The Marx Brothers
My grandmother was a giant Marx Brothers fan.
Groucho was her favorite because of his whip-fire dialogue and scathing sarcasm, although she would laugh over Harpo’s childlike antics and musical gusto. As such, she was an avid collector of pop culture memorabilia from the films; piano sheet music, books, VHS tapes, statues, movie posters – it was all fair game.
My favorite of her collection were the promotional posters hung in frames around her house. I remember being fascinated as a kid by those colorful depictions of the three (and sometimes four) Marx Brothers, by those late-great studio artists. In an age where radio ruled the airwaves and the film industry was desperately trying to compete. Those old prints created such mystery and mystique of old Hollywood that proved to be easy escapism from the popcorn movie explosion of the 1980s.
This was the Marx Brothers’ first movie (if you don’t count “Humor Risk”) and was one of the earliest sound films ever made (pay attention to scenes where Groucho is showing maps of Florida real estate, and you will notice the maps are soaking wet to avoid overdriving the recording equipment). Groucho plays Mr. Hammer, a Florida hotel owner during the Florida land boom in the 1920′s, desperately trying to unload real estate on unsuspecting buyers. Zeppo is the desk clerk (Jamison), Chico is an “idle roomer” and Harpo is his “silent partner.” Hammer takes on Chico as his shill to try to up the price of his questionable real estate (prompting the famous Why A Duck? scene), and various guests try to swindle one another for various reasons.
This film also features music written by Irving Berlin, though not his best material by a long shot…An interesting side note regarding the forgettable music in The Cocoanuts: For years, Groucho teased Irving Berlin about not having been able to give them even one hit song for the show. In his defense, Irving Berlin replied that he had taken a song to Sam Harris and played it for him. Harris listened carefully and said the song would never be a hit. That song was “Always,” one of Berlin’s biggest hit songs. Via.
In their second movie for Paramount, the Marx Brothers once again took a successful Broadway play to the silver screen. In this outing, Groucho plays the infamous Captain Jeffrey Spaulding, African explorer, the guest of honour at a Long Island party (accompanied by Zeppo as his field secretary, Horatio Jamison) being given by Mrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont). Roscoe W. Chandler (Louis Sorin) is displaying a painting, Beaugard’s “After the Hunt,” in honor of Captain Spaulding’s visit. Of course, two of the guests at the party have made copies of this painting and, for their own reasons, want their copies displayed in place of the original. Harpo, as The Professor (of what nobody knows), and Chico, as Signor Emanuel Ravelli, roll in to add a little music and larceny, and then the fun begins.
This film features one of Groucho’s most memorable tunes, “Hooray for Captain Spalding.” An interesting factoid about song is that lines of Groucho’s lyrics were removed from later versions. Originally, Groucho answered Mrs. Rittenhouse’s line, “He’s the only white man who covered every acre,” with “I think I’ll try to make her.” The lines that were cut (there are several) were done not in 1930, when the Hays Office was pretty liberal, but after 1934, when Joe Breen started to crack down, and apparently occurred in reissue prints (or on the release negative), and these seem to be the only versions available today.
This film also contains one of the few scenes in which Zeppo was actually allowed to be funny, as he takes the liberty of interpreting Groucho’s letter to his lawyer, Hon. Charles H. Hungadunga. Via.
The third film released in 1931 was their first with a script made for the screen and their first made in Hollywood.
In this outing, the boys are stowaways on an ocean voyage. Apart from a bit involving a couple of gangsters trying to put each other out of business, there’s very little plot to get in the way of the gags. Speaking of gags, Groucho brought in his uncle, Al Sheen, to write plenty for this picture. If you’re looking for sheer Marx Brothers zaniness without any unnecessary musical numbers or subplots, this is a movie for you. Via.
This picture marks the return of Margaret Dumont to the fold for perhaps the most bizarre Marx Brothers film ever made. The action takes place in the mythical country of Freedonia. Mrs. Gloria Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) is unwilling to continue to finance the country’s treasury unless Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) is appointed leader. Trentino, the ambassador from neighboring Sylvania, plans to take over Freedonia. Having failed at revolution, he decides to do so by marrying Mrs. Teasdale. To aid him, he hires Chicolini (Chico) and Pinky (Harpo) to keep an eye on Firefly and report on his doings. Edgar Kennedy adds to several hilarious sight-gag scenes played out with Chico and Harpo.
