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The Marx Brothers: Silver Screen Collection

The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, Duck Soup

Universal Home Video

Starring Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo Marx,
Margaret Dumont, Thelma Todd

Written by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind,
S.J. Perelman and Will B. Johnstone,
Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby

Directed by Robert Florey, Victor Heerman,
Norman McLeod, Leo McCarey

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Review by Mark Bourne                    

"Jack Cole's 'Plastic Man' belongs high on any adult's How to Avoid Prozac list, up there with the best of S.J. Perelman, Laurel and Hardy, Damon Runyan, Tex Avery and the Marx Brothers."

— Art Spiegelman, The New Yorker, April 19, '99

"Hooray hooray hooray!"

— Animal Crackers

In a pivotal scene near the end of Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters, Allen's character — suffering life's slings and arrows to the point of despondency and suicidal musings — takes refuge in a movie theater. It's a revival house showing Duck Soup, the Marx Brothers' wildly funny comedy from 1933. Sitting there in the dark, with the Brothers' masterpiece flickering before him, Allen receives an epiphany. Is existence really so awful as long as it has the Marx Brothers in it?

It's an affirmation of life that would probably cause Groucho to retort with a lethal wisecrack on the spot, though as epiphanies go it's one of the most inarguable you can find. Throughout the Great Depression, the comedians known as Groucho, Harpo, and Chico (ably supported by youngest brother Zeppo) were welcome explosions of insanity in a brutally sane world. Now after 75 years they can still lift us out of our own depressions, great or otherwise.

Words such as zany, madcap, and gonzo seem made exclusively for Marx Brothers movies. When it comes to their first five, and best, films — collected within this six-disc DVD set — we can also add irreverent, subversive, anti-authoritarian, and damn near surreal. (Salvador Dali was a Marx Brothers fan, with a special affection for mute Harpo, who existed on a plane all his own like a crazed angel.) Their fast and lunatic humor ran the gamut from lowbrow slapstick and punning to sophisticated verbal and visual horseplay. The restrictions and protocols of what the rest of us call consensus reality were at best guidelines that the Marxes shredded to confetti whenever it suited them. They gave bullies and tyrants the what-for, always coming out on top. They deflated pretensions and popped the buttons off stuffed shirts. They could say and do things that we silently wished we could get away with. Groucho's withering one-liners reduced any pompous son of a bitch to ashes. The pinkies-out wits of the Algonquin Round Table embraced them as their own. So did the average joes in Hoboken and Kansas City, who identified with the "immigrant" humor or the relentless mockery of authority figures and social propriety.

*          *          *

By the time they made their first movie, The Cocoanuts in 1929, Julius, Adolph Arthur, Leonard, and Herbert Marx were already old pros famous for years by their stage names — respectively Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo. (Milton, a.k.a. Gummo, left the act before fame struck, so somewhere in heaven he's waiting in a bar for Pete Best, the Beatles' first drummer.) They had been performers since their lower-class childhood growing up in a tenement on New York's East 93rd Street. Their consummate stage mother pushed them to the footlights while they were still in short pants, perhaps the only time a mother deserves canonization for doing so. After years refining their individual characterizations and comedic skills on the vaudeville circuits, during the 1920s they became a popular foursome on Broadway.

So after sound technology transformed motion pictures beginning in 1927, moving to the big screen was the obvious next step. There they continued their distinctive onstage personas. The D'Artagnan of snap-quick verbal swordplay, and a 20th-century comedy icon, Groucho was the insulting lothario with the greasepaint moustache, leering eyebrows, big cigars, and double entendres. Harpo "spoke" only through pantomime, a bicycle horn, his marvelously expressive face, and his pursuits of every nearby blonde. Chico ("Chick-o") was the punster and schemer with a Pinocchio hat and a comic-book Italian accent. Zeppo — whom Groucho said was the funniest of the bunch — got stuck with thankless straight-man roles that didn't allow him to show off his talents. (During their stage career he could double for Groucho and the audience never knew the difference.)

Their first two movies, The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers (1930), adapted two of their Broadway shows. While shooting The Cocoanuts at Paramount's Astoria studios in Queens, New York, they filmed during the day, then hot-footed back to Manhattan to perform Animal Crackers on stage in the evenings. With their third (and first all-original) film, Monkey Business (1931), they moved to Hollywood, where they spent the rest of their lives.

