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Shall we bind the deal with a kiss? Or, five dollars in cash? You lose either way.

The Big Store
(1941)

(SPOILERS) Three go mad in a department store. The results are undoubtedly more diverting than low point Go West, but it feels as if there is even more flotsam to wade through to get to the good stuff in The Big Store, which is almost exclusively delivered by Groucho as private detective and bodyguard Wolf J Flywheel. Perhaps surprisingly, however, the climax is one of the better ones, an extended chase sequence through the store that is frequently quite inventive.

Flywheel: After all, you’re a woman. You are a woman, aren’t you?

Margaret Dumont is back, as Margaret Phelps, making The Big Store all the better for Groucho having a tried and trusted foil, along with competition for his “affections” in store manager Grover (Douglass Dumbrille). The latter is intent on taking over Phelps Department Store by killing the recently deceased owner’s son (Tommy Rogers, played inconspicuously, aside from a couple of deadly numbers, by crooner Tony Martin) and marrying Dumont, the departed’s sister. Naturally, Martin as the “lead” has his own love interest (Virginia Grey). Dumont calls on Groucho’s services, worried for her nephew’s safety (he’s planning to sell his share and set up a music conservatory that will – sheesh! – attract young urchins; “I want these kids to have the same opportunities I did”). So Flywheel and his assistant Wacky (Harpo) duly set themselves up on the premises. It’s a surprise pairing of Groucho and Harpo from the off, but it turns out Chico (Ravelli again), pal of Martin, is Wacky’s brother.

Grover: How much experience have you had at a department store?
Flywheel: I was a shoplifter for three years.

Dumont’s initial visit to Groucho’s offices is one of the best scenes in the picture, the latter instructing Harpo to take down the details of her case, which he duly does (twice) to the sound of deafening typing no one can hear themselves above. Later, Grover is naturally annoyed at Groucho’s presence, who is winningly insulting back while flirting with the manager’s secretary.

Grover: If you’re a detective, I’m a monkey’s uncle.
Flywheel: Keep your family out of this!

Groucho even makes Martin look half interesting in their initial exchange (“You’re sensational” he tells Flywheel: “I could listen to this man forever” comes the reply). He also gets a musical number, Sing While You Sell, which is quite watchable because it’s Groucho, and includes much addressing camera along with several accompanying artists, most notable of whom is Virginia O’Brien delivering an expressionless, up-tempo rendition of Rock-a-bye Baby (it was her style, apparently, and a slightly alarming one). Alas, there’s an abundance of musical numbers here, including two Harpos on the harp, Chico and Harpo on the piano, and the aforementioned, eminently missable Martin interludes.

Henry’s wife: Can you tell me the price of this bed?
Flywheel: Eight thousand dollars.
Henry’s wife: Why, that’s preposterous! I can get the same bed anywhere in town for 25 dollars.
Flywheel: Yes, but it hasn’t got me in it.
Henry: How dare you take that tone with my wife!
Flywheel: Have you ever met me before?
Henry’s wife: No.
Flywheel: Then why do you allow your wife to go around waking up strange men?

There’s also an extended bit in the bedding department where the three floorwalkers – more like bed-liers – cause mild confusion. Chico, who is otherwise almost entirely non-descript throughout, meets similarly ludicrously accented Giuseppi (Henry Armetta) – they come from the same town and crushed grapes together – and Harpo loses Guiseppi’s brood of six kids in a bunkbed that descends into the floor. On hearing of Giuseppi’s income vs family Flywheel exclaims “It’s economically impossible for you to have twelve children!” There’s also a flush of racial stereotyping in the prospective customers, including blonde Aryan, “Native American” (looking like they’ve just walked off the Go West set) and Chinese families.

Ravelli: Hey, look at me and laugh.
Flywheel: I’ve been doing that for twenty years.

Harpo and Chico succeed in accidentally apprehending the hoods out to ice Martin (while Groucho mistakenly apprehends two prospective buyers – “You really do look like crooks”). Harpo has a bit of business with a fake fire hydrant, pilfers the contents of Dumont’s purse (then gives it back), and mistakes a woman for a shop dummy (the closest the picture gets to the halcyon days of sex-pest Harpo, although he also cuts the back off Marion Martin’s dress). However, he only really comes into his own during the final frenetic chase, as via lift, roller-skates and bicycle, Grover gives chase to the trio (Harpo has an incriminating photo, taken when the lights went out, during which Groucho was protecting Grey; when they come on again, she’s been replaced by Harpo: “I can’t understand why Tony wants to marry you”). Dumbrille provides a very solid showing with the comedy during this, emerging in a ladies’ hat when a box of them fall on him. As per Go West, Groucho’s best lines draw attention to the artifice of the production (“I told you in the first reel he was a crook” and “This is a bright red dress, but technicolour is so expensive”).

Martha Phelps: I’m crazy about Sherlock Holmes.
Flywheel: It won’t do you any good. He’s got a wife and three kids.

The Big Store brought the brothers MGM stay to an end, after five pictures of varying quality that, even at their peak, failed to manage the consistency of the Paramount run. While they’d make two more films as a trio, this represented the end of an era, with Dumont’s final appearance. Not auspicious, then, but The Big Store is still far from the disaster it’s lowly placing on Marx Brothers films rankings might sometimes suggest.



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