Judge Bill Treadway reviews a Marx Brothers film whose title was taken from an obscure poem by Tarzan: "Love Happy, Death Sad."
"My skin's tougher than an elephant's hide. Have you ever tried to hide an elephant anyway?"—Groucho Marx
Detective Sam Grunion (Groucho Marx) narrates a tale of treachery, romance, and comedy. He is on the trail of the Romanoff diamonds, some of the most valuable jewels in the world. They have been smuggled into the country by Madame Egelichi (Ilona Massey, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man) and her two goons, Alphonse (Raymond Burr, Perry Mason) and Hannibal (Bruce Gordon, The Buccaneer). With the jewels hidden in a can of Portuguese sardines, everything seems fine until Harpo Marx enters the picture. Acting as a Robin Hood for a group of starving actors, he swipes the marked can and gives it to Maggie (Vera-Ellen, White Christmas), whom he loves from afar. After listening in on Harpo's frantic call to Faustino (Chico Marx), Egelichi decides to disguise herself as a matron of the arts and back the failing show.
After the critical and commercial failure of The Big Store, Groucho Marx vowed that there would be no more Marx Brothers films. However, a funny thing happened on the way to retirement. Two more Marx Brothers films would surface: A Night in Casablanca and Love Happy. Both films share one thing in common: They were made as a way to help Chico ease the massive debts he had collected between films. Originally, Love Happy was supposed to feature only Chico and Harpo, but MGM refused to consider backing a film without Groucho. United Artists stepped in but was reluctant to distribute a Chico-Harpo film. As a solution, Groucho took time out from his busy You Bet Your Life schedule and shot inserts as well as a new ending. The result was the film we have before us.
While The Big Store and A Night in Casablanca were not among the best Marx Brothers films, Love Happy is a marked improvement. What plagued the later Marx Brothers films was an exaggerated emphasis on unnecessary musical numbers and not enough on the Marxes' greatest strengths. For this final film, the brothers took care to avoid the problems that characterized the majority of their MGM output. Harpo conceived the basic story himself with help from Chico and handed screenwriting reins to one of the best comedic talents around: Frank Tashlin. Tashlin began his career as a writer and director of various Looney Tunes shorts for Warner Bros. His gag-writing skills aided him in crafting wacky set pieces and gags for the Marx Brothers to act out and improvise upon. Love Happy also benefits from a premise—a Broadway musical in rehearsals—that allows the audience to accept the musical numbers as a natural extension of the story rather than time filler. Not since A Night at the Opera have the musical numbers felt this organic rather than forced. Love Happy is filled with wall-to-wall laughs and gags that caused me to laugh harder than any picture in recent memory. The chase sequence between Harpo, Grunion, and the crooks is the most exciting and gut-bustingly funny chase since the runaway train in Go West.
Note that, despite the keep case art, Marilyn Monroe is not the star of Love Happy. She has a two-minute bit in which she walks into Grunion's office and causes him to become rather horny in response. She was cast in the picture by Groucho, who wanted to help her break into pictures.
Lions Gate, now in control of Artisan Entertainment, offers a full-frame transfer that is surprisingly good. The previous NTA/Republic Pictures Home Video releases utilized prints that were in terrible condition, riddled with many blemishes and assorted defects. Lions Gate actually did some cleanup work for this DVD. The end result is beautiful. While there are still some blemishes and light grain that will never quite fade away, the black-and-white image is sharper and silkier than ever before.
The keep case lists the sound mix as Dolby Monaural, but it is actually Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround stereo. Artisan wasn't renowned for great sound mixes, and since this was a originally planned for release as an Artisan disc before Lions Gate took control, I did not have much hope. It turns out my worst fears were for naught. This is a terrific sound mix that makes good use of the multichannel sound that stereo offers. The sound effects are given extra clarity and punch, the music is vibrant and lifelike, and the dialogue is easily comprehensible. Lions Gate has done the remarkable: making an Artisan disc with great audio and video. Too bad it took a buyout to improve these areas. There are no extras, but I was so satisfied with the improved picture and sound that I didn't mind.
Lions Gate is offering Love Happy for a mere $14.95. How could any Marx Brothers fan resist this bargain? Lions Gate deserves a citation for making the Marx Brothers' most underrated picture available on DVD. Between this disc, the great Warner Bros. discs, and the upcoming Universal collection, 2004 is shaping up to be the Year of the Marxes.
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