Following them from Broadway to movies was Margaret Dumont in the role she was born to play, Groucho's ironclad foil. Groucho himself would be the first to tell you that if there was a fifth Marx Brother, it was matronly Dumont. Whether she played socialite Mrs. Rittenhouse in Animal Crackers or wealthy political benefactor Mrs. Teasdale in Duck Soup, she was the personification of stately proprietary set up to be toppled like a tiara'd bowling pin.

*          *          *

The first five Marx Brothers movies were shot for Paramount, and today purists regard them as the Brothers' most definitive work. They establish a basic formula for a Marx Brothers movie. Plots are just so much kite string hoisting the Brother's well-honed shenanigans. Typical for Depression-era films, they usually mix musical numbers with the funny business, the best being Chico's piano solos where "shooting" the keys is his effortless eccentricity, and Harpo's sometimes somber numbers on the harp. Second-tier characters might warble a love song or two, but Chico and Harpo's solos let the boys drop character and show us the real face behind the funny accent or curly wig. Contrariwise, Groucho was a song-and-dance man whose big numbers established his Capt. Spauldings or President Fireflys in all their sarcastic, ribald glory.

Watch all five films in chronological order and you'll notice a sharp progression in quality, a consequence of the Marxes' evolving comfort with movie-making as well movie-making's increasing comfort with itself.

In The Cocoanuts Groucho is Mr. Hammer, a Florida hotel owner trying to unload shoddy real estate on unsuspecting buyers. Zeppo is the desk clerk Jamison, Chico an "idle roomer," and Harpo his "silent partner." Lines of high-stepping chorus girls play the bellhops. Hammer talks Chico into shilling at a land auction to inflate his real estate prices. Meanwhile, various forgettable guests try to swindle each other or steal Margaret Dumont's necklace for various forgettable reasons.

There's much coming and going through stagebound doorways, and only when the Brothers are onstage does The Cocoanuts sparkle. The film also features oddly bland music by Irving Berlin, whose love song, "When My Dream Comes True," repeats endlessly. When Mary Eaton, clad in a slim chemise, performs the Gershwin-like "Monkey-Doodle-Doo" dance number, she prances so close to the stationary floor-level camera that the scene briefly threatens to become a gynecological exam rather than a musical break.

The Cocoanuts exhibits problems associated with an industry still learning how to record sound and adapt narratives for the movies. We can see how difficult it was to move a camera back then, and the primitive audio couldn't always track the unrestrainable Marxes when they walked out of microphone range. In scenes where Groucho shows maps of Florida real estate the maps are soaking wet to avoid overloading the recording equipment with scrunching-paper noise. Though a hit on Broadway, as a movie The Cocoanuts is sluggish and choppy, so is often pretty slow going. It hits us today more as an early experiment in stage-to-screen translation. All the same, it does give us lively screen debuts of the Marxes. Their dialogue is loaded with gags...

Chico to Harpo: "Right now I'd do anything for money. I'd kill somebody for money. I'd kill you for money."
[Harpo looks crestfallen]
Chico: "Ah, no. You're my friend. I'd kill you for nothing."
[Harpo smiles]

...and scenes such as the "Why a duck?" bit remain Marxist favorites.

Animal Crackers improves things considerably, with numerous moments among the funniest stuff ever filmed. As before, the Brothers wrestle for screen time with the perfunctory plot when other characters take the screen. But Lillian Roth is awfully cute as the ingénue in a story involving a pair of young lovers whose marriage hopes dovetail with hubbub surrounding a stolen painting. Groucho is in top form as his eminent creation, Captain Jeffrey T. (for Edgar) Spaulding, the African explorer and guest of honor at Margaret Dumont's Long Island party. Also attending are musician Emanuel Ravelli (Chico) and The Professor (Harpo). All three torment millionaire art patron Roscoe W. Chandler (Louis Sorin). Zeppo shows his own comedic flair as Spaulding's put-upon field secretary, Horatio Jamison.

