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.