by Walter Chaw Hand in hand with their release of "The Tarzan Collection", Warner issues seven Marx Bros. films on five DVDs in a box set commemorating the comedy team's MGM output. Diving into the films in this collection, one finds the Marx Bros. in clear decline and willing--because the failure of their final picture at Paramount, Duck Soup, neutered a lot of their courage--to have Hollywood narratives foisted on their unrestrained chaos. A Night at the Opera is the last near-great Marx Bros. film, and it was their first at MGM; A Day at the Races followed before they lost steam in the homestretch with Room Service, At the Circus, Go West, The Big Store, and A Night in Casablanca. Still, even in a perfunctory effort like Go West, there's a brilliant bit involving doublespeak and the ordering of take-out Chinese food. Every Monday over the next few weeks, FILM FREAK CENTRAL will take a look at each of the films in "The Marx Brothers Collection" (three of whose titles, unlike any of those in "The Tarzan Collection", are also sold separately), some of which come equipped with loads of special features, all of which have been shined up with new transfers. There's valuable stuff here, if nothing as significant as their early work. Originally published: August 2, 2004.
A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (1935)
***/**** Image A Sound B Extras B+
with Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones
screenplay by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Riskind
directed by Sam Wood
Always second fiddle in my mind to Duck Soup and, really, to any of the five Paramount Marx Brothers films, the highly-regarded A Night at the Opera marks the beginning of the comedy troupe's steady descent into mediocrity: the picture's framework--a romantic subplot (that flimsiest of narrative contrivances) upon which to hang the anarchy of the Marx Bros.' shtick--just doesn't work very well. The desire to rein in the almost malignant chaos of Horse Feathers and Animal Crackers is key to what's wrong with the Marx Bros.' MGM output; tragic that the comedians themselves were complicit in their own taming, stung after the commercial failure of Duck Soup and all too willing to adapt themselves to a more traditional format under the relatively humourless head of MGM, Irving Thalberg.
The first sign of their wings being clipped manifests itself in the form of opera starlet Rosa (Kitty Carlisle) and her lover Ricardo (Allan Jones) warbling woo and batting eyelashes at one another while the Brothers stalk around in peripheral circles. It's fascinating to watch the trio act as malevolent trickster gods, imposing themselves capriciously, inexplicably, on the lives of hapless mortals, but there's too much time devoted to the young lovers and interminable musical interludes. Reared on the Vaudeville stage, with their rat-a-tat repartee refined at Utah's Orpheum theatre, the Marx Bros. never quite adapted to assembly-line filmmaking. When structure is imposed on their vignette-based way of thinking, it only serves to distract, and frankly, there's not enough room in there for both the genius and the chaff.
That said, the good bits of A Night at the Opera are extremely good--not the least of which a backstage rope-swinging sequence by Harpo that serves as an interesting segue between FFC's coverage of the Tarzan films into Warner's new Marx Bros. package. Groucho, as he climbs from one opera box to another, even lets loose with a Weismullerian yowl. ("It's all right, it's just the Tarzan in me.") The Marx Brothers are strangers in a civilized land, and A Night at the Opera shares more than a passing similarity with the fish-out-of-water intrigues of Tarzan; the film's lingering genius is in its double-speak and carefully choreographed interplays of word and deed, less malapropism and cultural misunderstanding than satirical whimsy marching wilfully into the absurd. A Night at the Opera may be the start of the slide, but it's still pretty close to the top. The climactic demolition of Verdi's "Il Trovatore" by itself forgives any number of sins--it's a beaut.
Warner DVD presents a fullscreen video transfer of A Night at the Opera that preserves the film's original aspect ratio. The image looks amazingly crisp, with the film so beautifully rendered that a scene set outside of a ship (Harpo is dragged along behind) becomes all the more jarring as the only non-studio shot of the picture. Leonard Maltin provides an occasionally informative, occasionally annoying commentary track that's long on adoration and short on valuable critique. Maltin, it should be said, is a great historian and curator and a really lousy film critic--strengths and weaknesses that are on stark display in his handful of commentaries. I was interested to learn that about three minutes of references to Italy were cut to avoid connections to Mussolini--and less interested in hearing Maltin proclaim "What a twit!" when the villain of the piece makes an evil comment.
