Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Introducing The Marx Brothers Council of Britain

Welcome to a site devoted to discussion of the Marx Brothers.

Why have I started a site devoted to discussion of the Marx Brothers, rather than post occasionally on Marx matters on a more generally-themed site?

Because the Marx Brothers are special.

So, first of all, just as it must be distinctly understood from the outset that Marley is dead, so it must be made clear now that if you ever catch me talking about ‘a lesser Marx Brothers movie’ or ‘a disappointing Marx Brothers movie’, or even, if I dare, ‘a poor Marx Brothers movie’ I mean BY THE STANDARDS OF OTHER MARX BROTHERS MOVIES.
As James Agee once observed, even the worst of their films is worth watching, more so than perhaps the majority of all other films made since the dawn of time.
I welcome, indeed ardently desire, good-natured dissent from any opinion I offer. However, it is only fair at the outset to let you know exactly where I stand on the Marx film canon. Here then is a list of our raw material - the films of the Marx Brothers - in my personal order of preference:

1. Animal Crackers (1930)
2. The Cocoanuts (1929)
3. Horse Feathers (1932)
4. Monkey Business (1931)
5. A Night at the Opera (1935)
6. Duck Soup (1933)
7. Room Service (1938)
8. A Night in Casablanca (1946)
9. A Day at the Races (1937)
10. At The Circus (1939)
11. The Big Store (1941)
12. Love Happy (1949)
13. Go West (1940)

As the site progresses, the specific reasons for my various prejudices will become clear, but here's a quick justification for what I suspect will prove the most contentious ones:

1. Animal Crackers and The Cocoanuts at the top.

I suspect the very best of the Marx Brothers is lost to us. It was that perfection of their unique talents in a unique cultural moment that happened when I'll Say She Is slaughtered them on Broadway. This Broadway period, when their roots in vaudeville synthesised perfectly with the smart New York humour of Kaufman and the Algonquin set, is captured in their first two Long Island movies, and never quite regained in Hollywood.
These two films seem to me to contain the longest, purest, least diluted chunks of their humour at its most free, fresh and funny. They have the best jokes.
Weirdly, the reasons most usually offered as to why they don't belong at the top of the pile are technical ones: they are shot theatrically, unimaginatively staged, there is little camera mobility, the sound recording is poor...
Since when did any of that matter a damn when you're watching a Marx Brothers movie? If you want camera mobility, watch Touch of Evil. If you want to see the Marx Brothers at their most uninhibitedly hilarious, watch The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers.

2. Duck Soup considerably beneath the other Paramounts.

Not a popular decision. But, I have to say that, though full of good things, this film really does seem to me the weakest, not the best, of their Paramount five. There are a few really good stretches where it finds the right rhythm, but there's way too much untypical visual humour not tailored to their special talents, and a zaniness more akin to Hellzapoppin' than the more cerebral comic invention of the four it followed.

3. A pretty low showing for Day at the Races, too.

Yep. Again, it's got good bits, and again, it's a Marx Brothers movie so I can watch it twenty times in a row and not get bored. But it is a good deal less inventive than Opera, it's the one where Thalberg's less happy innovations really start to show, and though generally of a higher standard than all the other MGM's, it is overall the beginning of the end, not the end of the beginning.

4. Yet Room Service scores preposterously high!

Don't you people like screwball comedy, then? Is it just me that would kill for the chance to have seen Groucho in Twentieth Century or Harpo in The Man Who Came To Dinner? These sophisticated Broadway farces are where the Marx Brothers style migrated to. It's wonderful to see them trying it out just once. Okay, it's not their typical personae, but there are at least ten other films if that's what you're after. They may be doing something different, but they do it really well, and the film has always struck me as extremely funny. So yes, high into the list it goes.

5. Go West worse even than Love Happy?

Yes, I think so. Love Happy never ever bores me. There are lots of good things about it; it has a nice atmosphere. Go West shows the Brothers at their most depressed. The material is by and large terrible and they don't even give it their best shot. Groucho in particular, with that awful wig on.

As I say, I will elaborate on all this as we work through the films chronologically in the Marx Brothers Annotated Film Guide, the point of which I will explain in my next post.
In the meantime, do please add your own lists, and reasons, in the comments section. And keep it clean.


Anonymous said...

Also, in total agreement with you about "Duck Soup". What kills "Soup" are the unfunny songs. Kalmar and Ruby phoned 'em in this time instead of providing tunes on a par with "I'm Against It" and "Everyone Says I Love You."

Also in agreement that "Love Happy" is watchable and entertaining. The three worst MB films---"Circus", "West" and "Big Store" aren't worth sitting through.

Adamson also correctly points out that when the Marxes turn Cupid, as in "Night At The Opera" and beyond or when they give a damn about "saving" a sanitarium, they lose their anarchic edge and thus a lot of their humor.


Lolita said...

Now I've read your first post! (Got a lot of them left, but I will read them all - for my personal satisfaction!)
I always found it weird that Room Service almost always is excluded from Marx DVD boxes, do you know why?
I can't believe that "J" thinks the songs in Duck Soup are boring! (Okay, "clock on the wall" isn't great, but MY GOD - isn't the text in "The laws of my Administration" hilarious? I could watch that one over and over. "If you think this country's bad off now, just wait 'til I get through with it!", wonderful political humor, in my opinion!)
I also disagree with Go West - it's obviously not their best one, but Groucho fires off so many inappropriate sexual jokes that you just get shocked! "Lulu, it's you! I didn't recognize you standing up!" Also like puns like "Break! The Break!" and Harpo breaks the break. Simple, but very funny.
But - as you said - it's only bad in contrast to other Marx films!

Hope I didn't quote too wrong, I'm quoting from memory!

Matthew Coniam said...

