Skip to main content

I’ve got to stay here, but there’s no reason you folks shouldn’t go out in the lobby until this is over.

The Marx Brothers 
Worst to Best

Thirteen features over twenty years, the general consensus is that Paramount = the Marx Brothers’ golden era, before drifting into gradual decline after back-to-back hits on moving to MGM. That’s at least partly true, but… read on.

13. Love Happy
(1949)

A fizzle of a final outing for the brothers, one that, due to Groucho’s largely bookended presence as narrator, barely qualifies as a film proper for the trio. Groucho is Detective Sam Grunion, enlisted to find the Royal Romanoff diamonds, hidden in a tin of sardines that Harpo has swiped – amongst other foodstuffs – for a cast of poverty-stricken players. Love Happy began as a Harpo vehicle (he gets a story credit), with sufficient Chico to make his role fairly standard, but the balance is off and laughs are thin on the ground.

Best sequence
Harpo is searched by heavies, his voluminous coat producing all manner of unlikely items, including various parts of a shop dummy, a block of ice, a sled and a live dog.

Best line
Female Client (who happens to be Marilyn Monroe in an early bit part): Some men are following me.
Grunion: Really? I can’t understand why.


12. Go West (Marx Brothers Go West)
(1940)

Not the brothers’ final MGM affair, but definitely their slackest for the studio. The potentially rich pickings of a western parody fall mostly flat as they venture west to find their fortunes and get mixed up in the attempts by a dodgy railroad executive and a saloon owner to obtain an otherwise worthless property in order to build a railway through it. Harpo blows a safe and makes pals with an Indian chief. His legs also stretch to an inordinate length during the madcap train chase climax. Groucho is the vulgarly named S Quentine Quale.

Best sequence: 
None are truly inspired, but the stagecoach ride features a cheerful free-for-all of misplaced bags, hats and seats.

Best line: 
Panello: If any trouble starts, we’ll telephone for help.
Quayle: Telephone? This is 1870. Don Ameche hasn’t invented the telephone yet.


11. Room Service
(1938)

The brothers trek across to RKO and squeeze themselves into an adaptation of an already established play. True, it’s lacking in the wanton anarchy we’ve become used to – and, rightly, expect – but on its own terms, Room Service is quite serviceable. Groucho’s Gordon Miller – a terribly pedestrian name – is staging a play (Hail and Farewell) and eating up a vast bill at his brother-in-law’s hotel. Somehow, despite all the impediments he faces, he manages to plough on through and put it on.

Best sequence: 
Harpo chases a – flying – turkey around the hotel room with a baseball bat. Chaos reigns.

Best line: 
Miller: (reneging on a deal for dinner) No, when I made that offer, I was prepared to go through with it. But now I’ve eaten, I see things a little differently.


10. The Big Store
(1941)

Groucho’s Wolf J Flywheel is hired by Margaret Dumont’s interested party to serve as store detective and protect her nephew, who has recently inherited half the premises. There’s a lot of bloat in this one, thanks to numerous musical numbers (several courtesy of straight lead Tony Martin), but Grouch gets the amusing Sing While You Sell, which is something, and the final chase sequence through the store is actually rather good.

Best sequence: 
Dumont’s Martha Phelps visits Groucho in order to furnish him with the particulars of her case, while Harpo’s Wacky types notes. So loudly, it continually drowns out everything Dumont is saying.

Best line: 
Martha Phelps: … I’m afraid, after we’re married awhile, a beautiful young woman will come along, and, uh, you’ll forget all about me.
Flywheel: Don’t be silly. I’ll write you twice a week.


9. At the Circus
(1939)

The brothers’ return to MGM following a brief stop-off at RKO, At the Circus is undoubtedly a step down from the A Day at the Races/A Night at the Opera double that did them so well when they first arrived at the studio, but it’s also far from a write-off. The title says it all, with Groucho’s Cheever J Loophole drafted in by Chico to help save the circus and along the way offer lewd suggestions to Margaret Dumont, persuaded by Groucho to allow a performance at her dinner party (at the expense of French conductor Jardinet, who nevertheless shows up in time to be insulted by Groucho).

Best sequence: 
Groucho, Chico and Harpo cross-examine the diminutive Professor Atom, on the trail of the stolen ten thousand. Chico continually contrives to foil Groucho’s attempts to extract incriminating evidence of Atom’s brand of cigars, Harpo sneezes, and Groucho causes Atom to corpse.

Best line: 
Groucho: (to camera, on seeing Peerless Pauline hide ten thousand dollars down her top) There must be some way of getting that money, without getting in trouble with the Hayes Office.


