Monday, January 2, 2006

Rating the Marx Brothers

Zeppo, Harpo, Chico, & Groucho

by Chuck Rothman

I've been a Marx Brothers fan for as long as I can remember, possibly even before I saw any of their movies.  After all, it wasn't easy to see them back when I was growing up.

Let me paint the picture for the young 'uns.  I grew up in the 60s.  You couldn't go down to your local video store or Netflix queue and rent an old movie.  In big cities, there were revival houses, and colleges often would show older films, but outside of the cities and college towns, you were out of luck. 

I grew up in a small town at the eastern end of Long Island.  There was only one (single screen, of course) movie theater within a reasonable distance; it showed films that were about a month old.  You see, movies didn't open on thousands of screens back in Ye Olde Days -- they'd open in the big cities, then slowly wend their way out to the boonies -- maybe.  Some never got there.  And there were no revivals of old films, of course.

So I couldn't see the Marx Brothers in a theater.

The alternative was television.  That was also a problem.  Up until 1964, we only got two channels:  ABC and CBS.  In 1964, we added NBC -- but only if you got one of those new-fangled UHF converters.  My father sold TVs, so we had one, but few others did.

Around that time I mentioned The Man From U.N.C.L.E. to a friend at school.
"What channel is that?" he asked.
"Channel 30."
"What do you mean Channel 30? The dial only goes up to 13!" 

In 1964, we got cable, which brought in the New York City stations.  (We had it by the 1964 Great Northeast Blackout; we lived in the only place in the northeast that  had power the entire time, and the first indication that something was weird was seeing the NYC TV stations on generator power.)

But you had no pure movie channels, of course.  There were three independent NYC stations:  5 (WNEW), 9 (WOR), and 11 (WPIX), which did show movies, but they were skewed toward more recent films.  Certainly not something of the Marx Brothers' vintage.  And if they did, it was usually late at night -- too late for a 12-year-old to watch.

But I knew about the Marxes.  Groucho was the first, due, of course to "You Bet Your Life."  I watched the show and loved Groucho and his announcer, George Fenneman.  (Anyone else remember Fenneman's own show, "Your Funny, Funny Films" -- a precursor to "America's Funniest Home Videos"?)

Harpo, too, I knew about.  His image, of course, was in old cartoons, and I recall his autobiography being a big best seller.  Oddly, I remembered him mostly as the guy with the taxi horn; it wasn't until I saw a movie and he sat down to play a harp that it hit me -- that's where he got that name!

Chico was quite different.  I never realized he existed.  That was probably because if I saw anything of the Marxes in action, it was a brief clip featuring Groucho or Harpo.  Then, one day, I channel surfed (if switching back and forth between two channels can truly be called "surfing") and happened upon the Charles Goren's show.

Who is Charles Goren?  Well, he was the man who helped turned bridge (the card game) into a craze in the 50s and 60s, even bigger than Texas Hold 'Em is today.  He developed the standard method of evaluating a bridge hand.  If you play bridge . . . well, you probably don't.  Bridge is the most intellectually challenging of card games, but since it requires four people to play, and it takes time to learn, it has fallen by the wayside (though I see it's still doing OK online -- though nothing like poker or other games).  You may see Goren's name in a daily newspaper column:  Goren on Bridge, which is currently cowritten by Omar Sharif (yes, that Omar Sharif), which is probably so confusing ("Why isn't it called 'Sharif on Bridge'?  And what bridge is he talking about?"), it added to the end of the game's massive popularity.

In any case, Goren's show involved getting celebrities to show up and play bridge with him.  In this show, he was introducing one of his guests and made a bid deal about Chico Marx.  I couldn't believe it.  A third Marx Brother?  But the pictures proved it:  this guy with the pointy hat was standing with Harpo and Groucho.  It wasn't just a gag.

Oddly enough, when I watch the Marxes now, I usually laugh loudest at Chico.  Partly because I love a good pun -- and even a very, very bad one -- but mostly because people tend to quote Chico less, so you don't hear the lines all the time.

I discovered Zeppo when I caught the opening of "Duck Soup" a few years later.  Four of them. I like Zeppo, but he certainly doesn't have the talent to match his brothers, and I doubt he'd ever have been onscreen if it wasn't for them.  He's too lightweight to be a serious love interest, and he's not particularly good a telling a joke.  It's clear he was in the act only because they wanted four Marx Brothers and, though he tries hard, he just doesn't have the talent:  when he says a straight line, he "pushes" it too much. Consider in Monkey Business -- probably his best role -- when he says to the girl, 'I will always stay with you," you know immediately that he's about to run away.  Comedy is based on surprise, and Zeppo was unsurprising.

The first Marx Brothers film I saw in its entirety was -- sadly --The Big Store, their worst.  I thought it was funny enough, but I wanted to see more.  Finally, in college, they were willing to show some old films, and the Marx Brothers were top of the list.  This was the time in the early 70s when they were being rediscovered, so it wasn't hard to see them all during those years.  Also, as a student, I was able to stay up to see movies at odd times.

Once I caught up, I never looked back.

So, with the reminiscing out of the way, here are my rankings of the Marx Brothers movies:

The Coconuts
Rating: 9 (of 10)
Ranking Groucho's name:  Groucho had one of the greatest collections of funny names in film, and is one of the few who could be consistently funny (W. C. Fields is the other).  It's only fair to rank the twelve names he used in the 13 films.  In this one, he was Mr. Hammer (11 out of 12) -- undistinguished and uninteresting.
Favorite sequence:  "Why a Duck?"
Favorite overlooked line:
Groucho: All along the river, those are all levees.
Chico: That's the Jewish neighborhood?
(I said I liked bad puns.)
Harpo moment:
"Did anyone tell you that you looked like the Prince of Wales?"

