Balladeer’s Blog’s usual “waiting for results to something” mode is to watch a comedy marathon. Let’s go for a vintage feel this time with a look at my Top Five Marx Brothers Movies.
5. THE COCOANUTS (1929) – The Plot (As if it mattered) – A hotel manager (Groucho) plots a real estate swindle during the Florida land boom while a jewel theft on the premises attracts unwanted attention from the law. Chico and Harpo sow all manner of confusion while Margaret Dumont and Zeppo are on hand in their familiar and comfortable straight roles.
Comment: Already I can hear the screams from Marx Brothers fans. How DARE I relegate to FIFTH place a movie based on the brothers’ Broadway hit written by THE George S Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind!
Easy. No matter how good the play was The Cocoanuts movie suffers from too many of the typical weaknesses of early talkies. The tinny sound, plus the way the maps, telegrams and newspapers handled by the characters are obviously water-logged to keep the crackling from being picked up on the late 1920s sound equipment.
And most importantly the inclusion of pointless music and dance numbers in the “hey, we have sound now, so let’s REALLY show it off” spirit of early talkies. The hopelessly dull romantic couple slow things down, too.
I find myself fast-forwarding through this flick more than any other Marx Brothers movie. Even The Big Store. We need a Fan Edit of this flick including ONLY the comedy routines, which I agree are all classics. “Did anyone ever tell you you look like the Prince of Wales?”
4. HORSE FEATHERS (1932) – The Plot (As if it mattered) – Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff (Groucho) is made president of Huxley College and proceeds to run it into the ground while concentrating on the football team’s success.
Zeppo, though only 11 years younger than Groucho, played his character’s son Frank Wagstaff. Chico and Harpo played Baravelli and Pinky, two grifters mistaken for gridiron ringers by Groucho.
Comment: Even a 4th Place Marx Brothers movie like this contains more laughs than most of the output from Hope & Crosby, Abbot & Costello or Martin & Lewis.
I may be in the minority but I find the frenetic football game at the end of the movie to be my least favorite comedy bit in the flick. But I still think it’s pretty funny, so don’t get mad at me. In fact I’m such a Marx Brothers fan boy that I even get a kick out of the recurring gag with the block of ice.
3. MONKEY BUSINESS (1931) – The Plot (As if it mattered) – The Four Marx Brothers play stowaways on a transatlantic voyage. They unleash havoc during the crossing and also at a gangster’s party after docking in the U.S.
Comment: Almost non-stop madness from start to finish in what – to me – is the most underrated Marx Brothers movie of them all. Even other fans of the brothers are often surprised when I remind them how many classic comedy bits are included in this film. People often mistakenly attribute those bits to other Marx Brothers flicks.
For once Zeppo got to be the smooth, two-fisted romantic lead as well as laying out a few wry lines of his own. I genuinely think using him in this same capacity would have made ALL the movies with the four bros tighter and better paced considering what stiffs played the lothario in their other films. Alas, poor Zeppo.
Contentious Trivia Note: This is the only Marx Brothers movie in which Harpo’s voice is heard but that’s NOT a mistaken reference to the Maurice Chevalier record that Harpo lip-synchs to at one point. His real voice is heard singing with his brothers in the barrels at the very beginning of the film. I’ve practically seen people shed blood in arguments over this distinction.
2. ANIMAL CRACKERS (1930) – The Plot (As if it mattered) – Famous explorer Captain Geoffrey T Spaulding (Groucho) is a guest at the home of the wealthy Mrs Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont). The theft of a priceless painting unleashes chaos. Chico and Harpo portray musicians Emmanuel Ravelli and the Professor, respectively, while the character of Spaulding’s secretary Horatio Jamison is brought to life as only Zeppo could do. (?)
Comment: This film adaptation of the 1928 Marx Brothers’ Broadway hit of the same title just barely lost out for the top spot on my list. In the end the anarchic supremacy of the number one movie relegated Animal Crackers to this tight second place position.
As always with me wordplay, wordplay and more wordplay is what matters in a Marx Brothers movie and this baby delivers. Louis Sorin as Roscoe W Chandler plays off Groucho so well that I almost consider him a Fifth Marx Brother in Animal Crackers. And remember, the “T” in Geoffrey T Spaulding stands for “Edgar.”
Gratuitous ancient Greek comedy reference: I always think of the Eugene O’Neill parody in this movie during Dikaiopolis’ Euripides parody in The Acharnians. Too damn funny!
1. DUCK SOUP (1933) – The Plot (As if it mattered) – Rufus T Firefly (Groucho) is placed in charge of the fictional country of Freedonia as a series of absurdities plunge the nation into war. Chico and Harpo play Chicolini and Pinky, spies from the enemy nation of Sylvania and Zeppo IS Bob Roland.
Margaret Dumont’s Gloria Teasdale is sweet on Firefly, setting up the usual barrage of insults from Groucho.
Comment: I know, this choice for the top spot is more than a little predictable but what can ya do? To me Duck Soup is not only the funniest Marx Brothers movie but it’s also the one that needs the LEAST amount of fast-forwarding. No bland “love story” for side characters and even the songs are pretty enjoyable. All God’s Chillun Got Guns never fails to make me laugh.
I was a bit disappointed years back when I realized that some of the comedy routines in Duck Soup were recycled from Groucho and Chico’s radio show Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel, but those bits are still solid gold and help make this movie almost start-to-finish hilarity.
The comical wordplay shines like anything from Lear or Ionesco or Aristophanes. (I always picture a Groucho-esque figure as the Sausage Seller in The Knights.) And because I’m such a geek for ancient Greek comedies the rapid-fire blackout sketches at the end of Duck Soup not only make me laugh but remind me of the similar scenes in Attic Old Comedy.
And yes, I do like most of the other films from the Marx Brothers but these are my Top Five. I have nothing personal against A Night at the Opera for instance, but it doesn’t have to be my favorite just because it was Groucho’s favorite.
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