8. A Day at the Races
(1937)

Smoother running than its predecessor A Night at the Opera, but simultaneously more bloated and less inspired, I’m probably a little less high on A Day at the Races than the consensus. Groucho’s the horse doctor Hugo Z Hackenbush, called in to pose as a real doctor at the sanitorium where Margaret Dumont is promising funding, while a tenuously-connected thread rests the hope for the institution on its owner’s boyfriend’s horse, with Harpo as a jockey.

Best sequence: 
Not sustained in the way the peak sequences of their earlier films are, but the examination of Margaret Dumont’s Mrs Emily Upjohn, designed to expose Groucho as a sham, is the pick of the pic. Includes Groucho’s memorable insult to Sig Rusman’s Dr Leopold X Steinberg from Vienna “And don’t point that beard at me! It might go off!

Best line: 
Groucho: (examining Harpo) Either he’s dead, or my watch has stopped.


7. A Night in Casablanca
(1946)

This really should have been their swansong, as they’d have gone out on a (relative) high. No longer attached to MGM, and post-WWII (their previous picture, The Big Store having been released the year America entered the conflict), A Night in Casablanca was self-financed and released through United Artists. The title may suggest otherwise, but this isn’t a spoof of the Bogart movie, even if there’s some surprisingly noir-ish lighting at points. Groucho is Ronald Kornblow, the new hotel manager of Hotel Casablanca (so shades of where they came in with The Cocoanuts), his predecessors having been successively dispatched, and Sig Ruman’s Nazi war criminal is attempting to put his hands on stolen art treasures hidden there.

Best sequence: 
Ruman’s Heinrich Stubel, planning to make his escape, is packing up his entire wardrobe to increasing frustration and mystification, since Groucho, Harpo and Chico, hiding in wardrobes and trunks, are systematically undoing all his hard work.

Best line: 
Kornblow: (Harpo and Chico are testing his food as a means to a free meal) This food doesn’t look any more poisoned than any other hotel food.


6. The Cocoanuts
(1929)

The brothers’ first movie, adapted from their stage play, with Groucho’s Hammer trying to offload his Hotel de Cocoanut on Margaret Dumont during the Florida land boom. Dumont is trying to engineer her daughter’s marriage to (unbeknownst to her) a conman (naturally, there’s a thoroughly decent suitor to take up the eventual slack). Chico and Harpo arrive, possibly with thievery in mind, but mainly to cause upset. Harpo eats a telephone.

Best sequence: 
During a theme party, after Harpo steals, it Bail Ruysdael’s detective launches into “I want my shirt” to the music from Carmen (I want my shirt! I want my shirt! I’ll not be happy without my shirt! Guests: He wants his shirt! He won’t be happy without his shirt!)

Best line: 
Bob Adams: Oh Mr Hammer... There’s a man outside who wants to see you with a black moustache.
Hammer: Tell him I’ve got one.


5. A Night at the Opera
(1935)

The brothers’ first foray with MGM, in which they took hit-making advice from Irving Thalberg and only went and had their biggest by far. Events revolve around bringing the world’s greatest tenor to perform in New York, which involves an ocean crossing, insulting Margaret Dumont, insulting Sig Ruman’s theatre director, and impersonating three famous aviators. There are some very fine sequences here, but there’s also a definite feeling of a neutering of the brothers’ most anarchic urges in tandem with increasing time devoted to the straight romantic plotline, something that would only escalate as their tenure with the studio continued.

Best sequence: 
The state room scene, in which Groucho’s Otis B Driftwood, already shown to a very small cabin, must contend with the arrival of stowaways Fiorello (Chico), Harpo (Tomasso) and tenor Ricardo (Allan Jones). The cramped quarters only become more cramped as he is prodded into ordering them food, and a procession of maids, an engineer, a manicurist, the engineer’s assistant, and a mopper upper arrive, followed by four stewards with the food itself.

Best line: 
Driftwood: On account of you, I nearly heard the opera.


4. Horse Feathers
(1932)

Possibly a contender for the highest number of classic Groucho lines, Horse Feathers posits his Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff as the new president of Huxley College, who focusses his attentions on obtaining some pro football players to boost the team. The advice on which comes from his son Frank. Played by, er, Zeppo. No Dumont again, but the returning Todd is once again a godsend.

Best sequence: 
Harpo and Chico escape kidnap by sawing their way out of a locked room... In circular fashion, around themselves.

Best line:
Connie: Oh, professor, you’re full of whimsy.
Wagstaff: Can you notice it from there? I’m always that way after I eat radishes.


3. Monkey Business
(1931)

Not to be confused with the shipboard antics of A Night at the Opera, this is the one where they all go by their own names, must elude the captain and first mate, fall in with duelling gangsters, one of whom has a daughter for Zeppo to date, and end up at a party on dry land, and then in a barn fight. It’s their first written especially for the screen, and if Margaret Dumont is notably absent, Thelma Todd is very game.