A new documentary, "Remarks on Marx" (34 mins.), gathers such mismatched luminaries as Dom DeLuise, "Curb Your Enthusiasm" executive producer and Marx fanatic Robert B. Weide, Robert Brecher, Anne Beatts, Carl Reiner, and Robert Osborne. Generally an unabashed hagiography, it does offer a nice brief overview of the comedy team's career trajectory, making it if nothing else a great introduction to this box set. An archival clip of Groucho on pre-Charlie Rose conversation show "The Hy Gardner Show" (5 mins.) shows Groucho, circa the early-Sixties, surprisingly sedate and serious. Two vintage shorts (How to Sleep (10 mins.) and Sunday Night at the Trocadero (20 mins.)) are included to replicate the feeling of being bored in a movie theatre in 1935--the latter having some interest for an eye-blink cameo from Groucho. A Night at the Opera's 2-minute theatrical trailer rounds out the disc. Originally published: August 2, 2004.
91 minutes; NR; 1.33:1; English DD 1.0; CC; English, French, Spanish subtitles; DVD-9; Region One; Warner
A DAY AT THE RACES (1937)
**½/**** Image A Sound B Extras A
with Allan Jones and Maureen O'Sullivan
screenplay by Robert Pirosh, George Seaton and George Oppenheimer
directed by Sam Wood
A weird precursor to the mistaken MD crisis of Spellbound and the first unofficial screen rendering of the Seabiscuit story, the Marx Bros.' A Day at the Races is something of a slog. It's given over to convention more so than any other Marx Bros. picture to this point, and its comedy routines generally have a listless feeling wholly at odds with the lawless abandon that marks the troupe's best work. What remains is the oft-fascinating relationship between the Brothers, with Groucho the ultimate huckster at the mercy of language-mangling Chico and mute Harpo. While Groucho is the eternal outsider, Chico and Harpo seem to have some sort of unknown history together and often combine forces to bilk Groucho out of his hard-stolen riches. Groucho's power is his smoothness with language, his Kryptonite Chico's elaborate doublespeak.
A Day at the Races' story proper concerns lovely Judy (Maureen O'Sullivan, Tarzan's erstwhile Jane, Ungawa!) and her struggle to keep her sanitarium in the black. Judy's boyfriend, Gil (Allan Jones, reprising his role from A Night at the Opera as unofficial Zeppo replacement), hatches the plan to buy a moribund racehorse to score Judy her nest egg, hiring Harpo to be his jockey. Groucho, paired again against matronly straight-man Margaret Dumont, poses as brilliant Dr. Hackenbush, the "legitimate" salvation for Judy's sanitarium. The major problem with A Day at the Races is that it spends what seems like months establishing its story of foreclosure and narrow rescue from financial ruin. Having the Marx Bros. play comic relief to some kind of half-baked old Hollywood melodrama is the worst kind of yoke. Limiting their riffs in this way is all the more unforgivable for the standard time Marx Bros. flicks are given over to what begin to seem like the same piano/production/harp musical interstitials.
A jumpin' number featuring a very young Dorothy Dandridge and a cast of African-American performers begins to skirt the edge of minstrel (especially when the Brothers smear grease on their faces to better blend in)--though as these things went in this period, it seems on the whole more respectful than paternalistic. If nothing else, it's one place in the film that doesn't feel phoned-in, while whole volumes could be written on the fact that Harpo only blacks half of his face.
Warner DVD gives A Day at the Races the whole treatment: the video transfer is flawless and the audio is likewise impressive. A feature-length yak-track featuring Glenn Mitchell, author of The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia, is dry and academic but packed with little nuggets of trivia. What aggravates is that Mitchell not only allows long lapses to rule his commentary, but he also mentions that a song has been elided without offering any explanation as to why. It's the sort of thing that relegates the track to trivial rather than essential.