Animal Crackers features Groucho's song, "Hello, I Must Be Going," and "Hooray for Captain Spaulding," one of the great movie-musical introductions. Among the high points are several hilarious near-monologues by Groucho. In one he invokes Eugene O'Neill ("pardon me while I have a strange interlude") and plies his ample hostess with progressive-minded lechery. ("I'm sick of these conventional marriages. One woman and one man was good enough for your grandmother, but who wants to marry your grandmother? Nobody, not even your grandfather.") Later in the film we get Capt. Spaulding's account of his African adventures, the source of the Grouchoism, "One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don't know." He also delivers the funniest dirty joke in cinema history: "Signore Ravelli's first selection will be 'Somewhere My Love Lies Sleeping' with a male chorus."

(Trivia: In the scene where the film contrives a storm to knock out the lights, notice that "Groucho's" silhouette is not actually played by Groucho. His voice is the real deal, but in this scene it's Zeppo standing in as Capt. Spaulding. About Animal Crackers on the Broadway and touring stage, Groucho said that Zeppo "was so good as Captain Spaulding that I would have let him play the part indefinitely, if they had allowed me to smoke in the audience.")

The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers possess a value that makes them unique even among Marx films. They are our only records of what it was like to see the Marxes performing live on Broadway. The original stage scripts were pared down for the screen, so the films are rough approximations rather than full reproductions. Still, as historical documents they benefit from unadorned point-and-shoot camerawork, their proscenium staginess, and lack of cinematic flair. Scripts by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind don't hurt either, even though showbiz legend has it that Kaufman, backstage during a show he wrote for these notorious ad-libbers, once exclaimed "Wait! I think I just heard one of my lines!"

Co-written by S.J. Perelman and directed by Norman McLeod, Monkey Business (1931) turns the Marxes into stowaways on an ocean liner. This bam-bam-bam string of funny scenes — throwing the Brothers haphazardly against the ship's captain and a group of gangsters — is all but plotless and derails near the end when the action inexplicably leaves the ship. Still, the new freedom of an all-original script and Hollywood directorial mobility, unbolted from the earlier films' stage-bound restrictions, increased the Marxisms per minute sufficiently to continue the upward-moving quality curve. Not only are there are no unnecessary musical numbers or subplots this time to slow down the works, we also get delectable Thelma Todd as the object of Groucho's eye (among other things).

Favorite scenes include all four Brothers trying to sneak through a passenger checkpoint by pretending to be Maurice Chevalier (Harpo's turn is especially ingenious), Groucho's canoodling with Todd in her stateroom, which leads to his encounter with her dime-novel thug of a husband, and Harpo's outright wonderful attempt to hide from the authorities by posing as a puppet in a "Punch & Judy" children's show.

Something of a double-feature bookend with Monkey Business, Horse Feathers (1932) brings back writer Perelman and director McLeod, this time putting the Marxes on a college campus. Groucho is Prof. Quincy Adams Wagstaff, who takes over as president of Huxley College. His son Frank (Zeppo) convinces him to buy a couple of football players at a local speakeasy so Huxley can have a winning team. At the speakeasy he attracts Baravelli (Chico) and Pinky (Harpo) in the "swordfish" scene. Meanwhile, Wagstaff and his son compete for the affections of the flirty "college widow" (defined) played with seductive vim by the returning Thelma Todd. She's conniving to snatch Huxley's secret football signals for her boyfriend, a gangster betting on the rival team from Darwin College.

Big moments start right away with Groucho's opening number, "Whatever It Is, I'm Against It," accompanied by robed academicians with no sense of rhythm whatsoever. Here too is Groucho's classroom lecture with Chico and Harpo that descends to a vicious battle with peashooters. Groucho on a boat — "I was gonna get a flat bottom but the girl at the boat house didn't have one" — serenades Todd with the song "Everyone Says I Love You." During the climactic Thanksgiving Day football game between Darwin and Huxley (spot the joke there and win a scholarship to Bob Jones University), Harpo enters the field riding a chariot and throwing banana peels in front of the other players.

Horse Feathers was the Marx Brothers' most popular film to date and the one that put them on the cover of Time magazine.

In Monkey Business and Horse Feathers Thelma Todd displays the makings of a top-notch comedienne. "Hot Toddy" could match Groucho point for point in their scenes together. Tragically, her career was cut short when in December 1935 she was found in her garage, dead in her car. Her death was ruled a suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. However, suspicions that she was murdered because of connections to real-life hoods has kept the case unofficially unsolved. She had made over 100 films and was only 30 years old.