Best sequence: 
Unsurprisingly, the one with Maurice Chevalier’s passport, passed from brother to brother in turn as they attempt to steal their way through customs by posing as the star. With Maurice’s photo failing to match up, they each offer a rendition of You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me (“If the nightingales could sing like you…”). Highly dubiously, that is until Harpo comes on hitting every note. When his voice becomes slurred, it’s revealed he has a phonograph tied to his back.

Best line: 
Alky Briggs: I want to get a guy on this boat.
Groucho: Well, it’s too late to get him on now. You should have said something before we set sail.


2. Animal Crackers
(1930)

The brothers’ second feature, and like The Cocoanuts, adapted from their stage play. So much here is sublime, with Harpo fully unhinged and Groucho in magnificent flow. Even Zeppo is given a really good moment (putting down Groucho, of all people). Dumont is marvellous as Mrs “Rittenrotten”, hosting on a party in honour of Groucho’s returning Captain Jeffrey Spaulding (“Hooray for…”), while also overseeing the display of a Beaugard painting that inspires a medley of complicated substitution schemes.

Best sequence: 
A difficult one, but for me it must be the surreal attempt by Grace (Kathryn Reece) to get back the painting from the Professor (Harpo), during which Harpo reveals he’s five years old and that his true love is a horse.

Best line: 
Spaulding: Why, you’re one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen. And that’s not saying much for you.


1. Duck Soup
(1933)

Peak Marx Brothers in so many ways, Duck Soup was their final fling with Paramount, although not so much because the picture bombed (it didn’t) but due to a dispute over unpaid royalties. Groucho, as the wonderfully named Rufus T Firefly, is leader of Freedonia, at dotty Dumont’s insistence, and proceeds to lead the country into war after insulting the ambassador of Sylvania. It’s a razor-sharp war satire. When it’s focussing on the war, that is. It’s also unusual for ditching any pretence at imposing straight romantic leads upon the brother’s antics, and just sticking to the anarchy itself.

Best sequence: 
Surely the best piece of comedy the brothers put to film, as Chico and Harpo dress up as Groucho, complete with glasses and moustaches, and proceed to confuse first Dumont and then Groucho himself, as Harpo mimics his every movement in front of what Groucho believes to be a mirror. Quite masterful.

Best line: 
Roland: General Swift reports a gas attack. He wants to know what to do.
Firefly: Tell him to take a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda in half a glass of water.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Mondo bizarro. No offence man, but you’re in way over your head.

The X-Files 8.7: Via Negativa I wasn’t as down on the last couple of seasons of The X-Files as most seemed to be. For me, the mythology arc walked off a cliff somewhere around the first movie, with only the occasional glimmer of something worthwhile after that. So the fact that the show was tripping over itself with super soldiers and Mulder’s abduction/his and Scully’s baby (although we all now know it wasn’t, sheesh ), anything to stretch itself beyond breaking point in the vain hope viewers would carry on dangling, didn’t really make much odds. Of course, it finally snapped with the wretched main arc when the show returned, although the writing was truly on the wall with Season 9 finale The Truth . For the most part, though, I found 8 and 9 more watchable than, say 5 or 7. They came up with their fair share of engaging standalones, one of which I remembered to be Via Negativa .

Isn’t it true, it’s easier to be a holy man on the top of a mountain?

The Razor’s Edge (1984) (SPOILERS) I’d hadn’t so much a hankering as an idle interest in finally getting round to seeing Bill Murray’s passion project. Partly because it seemed like such an odd fit. And partly because passion isn’t something you tend to associate with any Murray movie project, involving as it usually does laidback deadpan. Murray, at nigh-on peak fame – only cemented by the movie he agreed to make to make this movie – embarks on a serious-acting-chops dramatic project, an adaptation of W Somerset Maugham’s story of one man’s journey of spiritual self-discovery. It should at least be interesting, shouldn’t it? A real curio? Alas, not. The Razor’s Edge is desperately turgid.

You have done well to keep so much hair, when so many’s after it.

Jeremiah Johnson (1972) (SPOILERS) Hitherto, I was most familiar with Jeremiah Johnson in the form of a popular animated gif of beardy Robert Redford smiling and nodding in slow zoom close up (a moment that is every bit as cheesy in the film as it is in the gif). For whatever reason, I hadn’t mustered the enthusiasm to check out the 1970s’ The Revenant until now (well, beard-wise, at any rate). It’s easy to distinguish the different personalities at work in the movie. The John Milius one – the (mythic) man against the mythic landscape; the likeably accentuated, semi-poetic dialogue – versus the more naturalistic approach favoured by director Sydney Pollack and star Redford. The fusion of the two makes for a very watchable, if undeniably languorous picture. It was evidently an influence on Dances with Wolves in some respects, although that Best Picture Oscar winner is at greater pains to summon a more sensitive portrayal of Native Americans (and thus, perversely, at times a more patr

I tell you, it saw me! The hanged man’s asphyx saw me!