The 27-minute documentary "On Your Marx, Get Set, Go!" is a continuation of the documentary from the A Night at the Opera DVD. It features the same set of talking heads talking more about method this time than history, if still presenting little in the way of essential material. Regardless, neophytes will be pleased with this briskly paced and professionally mounted overview. (Virtues, to be sure, they're also what began to doom the Marx Bros. to the land of ho-hum.) A 10-minute short, A Night at the Movies, is dated in the way that only Robert Benchley can be, and three vintage MGM cartoons (Old Smokey, Mama's New Hat, Gallopin' Cats) attempt to replicate the 1930s moviegoing experience. A pre-recorded audio track of Allan Jones warbling the abovementioned elided song, an old MGM radio promotion, and the film's trailer round out the disc. Originally published: August 9, 2004.
109 minutes; NR; 1.33:1; English DD 1.0; CC; English, French, Spanish subtitles; DVD-9; Region One; Warner
ROOM SERVICE (1938)
*/**** Image B Sound B Extras C-
with Lucille Ball and Ann Miller
screenplay by Morrie Ryskind, based on the play by Allen Boretz & John Murray
directed by William A. Seiter
AT THE CIRCUS (1939)
**½/**** Image A- Sound B+ Extras C-
with Kenny Baker and Florence Rice
screenplay by Irving Brecher
directed by Edward Buzzell
Giving a lot of neophytes their wish, Room Service jettisons the Marx Bros.' patented musical numbers, shifts the gang over to user-friendly RKO, and lays a colossal egg regardless. The boys just don't seem into it--most of the time, in fact, they barely seem awake. There's not one memorable set-piece, not one memorable one-liner, and if people talk about this film at all, they tend to talk about Harpo chasing a turkey with a bat. What I remember is seeing Harpo for the very first time on an episode of "I Love Lucy" wherein Lucille Ball dons Harpo garb and the two engage in a mirror routine. There's a strange iconic power to Harpo's shtick--without having any background in the Marx Bros., the image of a mute, over-permed bag-lady with a bike horn struck me as uniquely, ineffably powerful and frightening. No less so here, I guess, but he gets so little screentime in Room Service that he might as well be Zeppo.
Lucille Ball is dialled down to almost nothing here as Groucho's perfunctory love interest, the narrative involving the struggles of hick playwright Davis (Frank Albertson) falling in with a bad crowd (Groucho and co.) as they do their best to secure the good graces of a wealthy backer. When they arch in Room Service, Groucho's eyebrows--always the dowsing rod for lascivious intent or ironic understatement--seem to indicate a distinct boredom with the project. Part of the problem may be that it's taken, and faithfully, from a stage play that not only had nothing to do with the Marx Bros., but also wasn't much of a comedy, either. The troupe is so out of place in this milieu that there are several scenes where extras and principals giggle behind their hands at their shenanigans. Acknowledging absurdity is the first step towards castrating their kind of comedy--they need to be trickster gods in a world full of straight men. Its ironclad pre-existence (think The Three Stooges starring in Rent) results in a fabulously messy tissue rejection, putting out that unmistakable stench of old material piled on bad material.
At the Circus had me at "They're not going to get anything out of me. Unless they have a pump." Although it's overloaded with musical interludes and allots a positively queer amount of time to its banal narrative, the picture has some truly memorable comedy routines and wordplay that give a brief reminder of what it was about these guys that so enchanted in the first place. Groucho performs his trademark "Lydia the Tattooed Lady" number to wondrous, almost Little Tramp-like, effect, and Harpo, the trio's secret weapon, does a mean Pied Piper routine with a cast of minstrel pickaninnies that appals for its insensitivity even as it compels for its choreography. Released in the annus mirabilis of 1939, At the Circus exhibits the sort of anarchy that the Marx Bros. once trafficked in with a wilful, almost malevolent mayhem.
