No question about it: the four Marx Brothers were the most unique screen comedy team in history: a straight man, an insult comic, an ethnic comedian, and a pantomime artist, all of whom interacted with one another in twos or threes or fours in wacky, ever zanier ways.
The Production: 4.5/5
No question about it: the four Marx Brothers were the most unique screen comedy team in history: a straight man, an insult comic, an ethnic comedian, and a pantomime artist, all of whom interacted with one another in twos or threes or fours in wacky, ever zanier ways. Coming up through the ranks of vaudeville and the legitimate stage (though Groucho would likely be nonplussed at ever being associated with anything called legitimate), the four brothers burst onto movie screens in 1929 with a film version of their great stage success The Cocoanuts. For the next four years, the brothers produced basically a movie a year for Paramount, some bigger hits than others, but all now considered classics worthy of cinematic study and, for general audiences, guaranteed laugh producers. This new Blu-ray collection from Universal The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection boasts restored editions of all five of their Paramount features looking better than they have ever looked on home video.
The Cocoanuts – 4/5
In an effort to keep his business, Hotel de Cocoanuts, from bankruptcy, owner Mr. Hammer (Groucho Marx) flatters the wealthy Mrs. Potter (Margaret Dumont), one of his few paying guests, to have her daughter’s engagement party at the hotel. While Mrs. Potter’s daughter Polly (Mary Eaton) has romantic ideas about hopeful architect Bob Adams (Oscar Shaw), two other guests (Kay Francis and Cyril Ring) compile a plan to rob Mrs. Potter of a diamond necklace worth $100,000 and when that scheme goes south, they manage to blame the robbery on Bob and get Polly engaged to the thieving Harvey Yates. Meanwhile, two zany brothers (Harpo and Chico Marx) take advantage of Hammer’s inattention to wreak havoc around the hotel.
Based on the Broadway play by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind with music by Irving Berlin, this film and the next Animal Crackers give better ideas of what a Marx Brothers Broadway show must have been like than their subsequent features all of which were written for the screen and feature fewer interruptions for romantic subplots for characters other than the crazy brothers. The film does, however, give us the essence of each of the Marxes special gifts: Groucho’s motormouth spiel of insults, puns, and scheming, Chico’s broken English-cockeyed view of the world around him with piano interludes, and Harpo’s unpredictable antics and instrumental mastery (here both the harp and the clarinet). For a movie filmed in the early talkie period, the camera movement is masterful (compare it to the much more static Broadway Melody that won the Oscar for Best Picture that year), and while the direction by Robert Florey and Joseph Santley combines unusual camera angles and tricks (an overhead kaleidoscopic musical number years before Busby Berkeley would make them famous; wonderfully staged bedroom farce with lots of slamming doors between two different rooms) with lesser directorial touches, there’s more than a little stagey direction going on with actors making entrances and exits as in a photographed play. Irvin Berlin’s score is not one of his more notable creations (“The Lovely Land of Florida” and “Monkey Doodle-Doo” never entered the lexicon of Berlin evergreens), and the constant repetition of the love song “When My Dreams Come True” (sung three times by Mary Eaton either in duet or solo and played by Harpo on both clarinet and harp) eventually wears out its welcome.
But the overloud live orchestra accompanying the singers offstage and the obviously painted Florida backdrops (the movie was filmed in Paramount’s Astoria, NY studio so the brothers could work there by day and star in Animal Crackers on Broadway at night) don’t matter when the brothers are at play. Groucho establishes the insulting rapport with second bananas like Zeppo and Margaret Dumont in his first sound film and the back-and-forth with Chico here includes the “viaduct routine” which would be one of their more fondly remembered comedy bits. Chico shows his piano prowess during the climactic Spanish-themed engagement party and manages to mangle the language in his own unique way. Harpo, of course, chases girls, eats everything in sight (including telephones, flowers, and glue), and steals what he doesn’t consume. As for the others, Margaret Dumont plays her befuddled dowager with the same staunchness and good sportsmanship that would endear her to generations of Marx fans. Oscar Shaw’s singing is sometimes a bit shy of pitch, and he and soprano Mary Eaton make rather forgettable lovers. Better are Kay Francis and Cyril Ring as the movie’s scheming villains, and opera star Basil Ruysdael as humorless house detective Hennessey also gets to sing a riff on Carmen’s “The Toreador Song” as “I Want My Shirt.”