The Asphyx (1972) (SPOILERS) There was such a welter of British horror from the mid 60s to mid 70s, even leaving aside the Hammers and Amicuses, that it’s easy to lose track of them in the shuffle. This one, the sole directorial effort of Peter Newbrook (a cameraman for David Lean, then a cinematographer), has a strong premise and a decent cast, but it stumbles somewhat when it comes to taking that premise any place interesting. On the plus side, it largely eschews the grue. On the minus, directing clearly wasn’t Newbrook’s forte, and even aided by industry stalwart cinematographer Freddie Young (also a go-to for Lean), The Aspyhx is stylistically rather flat.

My Doggett would have called that crazy.

The X-Files 9.4: 4-D I get the impression no one much liked Agent Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish), but I felt, for all the sub-Counsellor Troi, empath twiddling that dogged her characterisation, she was a mostly positive addition to the series’ last two years (of its main run). Undoubtedly, pairing her with Doggett, in anticipation of Gillian Anderson exiting just as David Duchovny had – you rewatch these seasons and you wonder where her head was at in hanging on – made for aggressively facile gender-swapped conflict positions on any given assignment. And generally, I’d have been more interested in seeing how two individuals sympathetic to the cause – her and Mulder – might have got on. Nevertheless, in an episode like 4-D you get her character, and Doggett’s, at probably their best mutual showing.

You’re a disgrace, sir... Weren’t you at Harrow?

Our Man in Marrakesh aka Bang! Bang! You’re Dead (1966) (SPOILERS) I hadn’t seen this one in more than three decades, and I had in mind that it was a decent spy spoof, well populated with a selection of stalwart British character actors in supporting roles. Well, I had the last bit right. I wasn’t aware this came from the stable of producer Harry Alan Towers, less still of his pedigree, or lack thereof, as a sort of British Roger Corman (he tried his hand at Star Wars with The Shape of Things to Come and Conan the Barbarian with Gor , for example). More legitimately, if you wish to call it that, he was responsible for the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu flicks. Our Man in Marrakesh – riffing overtly on Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana in title – seems to have in mind the then popular spy genre and its burgeoning spoofs, but it’s unsure which it is; too lightweight to work as a thriller and too light on laughs to elicit a chuckle.

Schnell, you stinkers! Come on, raus!

Private’s Progress (1956) (SPOILERS) Truth be told, there’s good reason sequel I’m Alright Jack reaps the raves – it is, after all, razor sharp and entirely focussed in its satire – but Private’s Progress is no slouch either. In some respects, it makes for an easy bedfellow with such wartime larks as Norman Wisdom’s The Square Peg (one of the slapstick funny man’s better vehicles). But it’s also, typically of the Boulting Brothers’ unsentimental disposition, utterly remorseless in rebuffing any notions of romantic wartime heroism, nobility and fighting the good fight. Everyone in the British Army is entirely cynical, or terrified, or an idiot.

It’s not as if she were a… maniac, a raving thing.

Psycho (1960) (SPOILERS) One of cinema’s most feted and most studied texts, and for good reason. Even if the worthier and more literate psycho movie of that year is Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom . One effectively ended a prolific director’s career and the other made its maker more in demand than ever, even if he too would discover he had peaked with his populist fear flick. Pretty much all the criticism and praise of Psycho is entirely valid. It remains a marvellously effective low-budget shocker, one peppered with superb performances and masterful staging. It’s also fairly rudimentary in tone, character and psychology. But those negative elements remain irrelevant to its overall power.

The best thing in the world for the inside of a man or a woman is the outside of a horse.

Marnie (1964) (SPOILERS) Hitch in a creative ditch. If you’ve read my Vertigo review, you’ll know I admired rather than really liked the picture many fete as his greatest work. Marnie is, in many ways, a redux, in the way De Palma kept repeating himself in the early 80s only significantly less delirious and… well, compelling. While Marnie succeeds in commanding the attention fitfully, it’s usually for the wrong reasons. And Hitch, digging his heels in as he strives to fashion a star against public disinterest – he failed to persuade Grace Kelly out of retirement for Marnie Rutland – comes entirely adrift with his leads.

You know what I sometimes wish? I sometimes wish I were ordinary like you. Ordinary and dead like all the others.

Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) (SPOILERS) Bryan Forbes’ adaptation of Mark McShane’s 1961’s novel has been much acclaimed. It boasts a distinctive storyline and effective performances from its leads, accompanied by effective black-and-white cinematography from Gerry Turpin and a suitably atmospheric score from John Barry. I’m not sure Forbes makes the most of the material, however, as he underlines Séance on a Wet Afternoon ’s inherently theatrical qualities at the expense of its filmic potential.