Judge Patrick Naugle has a good mind to join a club and beat you over the head with it.
"I married your mother because I wanted children. Imagine how disappointed I was when you arrived!"—Groucho Marx, Horse Feathers
They are, in effect, the true great grandfathers of modern day comedy. When The Marx Brothers burst upon the scene in 1929 with their first feature length film The Cocoanuts, little did unsuspecting audiences know that the threesome (and sometimes foursome) would forever change the face of cinematic comedy. To commemorate absolutely nothing (Groucho would be proud), Universal has released five of the Marx Brothers' most popular comedies on DVD in a six-disc set.
Facts of the Case
• The Cocoanuts
• Animal Crackers
• Monkey Business
• Horse Feathers
• Duck Soup
Everyone who ever made anyone laugh on the big screen most likely owes something to the infamous Marx Brothers. That's a pretty big, bold statement, but I think I'll stand firmly by it—the fact is that the Marx Brothers came out of nowhere and became one of the most popular comedy teams ever assembled. Roger Ebert put it best when he mused, "You can see who the Marx Brothers inspired, but not who they were inspired by, except indirectly by the rich traditions of music hall, vaudeville and Yiddish comedy that nurtured them." The Marx Brothers are like the seeds of a great oak that has spread its roots among Hollywood's highest paid funnymen and women.
Generations X, Y, and Z will most likely recognize the face of Groucho Marx, but not his work—we've become a society long on forgetting our history, except for the iconic faces and blurbs that populate it. I've talked to many a moviegoer who has let me know that black and white movies are often "boring" or "outdated"—apparently if things aren't moving at the speed of Michael Bay, throw it into the fire. Well, I'm here to tell you that it's all bull-honky—the Marx Brothers are the alpha and the omega of silver screen comedy. They were smarter than the Three Stooges, and sassier than Abbott & Costello. As comedy troupes go, the Marx Brothers are as good as it gets.
The Marx brothers were born into a show business family who encouraged them to hone their acting and musical skills to make ends meet. After going through dozens of attempts, the foursome found fame as the Marx Brothers. Led by Groucho—clad in a greasepaint moustache and eyebrows and a dangling cigar—they became a popular stage act. The group was diverse and seemed to have something for everyone; there was wisecracking Groucho; the silent, harp-playing clown Harpo; broken dialect con artist Chico; and for good measure the youngest brother, Zeppo Marx, who was always relegated to playing the straight man and/or love interest in their films.
In 1929, they brought their anarchic brand of comedy from vaudeville to the silver screen with their first Marx Brothers film, The Cocoanuts (based on their popular stage play of the same name), and by this point the foursome once known as Julius, Adolph Arthur, Leonard, and Herbert Marx had become Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo. While some of their best work can be found in their later films (most notably the hysterical A Night at the Opera), their first five films are often considered their best, culminating in what AFI ranked as the fifth funniest film on their top 100 list: the political satire Duck Soup.
Of course, the question is: do these films hold up after 70 years? The answer is an unqualified "yes." Like any film taken out of its time period, The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, and Duck Soup all sport trappings of their age—some of the jokes are almost childish while the acting is often stiff as a board. However, the Marx Brothers get a leg up (pun intended, Harpo) over their competition because many of the jokes are still funny today. To watch Harpo smile in the same way as a child when he's getting away with murder is one of life's great pleasures. Groucho Marx's zingers and throwaway one-liners still hold water and border on dirty (in Animal Crackers, Groucho muses, "One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don't know"). Decades later these guys are still fall down funny; this is a testament to how important and clever their comedy was.
In the best of the five films, not surprisingly the classic Duck Soup, the wordplay and military satire climbs to dizzying heights. It is rumored that Italian dictator Benito Mussolini banned the film because he thought it was a direct attack upon him (and in great Marx Brothers style, this absolutely tickled Groucho). Groucho is in fine form as Rufus T. Firefly, newly presiding over the fictitious country of Freedonia ("If any form of pleasure is exhibited, report to me and it will be prohibited! I'll put my foot down, so shall it be, this is the land of the free!") while stuffy Margaret Dumont plays the good sport and bears the brunt of many of Groucho's verbal assaults (she would play variations on this same role in over half a dozen Marx Brothers films).
