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

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

Old Boggy walks on Lammas Eve.

Jeeves and Wooster 2.5: Kidnapped  (aka The Mysterious Stranger)
Kidnapped continues the saga of Chuffnell Hall. Having said of 2.4 that the best Wodehouse adaptations tend to stick closely to the text, this one is an exception that proves the rule, diverging significantly yet still scoring with its highly preposterous additions.

Jeeves: Tis old boggy. He be abroad tonight. He be heading for the railway station.
Gone are many of the imbroglios involving Stoker and Glossop (the estimable Roger Brierley), including the contesting of the former’s uncle’s will. Also gone, sadly, is the inebriated Brinkley throwing potatoes at Stoker, which surely would have been enormous fun. Instead, we concentrate on Bertie being locked aboard Stoker’s yacht in order to secure his marriage to Pauline (as per the novel), Chuffy tailing Pauline in disguise (so there’s a different/additional reason for Stoker to believe Bertie and she spent the night together, this time at a pub en route to Chufnell Hall) and …

All the way up! We’ll make it cold like winter used to be.

Soylent Green (1973)
(SPOILERS) The final entry in Chuck Heston’s mid-career sci-fi trilogy (I’m not counting his Beneath the Planet of the Apes extended cameo). He hadn’t so much as sniffed at the genre prior to 1967, but over the space of the next half decade or so, he blazed a trail for dystopian futures. Perhaps the bleakest of these came in Soylent Green. And it’s only a couple of years away. 2022 is just around the corner.

Once that first bullet goes past your head, politics and all that shit just goes right out the window.

Black Hawk Down (2001)
(SPOILERS) Black Hawk Down completed a trilogy of hits for Ridley Scott, a run of consistency he’d not seen even a glimmer of hitherto. He was now a brazenly commercial filmmaker, one who could boast big box office under his belt where previously such overt forays had seen mixed results (Black Rain, G.I. Jane). It also saw him strip away the last vestiges of artistic leanings from his persona, leaving behind, it seemed, only technical virtuosity. Scott was now given to the increasingly thick-headed soundbite (“every war movie is an anti-war movie”) in justification for whatever his latest carry-on carried in terms of controversial elements, and more than happy to bed down with the Pentagon (long-standing collaborators with producer Jerry Bruckheimer) to make a movie that, while depictinga less than auspicious intervention by the US military (“Based on an Actual Event” is a marvellous catch-all for wanton fabrication), managed to turn it into a parade of heroes pe…

Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…