As Firefly’s secretary, Bob Roland, Zeppo has even less to do in this picture than in the previous four, so it isn’t surprising that this would be his last film. There was no love lost between Groucho and Zeppo; Zeppo was tired of being second banana and Groucho simply wanted him to stick to his traditional role as “the juvenile lead.” Deprived even of this status in Duck Soup, Zeppo finally walked.
Although this film is now a classic, considered by many to be the Marx Brothers’ best, it was a flop at the box office, and caused Paramount to drop the Marx Brothers. They would return to film making two years later at MGM — billed no longer as “The Four Marx Brothers,” but simply as “The Marx Brothers.” Via.
This was the Marxes’ first film after leaving Paramount (well, after being pushed out). MGM producer Irving Thalberg took the boys under his wing to produce two of their greatest films (the other being “A Day At The Races”). Thalberg’s contention was that, although the Marx Brothers’ movies were funny, you couldn’t “build insanity on insanity.” He proposed an actual story for the brothers to work against. He figured that there may be only half as many laughs in a picture, but the films would give the audience something to care about. His hunch was obviously correct, as “A Night At The Opera” was the Marx Brothers’ biggest grossing film (more than doubling the take from “Duck Soup” two years earlier). Although the brothers had difficulty with the way he handled business, Groucho proclaimed that Irving Thalberg was the only man he would truly call a “genius.” Thalberg asked the Marx brothers whom they would like to write the picture, and of course they chose their two favorite writers, Kaufman and Ryskind.
This was the Marx Brothers’ first picture following the departure of Zeppo. Via.
Sadly, this was the last picture the Marxes would make with Irving Thalberg. Thalberg died suddenly, at the age of 37, before the movie was complete. Although screen credit for the production of this film was given to director Sam Wood, Thalberg actually produced both this film and “A Night At The Opera.” Groucho once asked Thalberg why he didn’t give himself a screen credit. Thalberg’s reply was that, “Credit is for others. If you are in a position to give yourself credit, then you don’t need it.” Also, “If the movie is good, they’ll know who produced it. If it’s bad, no one will care.”
Thalberg employed an interesting method of test marketing in the making of both the movies he produced for the Marx Brothers. He sent the boys on the road with several scenes from the picture. Gauging the audience reaction, the writers and the Marxes were able to decide which bits were good and which needed to be changed or removed. This also helped the director, in that he knew how long the actors would have to pause to allow time for audience laughter.
This picture contains yet another inspired bit of banter between Groucho and Chico, in the “Tutsi-Fruitsi” scene. And watch out for an insane phone call to Florida, Chico selling race tips, Groucho’s nutty medical exams and Harpo completely destroying a piano turning it into a harp.
The Marx Brothers continued to make movies after Thalberg’s death, but their hearts (especially Groucho’s) just weren’t in it anymore. From now on they would be at the mercy of MGM, which was never terribly fond of them in the first place. Via.
Room Service is an unusual picture for the Marx Brothers, as it contains no musical numbers (unless you count the occasional warbling of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” during the various death scenes).
Room Service is unique for other reasons as well. It was the only picture the brothers did for RKO, making it while they were under contract to MGM. It is also the only film that wasn’t written specifically for them. As a matter of fact, the movie was taken from a successful play at the suggestion of Zeppo, and tailored by the ever-present Morrie Ryskind (who had to invent a part for Harpo) for the Marxes. This movie was remade as a musical called “Step Lively” in 1944, starring Frank Sinatra.
While Lucille Ball and Ann Miller are listed above Albertson in the cast list, they actually have very minor roles and add little to the movie. This picture is almost pure Marx Brothers entertainment, attesting to the ability of Morrie Ryskind in adapting the script for the boys. Even given the fact that the Marxes were forced into a more traditional play format for this movie, it is still highly entertaining. Via.
Time is telling on the Marxes in this picture, but it is an enjoyable romp nonetheless. Groucho even manages to capture some of the zest of his earlier times as a hotel manager in “The Cocoanuts.” Harpo’s employment of Frank Tashlin (cartoon director/writer being among his hats) as a gag writer prompts some wonderful sight gags.
It was during the final days of filming that Groucho realized he’d finally had enough. While hanging upside-down outside of an aeroplane during innumerable takes of one of the final scenes, Groucho decided once and for all that he was ready to retire. The others were ready as well.
The three brothers would appear once more together, three years later, but really only as an afterthought. “A Night In Casablanca” was the last true Marx Brothers film. Via.