Animal Crackers – 4.5/5
Wealthy dowager Mrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont) is using a weekend house party to accomplish two purposes: to celebrate the return to America of Captain Jeffrey Spaulding (Groucho Marx) after his historic African safari and to unveil a priceless painting “After the Hunt” on loan to her by art exhibitor Roscoe Chandler (Louis Sorin). Mrs. Rittenhouse’s society rival Mrs. Whitehead (Margaret Irving) is looking for a way to disrupt the festivities, and her daughter Grace (Kathryn Reece) has the perfect solution: to substitute the masterpiece with a poor copy she had done in art class a year earlier. Mrs. Rittenhouse’s daughter Arrabella (Lillian Roth) also wants to use the painting’s unveiling to build up her boy friend’s (Hal Thompson) art credentials. He’s also done a copy of the work, a near replica of the artwork which they plan to substitute to see if anyone can tell the difference. Party crashers Signor Emanuel Ravelli (Chico Marx) and his accomplice the Professor (Harpo Marx) aid Arrabella in making the switch, but when all three paintings go missing, Detective Hennessey (Edward Metcalfe) is brought in to investigate.
Based on the brothers’ final Broadway play together, Animal Crackers boasts a screenplay by Morrie Ryskind who adapted the stage libretto co-written by him and George S. Kaufman. Most of the stage score has been dropped (by 1930, movie musicals had fallen out of favor across America and most movies filmed as musicals dropped large chucks of their scores so audiences wouldn’t be swayed from attending) though, most gratefully, “Hurray for Captain Spaulding,” Groucho’s celebratory production number (later to become his theme song) was retained, and songwriters Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmar wrote one new ballad “So Romantic” for the lovebirds to duet and for Harpo to use for his harp solo. Despite the presence of a secondary romantic couple, the movie is almost pure Marxian mayhem with Groucho’s famous African monologue, his wonderful series of insult-laden pas de deux with Chico, brother Zeppo as flustered secretary Jamison, Margaret Dumont, and Louis Sorin, Chico’s piano calisthenics with another Victor Herbert tune, and a wild bridge game with the two society grand dames playing against Harpo and Chico. There’s also a wonderful parody of Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude where Groucho three times breaks the fourth wall and reveals his rambling inner thoughts while other actors remain frozen in place, a device used in O’Neill’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama though audiences today may not understand the motif at all since the play is rarely performed. Compared to The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers does not have the inventive camerawork which can be found in the earlier movie, and it much more resembles a stage play shot from a variety of stationary cameras. To its credit, though, the sets are more elaborate, the supporting cast stronger, and the brothers more at ease before the camera, too.
Monkey Business – 4/5
Four zanies (Harpo, Chico, Zeppo, and Groucho Marx) are stowing away on board a luxury liner headed to America. Also on board are two rival gangsters Briggs (Harry Woods) and Helton (Rockliffe Fellowes). Chico and Harpo get themselves hired as bodyguards for Helton while Groucho vows to watch out for Briggs’ interests, mainly because he has a comely wife Lucille (Thelma Todd) whom Groucho is nuts about. Zeppo falls in love with Helton’s daughter Mary (Ruth Hall) whom Briggs manages to kidnap from a costume party after the boat docks. All of the brothers rush to her aid.
While the film is as funny as any Marx Brothers movie, its story seems the most helter-skelter of all the films thanks to a cobbled together screenplay by S.J. Perelman, Will B. Johnstone, and Arthur Sheekman stitched together patchwork-style from some original ideas combined with some of the vaudeville skits the brothers had honed on stage for years before their three hit Broadway legit shows (this being their first film made in Hollywood not based on an established play, they were nervous about using all untried material). Groucho still faces off with unending quips and putdowns with the Captain’s first mate (Tom Kennedy), Chico (their Columbus routine), both gangsters, and Thelma Todd (beautiful but no match for Margaret Dumont), and Harpo and Chico each do musical specialty numbers near film’s end, and Harpo’s extended Punch and Judy sequence earlier is one of the highlights of his movie career. The brothers all try their hand at Maurice Chevalier impersonations to attempt to get off the boat without passports (with Groucho also picking fights with several other bit players that are very funny indeed). But this is Zeppo’s finest cinematic hour as he has actual love scenes with the ingénue and gets to play hero in the climactic fight to save her life.
