I bet Judge Neil Dorsett's father spent the first year of his life throwing rocks at the stork.
"You can learn a lot from Lydia!"
Three gentlemen known in most cases as the Marx Brothers have been unearthed once more in Warner's Marx Brothers Collection, featuring all the latter-day movies of the Brothers. This disc packages two of the lesser entries along with some pre-show entertainment to present a simulacrum of the theatrical double bill of bygone days.
Facts of the Case
Room Service is a bit of an oddity: a Marx Brothers movie produced by RKO Radio Pictures. The remaining three brothers had already begun their run at MGM three years earlier with the highly-regarded A Night at the Opera, and Room Service most definitely has a different flavor than either MGM or Paramount Marx pictures, as it appears to be a very straight, low-budget adaptation of a stage play (this is exactly what it was—and one not written for the team, either), which Ann Miller's character actually notes onscreen. Speaking of Miss Miller, it is to be noted that she does not dance in this movie, which one would expect of such a light comedy in the first place, and is certainly implied by Miller's name on the bill. Harpo, also, does not play! In fact, the element of musical spectacle common to the troupe is entirely absent in this entry. Only a fleeting and wistful self-reference to singing "Sweet Adeleine," which the (superior) four-man team used to open Monkey Business (1931), reminds us that the Brothers are known for their use of song.
I should probably point out, before venturing any opinion of the movie's quality, that my favorite Marx Brother is, was, and shall always be Zeppo. The great and powerful three are the source of the humor, it is true, and without them Zeppo would be nothing—but Zeppo plays the important role of identification and acts as the Brothers' liaison with the real world. He's the normal guy who can see where the others are coming from. Zeppo is you. Zeppo is me. And he also is the one who always winds up with the girl. So don't go underestimating Zeppo. He is sorely missed in all the post-Paramount Marx entries. Absent from this movie as well is Margaret Dumont, who remained with the team for several MGM movies. She appears in At the Circus, but only in a peripheral role starting halfway through the film.
In all, the movie is a bit unsatisfying with its simple transition of a stage play to the screen. On the other hand, this very element makes it a valuable record in comparison to the Brothers' more sophisticated film entries, since they did spend so much of their careers on stage. All the familiar mannerisms are there; they just aren't punched by the movie in the same manner as in the frenetic Duck Soup, for instance. In fact, they aren't punched very much by the movie at all; the play is simply allowed to speak for itself. Only a brief sequence in which the Brothers chase a live turkey in flight around the room (the fake turkey itself bearing a remarkable resemblance to the duck from You Bet Your Life) shows much in the way of wide action in this one. The movie also has a couple of jokes based on men's weak hearts, and the fate of Wagner, the nemesis, at the end is morbidly unclear.
By contrast, At the Circus is almost crippled in its excessive presentation of musical numbers. Chico's piano piece comes only a short scene or two after an interminable number by the two leads entitled "Two Blind Loves," which the movie has the gall to reprise later. The female lead performs a song to her horse in the circus's main ring. And of course this is the one where Groucho does "Lydia, the Tattooed Lady." None of the transitions to song have the panache that permeated Duck Soup, but of course "Lydia" is quite amusing in its own right. MGM had a formula pretty firmly in place for the musical at this point, so it's no extreme surprise to find that this movie conforms more greatly to a more conventional style in this regard. This is also one of the Marx Brothers movies that features a regrettable "black folks sure is musical people" segment, as usual centered around Harpo and featuring anonymous stereotypical characterizations enough to populate a small town. It's probably less offensive than some of the other numbers of that type in Marx pictures. The number also serves as the segue into Harpo's solo, which as always is simply its own thing and you either dig it or you don't.
This movie, unlike Room Service for the most part, at least maintains a genuine movie flavor—and a Marx Brothers movie at that. Animals are plentiful for Harpo's interactions, Groucho walks upside down on a ceiling with a lady acrobat (it's a good trick, too), and Harpo fires cannonballs at a strongman in a well-populated arena. Chico and Groucho haggle as always, here not in a static single room, but in a large train yard during a deluge.
