverty –
Monkey Business (1931)
Directed by Norman Z. McLeod
Starring Groucho Marx (x4), Harpo Marx (x4), Chico Marx (x4), Zeppo Marx (x2), Thelma Todd, Rockliffe Fellowes, Harry Woods, Ruth Hall, Tom Kennedy
The Marx Brothers third feature film, and the first not based on one of their Broadway shows, Monkey Business attempts to expand their very stagey banter into a real motion picture, with largely good results. There are clearly some growing pains in this move – while the scope of the movie broadens out a bit, the team’s bread and butter remains the same, with extended comic dialogues and paired off routines between Groucho & Chico, Chico & Harpo, and Groucho & Zeppo. It would be another year before they truly figured out how to break the routine for good, in Horse Feathers.
Today! Because I’ve got a waiting list of fifty people at that cemetery just dying to get in. But I like you and I’m gonna shove you in ahead of all of them –
The Cocoanuts (1929)
Directed by Robert Florey and Joseph Santley
Starring Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx, Zeppo Marx, Margaret Dumont, Oscar Shaw, Mary Eaton, Cyril Ring, Kay Francis
The second oldest movie on this list, The Cocoanuts comes off as the worst, physically, due to the limitations of 1929 filmmaking. The advent of sound two years before afforded the Marx Brothers the chance to jump into motion pictures – too much of their comedy is wordplay to have functioned well in silents (And yet, their early lost silent short Humor Risk continues to fascinate with possibilities – if you’re harboring a copy, speak up!). However, the microphones in ’29 weren’t the greatest, so the movie does have an overall rickety feel that can be a bit distracting. Sopping wet papers are visible throughout the film, to dampen the crinkling being picked up by their super sensitive equipment, but that doesn’t help the other violent static and unintentional footstepping picked up. Also, technically, there is no known complete version of the film – what exists is a somewhat cobbled together assemblage of footage that runs fully seven minutes shorter than the purported original release.
There is still plenty of classic Marx Brothering going on
Today! Because I was going to thrash them within an inch of their lives, but I didn’t have a tape measure –
Go West (1940)
Directed by Edward Buzzell
Starring Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx, John Carroll, Robert Barrat, Diana Lewis, Walter Woolf King, June MacCloy
And then there are movies that, on the surface, are little more than trifles, and yet they have the ability to change your life forever. Movies so monumental in opening you up to new possibilities and avenues that the course of your interests is irrevocably altered from that point on. These come along very rarely – you can’t have your world shook to its foundation every week – but in early high school, on accident, I set the VCR to record something, and woke up the next day to find the first hour of Go West, and nothing has ever really been the same for me.
Sure, I was already way into comedies at this point. Mostly television, but also a lot of recent popular film that everyone would see in middle school. And then I discovered the Marx Brothers, and all of a sudden the scope of film comedy opened way, way up. There actually were funny movies before Airplane! and Mel Brooks! Go West was made in 1940, and it’s like the eighth best Marx Brothers movie! My mind was blown, and I became a die hard Marx fan basically that day. Continue reading