The plot concerns Jeff (Kenny Baker--not the one who's George Lucas's favourite little-person) giving up his inheritance to be a full-time carny and the Marx Bros. helping to keep the circus afloat by bilking Jeff's rich dowager aunt Margaret Dumont at the expense of her dignity and that of an uppity Frenchman. What's not to like? A long sequence with a midget in a tiny circus car involving cigars is one for the ages--and it's up there with almost anything from the Marx Bros.' pre-MGM days, as is a nice bit with Groucho stuck upside down on a ceiling in his long johns. Were it not for the weird ballads between Jeff and Julie (Florence Rice) that crop up with maddening regularity, At the Circus would be an unqualified riot. There's a saving grace to these scenes, however: Julie introduces herself singing a tribute/love song to a horse and later Jeff sings that same song to Julie as she obediently clops along. It's subversive in a way that's howlingly inappropriate. Again, what's not to like?
Room Service appears in a standard aspect ratio video transfer that looks fine, if lacking in sharp detail. Black levels are shallow but in a film shot with little variation and nuance (and movement), that doesn't really matter. The 1.0 mono track is similarly unremarkable but free, too, of sparks and spazzes. A 1938 Our Gang short called Party Fever (10 mins.) involves the competition between Alfalfa and Butch for the hand (or something) of Darla in some weird mayoral contest. Our Gang has always had the same effect on me as a nice big joint packed with Hawaiian green: it makes me paranoid and etherized in the same moment. An image of the dog carrying an "A Bone in Every Pot" sandwich board is enough to make me chew the wallpaper. I think there's something going on in Our Gang shorts, I just don't know what it is.
More to my liking is the Daffy Duck cartoon The Daffy Doc (also 1938), a 7-minute Bob Clampett glimpse into the turgid abyss of madness. Therein, a hospital called "A Stitch in Time" ("As We Sew, So Shall Ye Rip") finds Daffy in full paranoid schizophrenic mode as the surgical assistant to a Dr. Quack, whose perverse ministrations are the stuff of Cronenbergian nightmares. I don't know how many pre-war, Depression-era kids were ruined by these old Daffy Duck Looney Tunes, but I'm feeling a little unwell myself. A scene where he pounds himself on the head so that he can ask one of his concussion hallucinations a question is something I'm going to have to try the next time I decide to see a Garry Marshall film. A pretty rough-looking trailer for Room Service rounds out the disc.
At the Circus arrives on DVD as the flipside to Room Service in a bright and well-contrasted fullscreen presentation that's coupled with a crisp 1.0 mono mix. No complaints save the minor one that the audio is so clear it almost sounds as though it emanates from a different reality. Speaking of different realities, an Our Gang short from 1939 called Dog Daze (10 mins.) not only predates Spike Lee's "cleverness" by about fifty years, but also offers a closing shot of a large group of old ladies walking along a blasted horizon with their lapdogs. It's something out of Bergman at his most allegorical, and enough to make the strong lie down with existential trembling. The gang this time out seems to be trying to earn money from kindness in order to avoid having their kneecaps busted by loan shark Butch, a plot that reminds me in a lot of ways of half-forgotten middle-German parables about the rootlessness of man, though it's really too much to contemplate in one sitting. Luckily, to leaven the angst, a 1939 cartoon starring Count Screwloose called Jitterbug Follies (9 mins.) puts old-fashioned venality in a far more straight-forward light, offering up its mad tapestry of drunken criminality with little apology nor mediation. A fairly sharp-looking trailer for At the Circus rounds out the presentation. Originally published: August 16, 2004.
78/87 minutes; NR; 1.33:1; English DD 1.0; CC; English, French, Spanish subtitles; DVD-9; Region One; Warner
GO WEST (1940)
**½/**** Image A Sound A Extras B-
with John Carroll and Diana Lewis
screenplay by Irving Brecher
directed by Edward Buzzell
THE BIG STORE (1941)
½*/**** Image A Sound A Extras C-
with Tony Martin and Virginia Grey
screenplay by Sid Kuller and Hal Fimberg and Ray Golden
directed by Charles Riesner
Opening with a title card that suggests Horace Greeley wouldn't have extended his manifest finger so easily had it pointed the way of Groucho and co., Go West is surprisingly solid MGM Marx Brothers fare nevertheless saddled with a lugubrious framing story and a few moments apiece of unpleasant violence and racial insensitivity. It's jarring to see Groucho "roughed up," as it were: he's thrown against a door, threatened with a gun, and tripped down a flight of stairs here--an element of raucous slapstick owed, no doubt, to the uncredited presence of Buster Keaton on the gag-writing team. Keaton's influence on the final set-piece (an extended train chase that includes Harpo walking through a house being pushed along before the locomotive) is undeniable and oppressive; it's no wonder that he and Groucho butted heads repeatedly during the course of the film.