The story? Well, as in most of the Marx Brothers vehicles, it's not something you really sit up and take note of. In fact, it's sometimes hard to even figure what the plot of a Marx Brothers movie has actually been. At the Circus is no exception to this rule. Suffice it to say there's a couple, and they're blindly in love, and they work in the circus, and the Marx Brothers are involved. Something to do with a bag of missing money. Room Service, as might be expected of its format, is more cohesive: The Brothers, as managers of a theatrical company, are deep in arrears at their hotel and utilize desperate measures involving their play's newly arrived writer (a wide-eyed Frank Albertson) to keep their room despite the attempts of the hotel's upper manager, Wagner (Donald McBride). The room must be maintained, because it's the only place where they can meet with potential backer Philip Wood. Albertson falls for Miller, Lucille Ball walks in and out of some scenes and says things like "I'll handle it," and all's right in the end (except maybe for Wagner).
Room Service is presented in its original Academy ratio of 1.37:1, which means just a hint of letterboxing. The transfer is a tad—only a tad—soft, but this may be the result of the RKO stocks used for original filming in comparison to the more expensive Paramount stocks on previous Marx Brothers movies. The contrast, again by virtue of either stock or transfer, or perhaps just the stage-like methodology, is quite less than that of the Paramount movies, with black levels that are not strong. Sound is clean, almost eerily so, and the print is very clean as well, with only occasional flecks of white. Having grown up on rather noisy transfers of Marx pictures, I was occasionally taken aback with the extremely clean silences present throughout the film. Since the picture offers virtually nothing in the way of spectacle, video is not a huge demand, and this clean print, even if just a tad soft, is sure to satisfy.
At the Circus is presented in full-frame 1.33:1. The picture contrast is somewhat more stark on this one, and marginally sharper as well, probably attributable to the more expensive stock used by MGM. The print, however, is not really as clean as that of Room Service, or perhaps the greater contrast just makes that white flecking stand out more. It seemed to come up more frequently, though. The sound on this one is not quite as clean, but still acceptable.
Extras included are in the form of pre-feature short subjects, accessible separately by the menus. Each side of the disc features an "Our Gang" short from MGM. Since "Our Gang" shorts are universally repugnant to me, I will name only their titles: "Party Fever" and "Dog Daze." I found them interminable and excruciating, but again, I have that reaction to "Our Gang" just generally. Each side also includes a vintage cartoon. Room Service is accompanied by "The Daffy Doc," a very, very early Daffy Duck cartoon that also features Porky Pig. The cartoon is clean and watchable, and a fine record of the early, insane Daffy who we see so rarely now. One strange gag has Daffy hitting himself on the head with a mallet in order to confer with his tripled self afterward. The B side has an MGM cartoon, "Jitterbug Follies," starring the ancient Count Screwloose of Toulouse character. The transfers on all four shorts are average. I didn't particularly love either of the cartoons, but the novelty of simulating the old theater sequence is rewarding enough. That being said, however, it would have been nice to have it filled out with some trailers and a newsreel.
One thing about this disc is revolutionary indeed. It is a Warner Brothers disc in a keep case! The much-vilified snapper case, which had infected the previous generation of Marx Brothers discs from Image, has been eschewed for this series of reissues. Hot sweet yams, that's good news.
Room Service and At the Circus may not be heavy hitters in the Marx Brothers library, but Warner makes up for their shortcomings by packaging them together here. If you're a real fan, the better value is the collection, but if you care not for the later MGM entries, picking this up by itself is not a bad idea. While the extras are lacking (I would have appreciated some history on how Room Service came to exist), the DVD package is still worthwhile.
The presence of these men is a travesty to this courtroom! Not only are they honored and respected men of society, but two of them are playing craps with the prosecuting attorney and the other one seems to be pulling live dogs out of his coat. Innocent! Innocent! Just get these jokers out of here!
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