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Time wounds all heels.

Go West
(1940)

(SPOILERS) Comedy westerns were nothing new when the Marx Brothers succumbed – Buster Keaton had made one with the same title fifteen years earlier – but theirs served to underline how variable the results could be. For every Bob Hope (Son of Paleface) there’s a Seth McFarlane (A Million Ways to Die in the West). In theory, the brothers riding roughshod over such genre conventions ought to have been uproarious, but they’d rather run out of gas by this point, and the results are, for the most part, sadly pedestrian. Even Go West's big train-chase climax fails to elicit the once accustomed anarchy that was their stock in trade.

Quale: You love your brother, don’t you?
Panello: No, but I’m used to him.

That big train-chase climax has its moments, however, including various couplings and uncouplings (at one point, Harpo’s legs are stretched to an inordinate length as he forms a human bridge between cars), de-railings and re-railings, and desperate forays for fuel (entailing utilising most of the cargo, as well as a significant portion of a carriage). But screenwriter Irving Brecher (again with uncredited support from Buster Keaton) fails to come up with anything truly inspired. The plot revolves around a worthless property, Dead Man’s Gulch, that suddenly becomes valuable when the railway wants to build through it, by which point the deed has fallen into the hands of Harpo and Chico (as brothers this time, Rusty and Joseph Panello, prospecting for gold). And then, thanks to Groucho, into the mitts of ruthless Red Baxter (Robert Barrat, a good villainous foil, but underused as a recipient of Marx abuse) and dodgy railroad man Beecher (Walter Woolf King).

Quale: I give you my solemn word as an embezzler that I’ll be back.

In the normal course, having the dirty done on them would lead to entirely destructive mayhem on the brothers’ part, but being as they have now long since been repurposed, and as essentially kindly sorts (even Groucho, when the plot requires it), they are set on restoring the deed to the original owners, gratis. Those being Dan Wilson (Tully Marshall) and his granddaughter Eve (Diana Lewis); her beau Terry Turner (John Carroll) brought the deal to Eve’s attention.

Quale: There’s something corrupt going on around my pants, and I just can’t seem to locate it.

So we’re served up some rather familiar routines, the first of which finds Groucho outwitted by Harpo and Chico at a train station as all three attempt to head out west, but without the necessary fare; he loses his money and half his trouser leg. Groucho is S Quentin Quale (San Quentin quail – jailbait – although, according to The Annotated Marx Brothers, this wasn’t considered quite as shocking at the time… how things change), and that kind of inventiveness surfaces sporadically, but too sporadically: the opening foreword quotes “Go west, young man, go west”; “This is the story of three men who made Horace Greeley sorry he said it”. Groucho, who has a home in Drooly-on-the-Lapel, works for the Bona Fide Oil Company, which Beecher has never heard of (“You haven’t? Evidently, you don’t read the bankruptcy notices”). Told by Baxter that he won’t be paid for the deed, Groucho replies “Well, that’s one way of reducing your overhead”.

Panello: If any trouble starts, we’ll telephone for help.
Quayle: Telephone? This is 1870. Don Ameche hasn’t invented the telephone yet.
There’s some spirited bag and hat play during a stagecoach ride (in which King is as versatile with the comedic interplay as the brothers themselves). Harpo, having nearly blown off Baxter’s head with a gun disguised as a duster, entertainingly blows a safe, while a couple of saloon floozies attempt to get Groucho and Chico drunk (one of whom, June MacCloy’s Lulubelle, sees Groucho managing to slip by a “Lulubelle, it’s you. I didn’t recognise you standing up”). Unfortunately, there’s also a laborious visit to a Native American village (the inhabitants conspicuously played by Caucasians), only fleetingly lifted by Groucho pointing the finger (“Are you insinuating that the white man is not the Indian’s friend? Who swindled you out of Manhattan Island for 24 dollars?”).

Quayle: Ma’am, why is that baby constantly crying?
Mother: He can’t stand the jerks in the coach.

There are also the obligatory intermittent musical numbers, none of which are that long, but still frequent enough to make an already rather sluggish movie seem more so. Groucho breaks the fourth wall occasionally (“You know, it’s stimulating when two giant intellects get together” he notes of Harpo getting on famously with Mitchell Lewis’ Indian chief), but not with the wit we’re used to, and when he notes of a tied-up train driver “You know, this is the best gag in the picture”, we can’t help but agree (although, actually, the telephone one is pretty good).



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

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