Horse Feathers – 5/5
With Huxley College tottering on the edge of oblivion, the school’s board of directors have brought on Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff (Groucho Marx) to save the school. He determines that the school’s football team must be upgraded to provide a winning season so after taking advice from double-dealing Jennings (David Landau) who actually supports rival Darwin College, he takes it upon himself to visit a speakeasy to recruit two professional players (Nat Pendleton, James Pierce) for the school’s team. Jennings beats him there, however, and scores the players for Darwin while Wagstaff mistakenly books Baravelli (Chico Marx) and dog catcher Pinky (Harpo) for Huxley. Meanwhile, Wagstaff’s college-aged son Frank (Zeppo Marx) is romancing college widow Connie Bailey (Thelma Todd), but once Quincy, Baravelli, and Pinky get a gander at her, all bets are off as to whom she’s consider for marriage.
Trusted Marx writers Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, S. J. Perelman, and Will B. Johnstone punch out a script that is much more of a piece than the screenplay for Monkey Business. Kalmar and Ruby also manage to supply some delightful tunes for the show: two for Groucho (“I’m Against It” and “I Always Get My Man”) and an all-purpose love song “Everyone Says I Love You” that each of the four brothers have a turn at personalizing in his own style. Groucho’s monologues (addressing the school upon accepting his new position and a later lecture on the circulatory system) and face-offs with Jennings, Connie, and Baravelli are all top notch and among the strongest in any of his films making this really Groucho’s show. The climactic football game is as zany as one would expect (a football on a string and a trash barrel chariot are only two of the brothers’ subterfuges), and the wedding finale is Marx Brothers anarchy suggesting even further surrealism in the next film in the series.
Duck Soup – 5/5
With the treasury depleted, the officials of Freedonia beg the wealthy Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) for a $20 million loan. She will only agree if the current president is ousted and Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) is installed in his place. Mrs. Teasdale seems to have a soft spot for the new leader, and Trentino (Louis Calhern), ambassador for neighboring Sylvania, wants to clear the way to her fortune for himself by bringing down Firefly with a scandal. He hires two spies Chicolini (Chico Marx) and Pinky (Harpo Marx) to get the dirt on Firefly, but when they prove unsuccessful, it’s convenient that Firefly, who despises Trentino, insults him so that the two countries go to war. If Sylvania can defeat the outnumbered Freedonia. Trentino has hopes of getting to Mrs. Teasdale through political means.
The wildest and most anarchic of the Paramount comedies (and that’s saying something since they’re all screwy in different degrees), the script by longtime friends of the brothers Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, Arthur Sheekman, and Nat Perrin is so crammed with gags for them that there is really no time for the usual musical solos from Chico and Harpo (who is really scissor-happy in this movie), a first for their films. Kalmar and Ruby have written a kind of operetta motif to set up the appointment of Firefly, and there’s a later production sequence “The Country’s Going to War” that combines operetta, spiritual, minstrel show, and swing in one number, just as crazy as the rest of the movie and setting up the satirical war scenes which follow (Groucho changes wardrobe continually during the battle scenes, all unmentioned but comic gold nonetheless). With Margaret Dumont back with the brothers, Groucho has a field day insulting her, and Louis Calhern comes in for his fair share of invective, too, all to hilarious effect. This is the film that features the classic “mirror sequence” where Harpo, decked out as Groucho, mimics his brother to hysterical effect, and comic Edgar Kennedy enjoys three wonderfully staged sequences where he attempts to bully the smaller Chico and/or Harpo but ends up unsurprisingly vanquished. The film has the benefit of a great director, Oscar winner Leo McCarey (though his Oscars were in his future), which may be why the manic nature of the action still allows the audience to keep up and not be left behind.
3D Rating: NA
The Cocoanuts – 4/5
All of the films are framed at their original 1.33:1 theatrical aspect ratio and are presented in 1080p using the AVC codec. Until this new edition, every home video copy of this movie was littered with innumerable scratches and dirt. All of that has been cleared away leaving an astonishingly clean and often crisp transfer. Because of its age, The Cocoanuts has been cobbled together from numerous sources, and those sources vary in consistency seen throughout the presentation. Some scenes appear to have been shot yesterday while others are soft and lacking any detail at all, but overall there is a pleasing sharpness to the image that has been missing from all prior releases of this movie. DNR has been used with certain shots while others appear not to have been riddled with it. Grayscale is very nice with vivid white levels and strong if not always consistent blacks. There are still a few missing frames here and there. The movie has been divided into 18 chapters.
Animal Crackers – 4.5/5
A complete surviving print found in England allows us to finally see Animal Crackers without the annoying cuts which have marred every previous home video release of the movie (though the Flit gun logo is still crudely scratched out in the climactic scenes with Harpo). Sharpness is mostly excellent with only a couple of soft shots, and the grayscale is also quite solid and consistently presented. Grain levels vary a bit here and there, and DNR still seems to have been applied in some shots more than others. The movie has been divided into 18 chapters.