Finally, when you get to 1933's Duck Soup you reach not just their final Paramount title. You've ascended to comedy Nirvana. It fills our glass with undiluted Marx Brothers, served straight up.

Groucho is Rufus T. Firefly, appointed by Mrs. Teasdale (Dumont) to the presidency of the Ruritanian country of Freedonia. Chico and Harpo are spies working (sort of) for Ambassador Trentino of Sylvania, who plans to take over Freedonia. His attempts at inciting revolution have failed, so Trentino decides to take Freedonia by marrying Mrs. Teasdale. In steps Firefly to woo her first and insult Trentino at every turn. War is, of course, the only possible response. The weapons of mass derangement are well stocked. The mirror sequence, Chico and Harpo's confrontations with the lemonade vendor (chronically splenetic Edgar Kennedy), and the battle scene are among Duck Soup's classic moments too numerous to list.

Appreciators often describe Duck Soup as a war satire. It's unlikely, though, that real political significance was ever intended. As Groucho put it when asked, "What significance? We were just four Jews trying to get a laugh." Maybe so, but this all-stops-out farce so joyously lampoons war and those who monger it that in the 1960s Duck Soup became a favorite with film-festival and college audiences, for whom it might have been Gilbert & Sullivan on acid. The targets getting cream pies in the kisser include politics, nationalism, and war fever. (The song "All God's Chillun Got Guns" pushes several transgressive buttons at once, and is certainly now more sardonically current than ever before.)

It's easy to spot why Duck Soup works so sublimely. It zips forward as fast and gag-packed as any Chuck Jones or Tex Avery cartoon. It was produced by Herman Mankiewicz, a cynical wit of the Algonquin Round Table, former theater critic, and sharp dialogue man who later was the co-screenwriter of Orson Welles' Citizen Kane.

Moreover, Duck Soup marks the only time in their film career when the Marxes worked with a first-rate director who knew how to direct a Marx Brothers film. That was Leo McCarey. Hired as an Our Gang gag-writer by Hal Roach in 1923, McCarey was the first to bring Laurel and Hardy together. (Samples of his early work are available on DVD in the Slapstick Encyclopedia set.) McCarey became one of Hollywood's most dependable comedy directors. Besides Duck Soup, his later work includes The Awful Truth (Oscar for Best Director), An Affair to Remember, The Bells of St. Mary's, and Going My Way (his second Oscar for Best Director and another for his screenplay).

Paradoxically, Duck Soup, now a permanent fixture on any short list of great American comedies, was the movie that ended the Marx Brothers' Paramount contract. Common knowledge has it that Duck Soup flopped at the box office, and in response Paramount gave the boys the boot. But Glenn Mitchell in The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia, and Simon Louvish in his bio of the Marxes titled Monkey Business, reveal that common knowledge should get stuffed. In the year when the Depression was at its worst, Duck Soup was Paramount's sixth highest grosser, which was okay financially, although well short of Horse Feathers, the studio's biggest hit of 1932.

It has been suggested that any box-office disappointment might have been spurred by the public not being in the mood for a misbehaving war comedy while Hitler barked threateningly over the radio from Europe. (The film opened to general U.S. release 10 months after Hitler was appointed chancellor, nine months after the Reichstag Fire, and four months after Hitler proclaimed the Nazis "the only political party in Germany"). Not to mention that the generation-scarring "war to end all wars" had ended only fifteen years earlier.

Or it may simply be that the Brothers fell victim to changing times and fickle audience tastes. The one sure thing is the pre-existing professional and personal fracture between Paramount and the Marxes, which was by itself enough to overboil tensions between the two parties. Bitter contract disputes, including a threatened walk-out by the Marxes, crippled relationships just as Duck Soup went into production. So with their five-picture contract fulfilled, the Marxes called it quits and Paramount apparently shed no tears seeing them go.

Whatever the reason, Groucho figured that their film career was over. Then MGM's Irving Thalberg told the Brothers that he could put them on top again. Groucho, Harpo, and Chico leaped at the chance, while Zeppo bowed out and became an agent. In 1935 their first MGM musical comedy, A Night at the Opera, quickly became their most popular film.