The conflict of comedic styles results in a discordant experience at best, but the bits that are pure Marx Bros. are gold. An opening gag involving a money-exchange in a train station is hilarious and agile--Groucho's "There's something corrupt in my pants, but I don't know what it is" remains uproarious, as does Chico's response to whether or not he loves his brother (Harpo): "No, but I'm used to him." At this point in the Marx Bros.' career, their twilight years, we're also more used to them than loving them, I suspect. A lingering familiarity and affection is what carries the picture over its seemingly-identical musical sequences, as well as an extended skit that is astonishingly offensive towards American Indians and that now-requisite godawful plot--something to do with a deed that belongs to a desert flower that needs to be recovered and sold.
For as peculiar and mismatched as much of Go West is, nothing would prepare for the smoke and vapours of the deplorable The Big Store. Essentially a showcase for the limited charisma of musical sensation Tony Martin, the film relegates the Marx Bros. to second-fiddle as they share at least equal time with the insipid love/caper plot and show the strain of runaway production and flagging inspiration. The jokes are delivered in half-speed, the timing is way off regardless, and the musical numbers, most of them not featuring the Marx Bros., are enough to make one contemplate a good, bloody eye-raking. There aren't even any memorable sequences in the piece--a centerpiece scramble in a department store is, after all, only a pale shadow of the cabin hijinks in A Night at the Opera. The Big Store is the kind of movie that takes you about an hour to figure out that you've already seen it. If you last an hour. No less than the reappearance of Margaret Dumont as Groucho's chief victim/love interest fails to salvage things--small wonder that the boys seriously contemplated retirement following this fiasco.
Go West looks and sounds great in its standard video transfer and mono audio mix; source elements were in apparently sterling condition. Presented on one side of a disc with The Big Store on the flipside, Go West comes complete with a vintage short program meant to replicate the experience of a night at the movies circa 1940. Pete Smith's 1940 Quicker 'n a Wink (9 mins.) is a documentary on high-speed photography and slow-motion effects that takes the tone of an antique educational reel, which it probably was at one time or another. It's not horrible, but it's dry as a Saltine. Duller still is Fitzpatrick Traveltalk's 1940 Cavalcade of San Francisco (9 mins.), at once a veritable commercial for public works and a travelogue of San Francisco backed by Muzak. Time for that nap. Rudolf Ising's 1940 MGM cartoon The Milky Way (8 mins.) is both a second-rate nursery rhyme (kittens who lost their mittens) and a bald rip-off of Disney's Silly Symphonies--which were, by that time, at the peak of their creativity. Dreadful stuff--almost as much so as a "Leo is On the Air" radio promo (14 mins.) that just goes on and on; B-reel mock-docs are never interesting, and there's a certain lifelessness to this patchwork construction that really grates. A trailer rounds out the special features.
Garbage or not, Warner honours another of their catalogue titles with a wonderful DVD transfer. Full-frame video and mono audio display a surprisingly supple range--The Big Store's superior tech specs are perhaps attributable to the film never being in as high of demand as the rest of the Marx Bros.' library, keeping the negative out of harm's way. A shorts program includes a 1941 Pete Smith production, Flicker Memories (8 mins.): a precursor to Mr. Wizard and Mr. Rogers, the flick is a quick, self-mocking overview of the history of motion-picture technology that skips over the zoetrope en route to hand-crank nickelodeons and early silents. The bulk of the picture consists of Smith providing "humorous" audio to an old mock-up, marking it as a prehistoric ancestor to Robert Smigel's "Fun with Real Audio" cartoons. Hanna-Barbera's animated Officer Pooch (8 mins.) from 1940 serves as a nice glimpse into the origins of Tom and Jerry, who debuted the same year from the same duo, though it's otherwise the standard dog-outsmarted-by-cat thing--and neither violent nor lawless enough to garner much interest. An outtake of Tony Martin crooning a deleted song ("Where There's Music" (3 mins.)) set to clips from The Big Store and publicity stills is a nice reminder of why the film sucked with such an earnest vigour. A trailer rounds out the presentation. Originally published: August 23, 2004.