Monkey Business – 4.5/5
Apart from some line twitter on some striped shirts on a couple of characters, the encode is first rate with excellent sharpness and a wonderfully pristine grayscale with deep black levels and bright whites. No scratches, dirt, or damage seems to be present. The movie has been divided into 18 chapters.
Horse Feathers – 3.5/5
While the picture quality here is impressive at its best, this encode is plagued with more line twitter and momentary flashing than the previous transfers. Grayscale is gorgeous, and sharpness (better on interior sets than during the football game) is praiseworthy. Yes, the missing frames are still missing in one of the scenes, but the Groucho version of “Everyone Says I Love You” on the lake seems complete. The movie, like the others, has been divided into 18 chapters.
Duck Soup – 4/5
This encode looks more like previous home video releases of Duck Soup than any of the others which all appear sharper and cleaner than their earlier counterparts. This doesn’t appear to have been subjected to DNR, so softness is mixed with pleasing sharpness as we’ve been accustomed to seeing with the movie. No scratches or dirt remain, of course, and the grayscale is very good indeed. But this transfer won’t make you sit up and take notice like The Cocoanuts or Animal Crackers. The movie has been divided into 18 chapters.
The Cocoanuts – 3/5
While the dialogue is crisp and clear on this DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono encoding, Universal’s engineers have not been able to completely remove all traces of age-related hiss and crackle from these primitive audio masters. Most of the distortion from earlier home video releases has been quelled, but the unequal balance between the offstage orchestra and singers can never quite be corrected. Still, the movie sounds far better than it ever has before.
Animal Crackers – 3.5/5
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 sound mix demonstrates nicely the advancement of sound recording in only one year. Here there is less hiss and other distracting thumps and noise and much clearer dialogue, music implementation, and occasional sound effects without distortion.
Monkey Business – 4/5
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 soundtrack is very solid for sound materials of this vintage. Dialogue is nicely recorded with only slight traces of post dubbing being noticeable. Music and sound effects are mixed with surety throughout.
Horse Feathers – 3.5/5
The mix here seems to have a slight bit of distortion during some of the singing numbers, but dialogue, music, and atmospheric effects are all otherwise blended smoothly together, and routine age-related problems with hiss or crackle have been eliminated.
Duck Soup – 3.5/5
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 sound mix likewise seems just a little distorted and digitally artificial in some of the musical moments. Dialogue comes across well, and the atmospheric effects during the battle scenes get some laughs and sound pretty solid. Hiss and other aural artifacts have been handled adroitly and are not a problem.
Special Features: 3.5/5
Audio Commentaries: Each of the titles has one, and each pulls no punches in assessing the positives and negatives of each movie. The Cocoanuts has Anthony Slide, Animal Crackers features Jeffrey Vance, Monkey Business offers Robert Bader and Harpo’s son Bill Marx (terrific to hear his memories of his father and his friends), Horse Feathers features a lesser track by F.X. Feeney, and Duck Soup has Leonard Maltin and Robert Bader sharing the track and laughing along with the wild antics of the brothers.
The Marx Brothers: Hollywood’s Kings of Chaos (1:19:57, HD): a group of authorities on the team, among them F.X. Feeney, Leonard Maltin, Jeffrey Vance, Robert Bader, Dr. Drew Casper, Anthony Slide, Dick Cavett, and Harpo’s son Bill and Groucho’s grandson Andy, share opinions, offer biographical information, and annotate film clips and stills from the movies.
Inside the NBC Vault (16:45, SD): three excerpts from The Today Show may be viewed separately or in montage. A 1961 visit from Harpo Marx publicizes his book Harpo Speaks!, a 1963 appearance by Groucho goes by much too quickly as he relates the hiring of Marilyn Monroe for a bit in Girl Happy, and a 1985 visit from Bill Marx on the reissue of his father’s book Harpo Speaks! is also presented.
The Marx Brothers from Vaudeville to Hollywood: a ten-page booklet contains quite a few black and white stills and original poster art and an essay by Robert S. Bader which details the lives and show business careers of the Marx Brothers in the period covered by these first five films.
Among the greatest comedies ever made, the five films contained in The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection are must-see movies for all fans of classic comedy. The films themselves have never looked better or been more complete, and the bonus features, while not as extensive as true buffs would probably want, offer a fine assortment of enrichment of the Marx Brothers experience. Highly recommended!