The Marx Brothers were a team unique in the history of cinema. Which may have been a good thing, as two of them may have been too many.
Like some other comedy teams, it’s occasionally a love it or hate it situation.
Personally, I’ve never been fond of the Stooges, like certain of the Laurel & Hardy productions, but have always been a huge Marx Brothers fan.
While their career in features ran from 1929 through 1949, a decent run in the film business, their truly legendary work was done for two studios. First Paramount, out of Astoria Studios in Queens, New York, for The Cocoanuts (1929), and Animal Crackers (1930), followed by their move west for Monkey Business (1931), Horse Feathers (1932), and finally Duck Soup (1933).
They made their move to M-G-M, and greater budgets with which to work their lunacy, for A Night at the Opera (1936) and A Day at the Races (1937).
A quick stop at RKO, yielded the less than stellar Room Service (1938), before a return to M-G-M for At the Circus (1939), Go West (1940), and The Big Store (1941), but for me, those have been also rans.
So if one considers “prime” Marx as being seven films, you’ll get your basic education and their first five, in a beautifully created five film set from Universal, entitled the Silver Screen Collection.
Before readers get too excited, these films has been restored as much as possible from surviving elements, and with the exception of some long very dupey sections in Cocoanuts, look better than I’ve ever seen them.
But don’t be expecting something that appears to be a 4k scan of an OCN.
It’s not happening, because it can’t happen.
The original nitrates were destroyed decades ago, after heavy use, and those elements that have survived are occasionally akin to a patchwork quilt, especially The Cocoanuts.
Let’s take a quick look at the five films.
The Cocoanuts, is early sound, and it both looks as sound it. But it’s an early treasure. Based upon a stage play, it remains as a visual filmed stage play.
When The Cocoanuts looks good, it can look very good for a film shot 87 years ago, and when it dupes hit, especially the more virulent variety… Just go with them and enjoy.
For the second film in the collection, Animal Crackers, which was also based upon a stage musical, a duplicate negative was located at the BFI, which gets kudos for preserving it. One of the nice surprises, is that it includes over a minute of material censored for re-issue, which has not been seen since that time.
Along with Margaret Dumont, the Marx stalwart, you’ll also experience Lillian Roth. Don’t know her? Look her up.
Universal has done a beautiful job of hiding the problems, and the result of their work is to me, miraculous.
Monkey Business was more problematic than Animal crackers. The image was harvested from a heavily shrunken fine grain master, that had it’s fill of warps, running scratches, tears and heavy dirt. Once again, Universal has used everything in their digital toolbox to eradicate the problems, and create a pleasant viewing experience.
For a female lead, you’ll get Thelma Todd, who also appeared in Horse Feathers. Her death at age 29, in 1935, is still one of Hollywood’s unanswered questions.
Horse Feathers, was another more problematic title, which survived as a duplicate fine grain, with sections of film movement, apparently from being copied from a heavily warped element. Sometimes digital tools work. Other times they don’t, and apparently attempts to solve the problem, create worse problems. A decision was made to leave it as it was, with which I heartily agree. One sequence still have censor cuts, and while a search was made, who knows what may turn up in the future.
The final film in the series, Duck Soup, is visually the least problematic. Although, like the early films, it had major problems with scratches, dirt, processing streaking and stains, it all came down to using every took possible, on top of many, many man (and woman) hours.
I’ve decided not to give a numerical grade to this collection, as it might frighten some people away, and negate their ability to experience some of the funniest films ever to hit the silver sheet.
I applaud Universal’s work on these films.
Want more classics from the studio?
Support their efforts, and purchase this historic collection. It’s currently $50 for the set on Amazon, which also includes a myriad of quality extras.
For those uninitiated, I’m jealous of what you’re about to experience.
Very Highly Recommended
For those uninitiated, I'm jealous of what you're about to experience.