80/83 minutes; NR; 1.33:1; English DD 1.0; CC; English, French, Spanish subtitles; DVD-9; Region One; Warner
A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA (1946)
*/**** Image A Sound A Extras B
with Charles Drake and Lois Collier
screenplay by Joseph Fields and Roland Kibbee
directed by Archie Mayo
Essentially the last full-blown Marx Bros. flick, A Night in Casablanca is an undercooked espionage spoof that takes meek aim at Casablanca a time or two but generally just plays like the mercenary piece of garbage that it is. The sense I get is that Groucho was glad to be shed of the Marx Bros. after the tumult of their last few years at MGM, seeing their vision of trickster gods walking among men shrunken to something safe, banal, and endlessly replicable. As a favour to compulsive gambler Chico, though, Groucho and Harpo saddled up for one last ride (a cameo by the trio in the deplorable The Story of Mankind notwithstanding), and the results are lacklustre and overlong. If A Night in Casablanca is better than low point The Big Store, it's only better because it occasionally, instead of never, scores.
The plot is strained in a way that again demonstrates an essential misunderstanding of the haphazard alchemy that makes the Marx Brothers tick. Groucho is enlisted as manager of the troubled Hotel Casablanca, which apparently houses within its walls a fortune in Nazi gold. Chico and Harpo are chauffer and abused Nazi-assistant, respectively, and a love intrigue essayed in a milquetoast subplot grates in the way that such a thing never fails to grate. So much time is spent on the plot that long stretches feel like any musty MGM backlot travelogue--when the boys do get center-stage, their shtick looks suspiciously like warmed-over gags from A Night at the Opera, stretched a few repetitions each to fill out a running time that perception-wise plays a few hours over its stated 85 minutes. A Night in Casablanca is depressing fare: the guys are long in the tooth, their act has lost its freshness, and that breath of anarchic glee that suffused their pre-MGM production has gotten stale and flat.
The last disc in Warner's box set commemorating the late MGM production of the comedy team, A Night in Casablanca is presented in a great-looking fullscreen transfer matched by a nice, solid, hiss-less 1.0 mono audio mix. Though the films gathered here are sub-par in relation to the rest of the Marx canon, the studio demonstrates real grace in giving the films honourable transfers and collecting them in an affordable, attractive way. Warner digs into its own catalogue by offering a 1946 Looney Tunes short, Robert McKimson's Acrobatty Bunny (9 mins.), wherein our hero Bugs finds a circus erected over his rabbit hole, leading to a struggle for the prototypical cartoon rogue to regain the sovereignty of his homestead. A brilliant opening where a lion mentally crosses off a series of possible occupants of the warren says something genuine about the relationship that these cartoons had with their animal characters; when Bugs looks down the lion's maw and screams for Pinocchio, it points to a kind of sophistication both visual (the lion's throat looks like the bevelled borders of the Looney Tunes background graphic) and thematic. Although the abuse of elephants in the piece is particularly hysterical, it seems to have relegated this brilliant and mad short to the seldom-seen-in-syndication list. Less to my taste is a Joe McDoakes short, Richard L. Bare's 1946 So You Think You're a Nervous Wreck (11 mins.), that features George O'Hanlon's eternal everyman (think Jack Lemmon in Glengarry Glen Ross) suffering through a series of embarrassing set-pieces that dissect the man's--all man's--phobias. It's not bad, but neither is it funny, and it's arguably too successful for the amount of anxiety it actually inspires in the viewer. A trailer for A Night in Casablanca rounds out the disc.
85 minutes; NR; 1.33:1; English DD 1.0; CC; English, French, Spanish subtitles; DVD-9; Region One; Warner