Taken as a whole, all five of these Marx Brothers films are a wonderful treasure to own. Fans of true comedy (and Marx purists) should treat themselves to these classic gems from a time long since past. And even though their age is considerable, their laughs per minute rival that of a Zucker Brothers movie. Recommended.
Each of these five movies is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 full frame (none of these films were shot in a widescreen aspect ratio). Apparently the original negatives for these films don't exist, so Universal has had to put only mediocre transfers on this set. The sad fact is that while the movies may be classics, the same can't be said for these five transfers: each is riddled with dirt, hairs, cuts, and other imperfections. On the other hand, the black and white color schemes all look very good with blacks solidly rendered and whites crisp and clear. Of the films, The Cocoanuts looks worst for wear (not surprisingly, since it's the oldest) and Duck Soup is in the best shape (though not by much). Fans may not be as happy as they have been with other restored classics on DVD, but the fact that Universal is getting these out after being long out-of-print should appease them somewhat.
The soundtracks are all presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (slightly better than the usual 1.0) in English. The fact is these soundtracks are simplistic, straight-forward, and mostly clear of any major hiss or distortion (though inherently some does exist during each movie). Each film has its flaws, though on the whole each soundtrack features clearly heard dialogue, music, and sound effects. Once again, because of age, the weakest of these is The Cocoanuts. No alternate subtitles or soundtracks are available on these discs.
The extra features on this set are bafflingly slim, rendering it an almost bare bones release. Aside of trailers for Animal Crackers, Horse Feathers, and Duck Soup on each respective disc, as well as a rather lengthy mini-insert book featuring facts and images of the Marx Brothers, a sixth DVD sports three Today Show interviews:
Harpo: This interview from May 3rd, 1961 features a virile Harpo at the ripe age of 72 clowning around with host Dave Garroway while promoting his autobiography "Harpo Speaks." While we still don't get a chance to hear Harpo speak, at least he's as goofy and lovable as ever, bouncing around the stage like a kid on a sugar high.
Groucho: This interview was taken during November 8th, 1963 while Groucho was plugging his book "Memoirs of a Mangy Lover." Groucho is, as always, full of one-liners and puts-downs for his host Hugh Downs.
William Marx: William Marx, son of Harpo Marx, is interviewed by movie critic Gene Shalit (and his out-of-control facial hair) for the re-release of "Harpo Speaks" on July 17th, 1985. Oddly, this is the best of the interviews since it gives a rare peek into the life of one of cinema's most beloved (and mysterious) comics. William speaks fondly of his father, and even gives us a glimpse of his home life via some rare home movies.
While it's certainly nice to have these interviews, it's a shame that Universal didn't put the time or money into pulling out more archival materials or recorded any commentaries with film historians. I guess we'll have to wait until the next format (or next double dipping) to see if Universal can truly do the Brothers justice.
Yes, all of these movies show their age. And yes, many of the comedy bits are out dated and even stale. Yet the fact remains that Groucho, Chico, and Harpo are still one of the funniest comedy troupes to ever trounce upon the silver screen. The hit-to-miss ratio here is rather wide with the laughs outweighing the duds. For classic film buffs, those who want to learn more about film history and average, everyday comedy fans, The Marx Brothers: The Silver Screen Collection is one DVD box set you won't want to miss.
Footnote: I'd be remorseful if I didn't recommend the wonderfully zany Marx Brothers quasi-update, 1992's Brain Donors, starring John Turturro, Bob Nelson, and Mel Smith in the Groucho, Harpo, and Chico roles.
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Scales of Justice
• Three Vintage Today Show Interviews with Harpo, Groucho and William Marx
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