Judge Bill Treadway comes to the reluctant conclusion that Zeppo was not the Marx Brothers' greatest professional liability.
Comedy pairfection: a Marx Brothers double bill.
Go West: After grafting seventy dollars from S. Quentin Quayle (Groucho), Joe Panello (Chico) and brother Rusty (Harpo) go west. There, they befriend an old prospector, who puts up the deed to his land as collateral for a ten-dollar loan from Joe. Little do Joe and Rusty know that Red Baxter (Robert Barrat, Road to Utopia) and John Beecher have cooked up a scheme to grab the land for themselves. It's up to the Panello brothers and Quayle to reclaim the deed and sell it for the old prospector.
The Big Store: Tommy Rogers (Tony Martin, Easy to Love) dreams of opening his own conservatory with Ravelli (Chico). To fund this dream, he decides to sell his shares of the department store he co-owns with his aunt (Margaret Dumont). Unbeknownst to him, the store manager (Douglass Dumbrille) is scheming to steal the store for himself. After Tommy is attacked by armed thugs, his aunt decides to hire a private detective: Wolf J. Flywheel (Groucho), who desperately needs the business. Along with Ravelli and Wacky (Harpo), Flywheel manages to turn the store upside down while searching for the culprits.
After leaving Paramount pictures over the failure of Duck Soup, the Marx Brothers signed a deal with Irving Thalberg and MGM to make a series of films. The first two to result from the deal were the smash hits A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races. After the interim RKO release Room Service, three more MGM films would follow: At the Circus, Go West, and The Big Store. None of those films would earn the respect and raves Opera and Races did.
I cannot lie to you, dear readers: Neither Go West nor The Big Store is a Marx Brothers masterpiece. They are not the breathtaking, gut-busting comedies of their Paramount years. Both films suffer from overplotting and concentrate too heavily on mediocre music. That does not mean that Go West and The Big Store should be ignored, though. In fact, both are worth seeing at least once.
Go West is far and away the superior of the two. There are some brilliant set pieces present here, particularly in the conclusion. Although the credits give Irving Brucher as screenwriter, in fact Buster Keaton cowrote the screenplay. At this point in his career, he was primarily writing gags for top MGM comedic talent. Some of the gags he has cooked up in Go West are among the best in a later Marx Brothers film. The giant train chase finale is a sort of descendant of Keaton's 1927 triumph The General, and the buildup and payoff are perfectly executed. The Marx Brothers are great as usual, with Groucho and Harpo in particularly rare form.
The Big Store, on the other hand, is not a very good film. Buster Keaton did not return to coscript this film, and his guiding hand is sorely missed. Comedy often takes a back seat to insipid musical sequences developed specifically for musical talent Tony Martin. The longest of these sequences, "The Tenement Symphony," is particularly painful to watch. Some subjects are made for symphonies, but tenements just aren't one of them. The romance subplot between Martin and Virginia Grey (Unconquered) should have been cut from the earliest drafts of the screenplay, since the syrupy quality often overpowers the great Marx Brothers comedy.
Groucho announced publicly that The Big Store would be the Marx Brothers' final film, and it is easy to see why. The brothers look very tired in this film, as if they knew the script was a stinker to begin with. They do try to breathe some life into it: Groucho's appointment with Margaret Dumont is first-rate comedy, and the final chase in the department store is inspired lunacy. Groucho and Chico attempting to sell futuristic bunk beds made me laugh very hard. Yet, despite these high points, the film sinks under the weight of Martin's dreadful numbers.
Warner Bros. presents both films in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratios. The black-and-white images look fabulous for their age. While some blemishes will never entirely disappear, the silkiness of classic black-and-white photography shines through on DVD. Grain is sometimes heavy in The Big Store, but I can live with it. I have seen dozens of prints of both pictures over the years, and I have never seen any that were better than this.
Audio is the traditional Dolby Digital 1.0 mono tracks provided for most Warner Bros. catalog items. The mix is actually quite good. As is the case with most Marx Brothers films, dialogue is the most important aspect of the soundtrack, and this is clean and crisp every step of the way. The music is also given a nice boost from the cleanup work given here. As bad as the music is in The Big Store, I cannot complain about the high quality of the transfer. I could hear every note.
Warner has also thrown together some extras. Two Pete Smith Specialty shorts are offered here, along with two classic MGM cartoon shorts, "Officer Pooch" and "The Milky Way," and a Fitzpatrick Travelogue. All have been shown at various times on TCM. However, they have never looked as beautiful as they appear here. The Fitzpatrick Travelogue gives us a historical look at San Francisco in 1940. For that alone, it is worth checking out. Pete Smith specialized in stop-motion photography, and you can see two of the best samples of his work here. The two MGM cartoons represent the Harman-Ising and Hanna-Barbera units at their very best.
An outtake of a musical number from The Big Store suddenly made me grateful for the music that was left in the final cut. This song would have topped "The Tenement Symphony" in sheer badness. The biggest gem in the package is a 17-minute "Leo is on the Air" promo spot for Go West. The Marx Brothers have some great one-liners and show how they could adapt to different formats, even one as different as radio.
If you're hoping to purchase the Go West/The Big Store disc only, you are out of luck. Warner Bros. has made this disc and Room Service/At the Circus exclusively available in the five-disc box set, which will set you back about $59.99. While that is a bargain for seven classic films, it would have been nice to offer this disc separately. Maybe the studio feared that no one would want to purchase Go West/The Big Store separately due to the less than stellar reputation of both films. The consumer should have been allowed to make the choice, though. Could you imagine the uproar that would have occurred if the same had been done to the recent Charles Chaplin DVD collections?
Warner Bros. has done some good work with Go West and The Big Store. However, I find them guilty of forcing potential customers to purchase an entire box set just to have access to the films. While purchasing the set isn't a bad idea, customers should make the decision, not the studio.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Pete Smith Specialty: "Quicker 'n A Wink"
Review content copyright © 2004 Bill Treadway; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.