But MGM dialed down the anything-goes revelry of the Marxes' Paramount years, replacing it with conventional romantic plot goo glittered up with the MGM house style's production values and musical exorbitance. Worse, the Marx Brothers became the agents of order rather than chaos. Of happily-ever-after rather than anarchy. MGM, or changing times, had clipped their wings. With their next film, A Day at the Races, the Brothers began a fast descent into stale, timeworn programmers until finally A Night in Casablanca in 1946. From there they moved on to solo projects, such as Groucho's Copacabana. The heydays of the Marx Brothers were over.

The Silver Screen Collection DVDs

This essential collection from Universal (current caretaker of the pre-1948 Paramount titles) finally re-releases these gems that have been out of print far too long. Owners of the previous Image Entertainment editions may not feel compelled to replace those discs with this set, because while the Universal editions improve on the Image versions, sometimes by quite a margin, these aren't Criterion-level upgrades. The value of the Silver Screen Collection is more for the newborn Marx Brothers fan who until now had to seek out price-inflated copies of the Image editions on eBay. That said, owners of the Image editions who are still willing to shell out less than $10 per film for a modest but noticeable uptick will find satisfaction here. Yes, these films deserve high-end restorative treatment to diminish the ravages of age. But then so do I, yet when I look in the mirror every morning I don't complain about still being happily viewable.

Accounts of alternative versions of these films shown in the 1960s and 1970s, if true, probably refer to negatives originally created for foreign distribution. Like flying saucers and compassionate conservatism, we're still waiting for them to land on our doorstep. The prints used for this Silver Screen Collection are those that have been in circulation since at least the advent of home video. Harsh edits made in the 1930s to appease the Hays Office are still here, and they're as graceful as a bris performed with a cigar cutter. These are most obvious in Animal Crackers, where in "Hooray for Captain Spaulding" Groucho's lewd lyric toward Dumont, "I think I'll try and make her," is sliced out with no respect for the surrounding song; and in Horse Feathers, where the "ice man" scene seems to have been edited by a four-year-old with scissors, all because Harpo had placed his head in Thelma Todd's lap.

Speaking of censorious twits, shortly before this DVD set hit the streets, a pre-release report by nationally syndicated entertainment columnist Marilyn Beck stated that "racially-offensive material" would be edited from this edition of Duck Soup. Specifically, material "that has been deplored and debated in the 'We're Going to War' production number." Beck didn't say what the exact cut was, or who's doing all that deploring and debating, though presumably she meant the "All God's Chillun Got Guns" section. The possibility of new contextually obtuse editing is bad enough. What made her column even more galling was the satisfied tone in her statement that such a "well-made edit makes the film a pure zany joy without an ugly blot in it to spoil the fun."

It's a pleasure to report that Marilyn Beck is full of it. No such edits exist in this edition. Another potentially sensitive moment in the film — Groucho's punchline, "and that's why darkies were born," a dated reference to a popular song from the '30s — is also still intact.

Because the original negatives evidently no longer exist, these films can look only so good. Fans are used to them displaying their age in print damage, hairline scratches, blemishes, and missing frames. Here's the good news: An A/B comparison between the Silver Screen editions and the Image editions reveals that improved transfers have resulted in a healthy uptick in the visuals. Now the black-and-white grayscale is more solid and smoother, with better contrast, plus the old wear and tear is not as stark. The Cocoanuts, always the poorest preserved, is quite a bit better than before, with some scenes sourced from a 35mm print rather than the old 16mm. Duck Soup fares the best, with a cleaner, more uniform image. (And interestingly, the original trailer for Duck Soup, included here, employs alternate takes of key scenes.)

Likewise, the new audio is stronger with less hiss, and is opened up from Dolby 1.0 mono to Dolby 2.0 mono.

A sixth disc of Extras prompts a whole kippered herring barrel of questions, the first being "An entire disc for only 16 minutes worth of material?" What we have are three vintage clips from TV's Today Show:

The Silver Screen Collection packages its six discs in a handsome, if cumbersome, book-like box that folds out three times over. It's illustrated with alarmingly sharp black-and-white photos and a 35-page booklet that's well produced but unfortunately bound to the inside of the box.

—Mark Bourne

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