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The Marx Brothers Collection DVD Review

The Marx Brothers Collection

February 23, 2003

Director: Sam Wood, William A. Seiter, Edward Buzzell, Charles Reisner, Archie Mayo, ,
Starring: Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Allan Jones, Margaret Dumont, Kitty Carlisle, Maureen O’Sullivan, Lucille Ball, Ann Miller, Eve Arden, Kenny Baker, John Carroll, Tony Martin, Charles Drake, Lois Collier, ,

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DVD Review

Fans of the Marx Brothers movies have had to wait a long time to finally see their heroes done justice on the DVD format. Image Entertainment released a now out-of-print box set a few years ago with simply awful transfers and no extras. Hopes were raised when Warner Brothers announced that they would be releasing their own box set this year. The good news is that the Warners discs feature excellent transfers of every movie with a solid collection of supplemental material. The bad news is that many of the Marx Brothers most famous and beloved early films, like The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930) are not included set. So what exactly does one get with this new box set?

The first film in the set is A Night at the Opera (1935), arguably one of the Marx Brothers best films of their career. It was the first film after they were pushed out of Paramount Studios because of the commercial and critical failure of Duck Soup (1933). Zeppo had left the group and boy genius producer, Irving G. Thalberg, brought them over to MGM. His influence marked a significant evolution in the Marx Brothers films in that they actually had an actual story to work against instead of making movies comprised of a series of comedy routines.

Opera was a parody of high society. Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho) tries to get Mrs. Claypool (frequent Marx Bros. foil, Dumont) into the rich upper class by arranging for her to donate $200,000 to the New York Opera Company. Predictably all hell breaks loose on the ocean liner headed for America as Fiorello (Chico) and Tomasso (Harpo) trick Driftwood into signing singer, Ricardo Baroni (Jones). This film is best remembered for the famous stateroom scene where the Marx Brothers invite two maids, a manicurist, an engineer’s assistant, someone looking for their friend, a cleaning lady and four waiters into their cramped room. Everyone is doing their own thing until finally the room’s door bursts open and everyone comes pouring out.

Opera was a huge hit and put the Marx Brothers back on the map. They wisely followed it up with another Thalberg collaboration, A Day at the Races (1937). The Marx Bros. try to keep the Standish Sanitarium afloat for Julie (O’Sullivan), a beautiful young lady and her boyfriend Gil (Jones), who tries to drum up money by gambling on a long-shot horse race. Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush (Groucho), a veterinarian by trade, is brought in to help raise the profile of the sanitarium by becoming chief of staff. As one can imagine, much inspired hilarity ensues as the medical profession is skewered by the Marx Brothers.

There are many funny, classic routines in Races, including a bit where Chico cons Groucho into buying all sorts of horse racing books, effectively milking him out of most of his money and forcing him to miss the race he was going to bet on. There is also a funny scene where Groucho gives a reluctant Harpo a medical examine only for him to eat the thermometer!

Sadly, Thalberg died suddenly before the movie was completed and the Marx Brothers films would never achieve the same greatness. No longer under the producer’s protective presence, the Marx Bros. were effectively at the studio’s mercy. They put them out to pasture metaphorically speaking. This may explain why the Marx Bros. made Room Service for RKO instead of MGM in 1938.

This film is something of an anomaly amongst their films in the sense that it contains no musical numbers and wasn’t written specifically for them. Gordon Miller (Groucho), a producer trying to get a play off the ground, has racked up a huge hotel bill and is trying to find a way to pay it off. Banelli (Chico) and Faker (Harpo) are his assistants trying to help him out.

While this film lacks in Opera and Races’ elaborate production designs and set pieces, it does contain some wonderful moments and exchanges between the Marx Brothers. At one point, as they start to put on all of their clothes and beat a hasty retreat from the hotel, Harpo takes off his coat to reveal that he has no shirt on. Groucho says, “I see you came prepared,” to which Chico replies, “No, he just don’t believe in shirts.” Groucho quips, “Oh, an atheist, eh?”

At the Circus (1939) marked the Marx Brothers’ return to MGM. Antonio (Chico) and Punchy (Harpo) both work for a circus that is danger of being sold off because it is not making enough money. So, Antonio telegrams J. Cheever Loophole (Groucho), a lawyer, for help.

Aside from a very funny bit involving Chico and Harpo sneaking into the strongman’s room to look for money and tearing it apart, Circus is also noteworthy for Groucho singing one of his best known songs, “Lydia The Tattooed Lady.”

Go West (1940) begins with a very funny scene in which Chico and Harpo milk Groucho out of most of his money. However, all three eventually appear in the Old West without any logical explanation on how they got there. The Railroad Company has plans to expand west. A lynchpin piece of real estate is Dead Man’s Gulch, the deed of which just happens to be the proud new owners of Chico and Harpo.

This film allowed the Marx Bros. to lampoon many of the conventions of the western genre: the barroom brawl, the gunfight and the train robbery. Go West is one of their more action-packed efforts, including a thrilling chase sequence aboard a moving train.

Touted as their “first farewell film,” The Big Store (1941) focuses on the efforts of musician Tommy Rogers (Martin) to build a music conservatory for kids. He plans to sell his shares in a large department store but is unaware that its current owners plan to cheat him out of his money. It’s up to the Marx Brothers to make sure that Tommy gets his money for the conservatory.

The Marx Brothers’ bits were starting to become a bit routine and it is obvious that they were all heading in different directions. Still, Groucho’s trademark, smart-ass delivery of dialogue is still as sharp as ever. When one of the store’s owners asks him what kind of experience he’s had with department stores, he replies, “I was a shoplifter for three years.”

Upon completion of The Big Store, Harpo planned to retire, Groucho was going to focus on his radio career and Chico was going to form a big band. However, after World War II they reformed to make two more films, one of which rounds out the box set. A Night at Casablanca (1946) is a parody of film noirs as someone is killing hotel managers at the Hotel Casablanca. Groucho becomes the new manager and along with Chico and Harpo, they get mixed up solving this series of unsolved murders and missing Nazi gold.

One of the best bits from this film is when Chico and Harpo create anarchy by squeezing in several tables with dinner guests into an already crowded dance floor. Sadly, the writing was on the wall with this film and Groucho was ready to call it quits. Still, it is an excellent swan song for the Marx Brothers and a fitting conclusion to the box set.

Special Features:

As one would expect, the bulk of substantial extras are on the discs for the Marx Brothers’ most popular films, A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races. Each DVD features several short films, some animated, some not and a theatrical trailer for each movie. Here are some of the highlights.

The A Night at the Opera DVD features an audio commentary by film historian, Leonard Maltin. He lays it down right from the start that his track will not be a dry, academic analysis of the Marx Brothers’ comedy. He delivers an enthusiastic commentary that is also informative. He mentions that three minutes of footage that referenced Italy was cut from the film because of bad relations between them and the United States. Maltin provides plenty of history on the film and his track is well worth a listen.

“Remarks on Marx” is a 33-minute look at the Marx Brothers’ legacy. It not only explains where th

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J.D. is a freelance writer who is currently doing research for a book on the films of Michael Mann. He likes reading anything written by Jack Kerouac, James Ellroy, J.D. Salinger, Harlan Ellison or Thomas Pynchon. J.D. is currently addicted to the T.V. series 24 and enjoys drinking a lot of Sprite. This is not a blatant plug for the beverage but if they ever decided to give him a lifetime supply he certainly wouldn’t turn them down.
view all DVD reviews by JD Lafrance

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