I don't know why Room Service is excluded from box-sets; I mean, it's generally not liked much, but that wouldn't be the reason. It's in the Universal box-set over here, along with all the Paramounts, Love Happy and Groucho's film A Girl In Every Port.
As you say, and I cannot repeat enough, this is purely realtive, but I do find Duck Soup a little overrated, and Go West pretty dull in comparison with other Marx films. Compared to 'Night at the Museum 2' I dare say they shine like the pants of a blue serge suit.
On the Norman McLeod post you say you can't really put the films in order... you don't fancy doing your own list then???

Lolita said...

I don't like making lists, actually. I think it's too difficult, and not fair. I can like two films equally much, but for different reasons. It's lke comparing a drama film to a comedy, you can never motivate in a satisfying way. Therefore I prefer just breaking the films down and go through the pieces I like, and those I don't like. Results in more interesting discussions, rather than "I don't agree with you", "You're wrong", etc.
Okay, feel sorry for me - here in Sweden Room Service, Love Happy and A Girl in Every Port doesn't even exist on DVD! Which leads me to confess that I actually haven't seen any of those yet! (The greatest embarrassment of my life, I believe.) One friendly soul gave me access to Room Service, at least, so I'm going to watch that one as soon as I can. But what is wrong with my country?! (I heard that being a Marxist in France isn't the easiest task, neither...)

Matthew Coniam said...

Ah, there we differ then. I even make lists of my favourite lists.

Roger the Saurus said...

What do you think to "Flywheel Shyster Flywheel"?

Matthew Coniam said...

I'm a bit behind on it, actually. I enjoyed reading the scripts when they came out, however many years ago that was now. I only heard one of the recast radio shows and couldn't quite find my way into it, principally because while it's fairly easy for a good mimic to do Groucho, Chico's voice really was unique.
But then, didn't they finally find some of the original recordings a while back? See, I don't even know that.
That I would be very interested in, obviously.
The only radio I've actually heard, apart from guest spots, is the Hollywood Agents pilot, which is fascinating, but obviously not top drawer.

I'm a big Stanshall fan too, by the way. I live in his old stamping-ground (and signing-off ground), Muswell Hill.

Azz said...

Room Service is poor. It's a big disappointment compared to their early work. Poor dialogue for Groucho, Chico suffers because of this. The only Brother consistently good in all of the films is Harpo. Great scenes in every film. Go West "I'll was about to thrash him within an inch of his life but I didn't have a tape measure". "...if I weren't taller than you I'd flog the daylights out of you...but I'm bigger than you...well that's another reason". "I can't stand the jerks in the coach". And the entire opening scene which you rate in your guide!. Quote any good lines from Room Service! My list is:

1. Animal Crackers
2. Horse Feathers
3. A Night at the Opera
4. Duck Soup
5. Monkey Business
6. Cocoanuts
7. A Day At The Races
8. A Night in Casablanca
9. Go West
10. At The Circus
11. The Big Store
12. Love Happy
13. Room Service

Azz said...

Oh yeah, and Groucho's wig in The Big Store, well what about Harpo's hair in Love Happy, where's the wig? Bad decision that one.

He looked like a Paul Nicholas impersonator (from critically ashamed 80s sitcom Just Good Friends).

Roger the Saurus said...

I quite like Room service but you're right, Harpo is the best thing in it. You have to say also that Frank albertson is one of the best straight men they had.

Azz said...

Yes he was a good straight man out of an inconsistent bunch throughout their films and Lucille Ball was drastically underused in Room Service. Harpo's hair was natural in A Night In Casablanca not Love Happy, I couldn't sleep last night worrying about it!

Matthew Coniam said...

I like Room Service a lot: it's not a proper Marx Brothers film and shouldn't be compared to the others as if it were (unlike Go West which tries and fails to be a proper Marx Brothers film: the 'jerks in the carriage' line in particular strikes me as one of the three or four classic examples of how MGM got the act wrong...) But RS has a good script; typical thirties screwball stuff from a funny original play, with good comedy situations. I like Groucho's character in it very much, and Chico's, though obviously he is a somewhat more mysterious figure...

As to Harpo's hair in A Night In Casablanca... there you open a can of worms.
I was going to hold off on this until I got to the film in the annotated guides, but I've never quite bought that story about it being his real hair. The only thing that stops me from dismissing the claim outright is that I can't see why anyone would have lied about it, or for what other reason anyone would have got it wrong.
It's now generally accepted that Groucho wears a (ludicrously obvious) wig in those two movies, but for a long time people used to say it was his hair crudely dyed (I think Mitchell says something like 'plus what looks like a toupee' but goes no further). This was traceable to a comment in The Groucho Letters where he says he was having his hair dyed in preparation for the film, but it was so long delayed the dye was growing out and he would have to have it reapplied.
I took this to be deliberate vanity on Groucho's part, an attempt to disguise the fact he was wearing a wig. I now see that what he probably meant was that he was having the hair on the sides of his head dyed to match the wig.
But when I was in that conspiracy theorist's frame of mind, I posited that maybe Harpo was beset by similar vanity and claimed he was having his own hair permed rather than using a wig... But this is stupid, because he always wore a wig anyway...

... I'm aware that I'm rambling...

But the fact is that Harpo was bald. His hair was really, really thin even in the thirties, and there's photos of him in Harpo Speaks at home in the early forties and he's as bald as an egg on top.
I don't know what the truth about that Night In Casablanca hairdo is, but until someone can produce the actual receipt from the studio hairdresser - charge Mr H Marx for perming of hair to resemble wig - I'm sticking to my guns. I think he's wearing a wig in A Night In Casablanca, albeit a weird, tight, unflattering peroxided one.
Anyone else agree? (Author waits, listening to sound of crickets chirping...)

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