An auspicious debut, of course.  The Coconuts was one of the first Broadway musicals to be shot on film.  Sound film was new, and equipment bulky, so the camera moves less than the Rock of Gibraltar.  You get some nice "love" scenes with Margaret Dumont, and Harpo chasing blondes all over the place. 

Animal Crackers
Rating: 8
Ranking Groucho's Name: Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding (10) -- could have been anyone, not just Groucho
Best sequence:  The bridge game
Favorite overlooked line:
Groucho: "And east is east and west is west and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does."
(Such a perfect non sequitur that it takes the breath away.)
Harpo Moment: (tie) 1. Folding the bridge table as fast as Chico unfolds it and 2. "I can't understand what's delaying the coffeepot."

A little slow to get going, but with many great routines.  Captain Spaulding's monologue ("I shot an elephant in my pajamas"), "Abie the Fish Man," more Margaret Dumont. "Hooray for Captain Spaulding" is one of the Marx's most memorable tunes.

Monkey Business
Ranking Groucho's name:  no name for the character, so no ranking
Best sequence:  "If a nightingale could sing like you . . . "
Favorite overlooked line:
Groucho:  Pardon me while I step into the closet.
(The matter-of-fact way he says this as he walks past Thelma Todd and husband -- as though it's something he does every day.)
Harpo Moment:  His Maurice Chevalier imitation.

The antics about the ship are great, and Thelma Todd is nearly as good as Margaret Dumont as a foil for Groucho. Zeppo's best role, too.

Horse Feathers
: 10
Ranking Groucho's name:  Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff (3) -- Nice combo of the stuffy and the vaguely obscene -- what staff is he wagging?
Best sequence:  "Swordfish"
Favorite overlooked line:
Chico: You sing-a high.
Connie: Yes, I have a falsetto voice.
Chico: That's-a funny; my last pupil she had-a false set-a teeth.
(Bad puns, remember?)
Harpo moment: "You can't burn the candle at both ends."
(Shows how anything could be in his coat.)

The Marxes in college.  More great routines, their best "serious" song ("People Will Say I Love You").  Football finale is one of their best -- the brothers were never very good at ending a movie.

Duck Soup
: 10
Ranking Groucho's name:  Rufus T. Firefly (1) -- the best funny name in the history of film.
Best sequence:  Too many to choose one, but I'll give the mirror scene a slight edge over the peanut vendor scenes.
Favorite overlooked line:
Groucho:  (When he's locked in the bathroom.) "Let me out, or at least throw me a magazine."
Harpo Moment: His encounter with the bucket of lemonade.

Their best -- comedy perfection.  It's so funny it can cure disease (see Norman Cousin's Anatomy of an Illness)! It's no surprise that Woody Allen used a clip from it in Hannah and Her Sisters. It's also their purest comedy, with no attempts at a serious subplot and the only song is one of the great comedy numbers of all time.

It's hard to believe this film was a flop when it was put out.  It's not that audiences in the 30s weren't used to fast pacing.  I do find the final scenes very disjointed; just a series of random jokes (though very funny ones).  Maybe that was part of it -- last impressions are very important in a movie.

A Night at the Opera
Rating the film:
Ranking Groucho's name:
  Otis P. Driftwood (2) -- a close second to Firefly
Favorite sequence:  "The party of the first part."
Favorite overlooked line:
House detective: (searching for Chico, Harpo, and Alan Jones) This table is set for four.
Groucho: So? My alarm clock is set for eight.
Harpo Moment:  He knocks out Lasspari with a hammer, looks contrite, wakes him up, and bashes him again.

I also love Chico's speech as the Russian pilot ("The first time we get halfway across when we run outta gasoline and gotta go back.").  The strongest of their films plotwise, and the Required Love Interest that ruined so many of their later films was at least tolerable. 

However, I'm not a big fan of the stateroom scene.  Its payoff is weakly staged, as the waiters try hard to look like they're stumbling backwards.  It's amusing, but overrated.

A Day at the Races
Ranking Groucho's name:  Hugo Z. Hackenbush (4) -- Quackenbush would have been better, but otherwise OK.
Best sequence: Tootsi Fruitsi Ice Cream (shows that farce need not always be played at a breakneck pace)
Favorite overlooked line:
Flo: Why, I've never been so insulted in my life!
Groucho: Well, it's early yet.
(If that doesn't encapsulate Groucho, nothing does.)
Harpo moment: "X-ray!  X-Ray"

Good, but a drop off after the incredible stretch of films preceding it.  The phone call to get Groucho's credentials is another classic, though.

Room Service
: 6 or 8
Ranking Groucho's name:  Gordon Miller (12) -- could be anyone, and was.
Best sequence:  salad eating scene.
Favorite overlooked line:  "Jumping Butterballs!"
(It's not a Marx Brother who says it, and it was put there by the censors to replace "God damn it," but after you see the movie, you'll be shouting it for days.)
Harpo Moment:  Eating the salad.  It's like watching an assembly line.

The double number is whether you consider it as a Marx Brothers movie (6) or a pure comedy (8).  The movie is an adaptation of a very funny play, and much of the play shines through.  However, the Marxes are restricted because of that.  They can't be themselves, so for people expecting the Marx Brothers, it's a disappointment.

At the Circus
: 7
Ranking Groucho's name:  J. Cheever Loophole (9) -- too obvious for a lawyer; they're stretching.
Best sequence: Lydia the Tattooed Lady
Favorite overlooked line:
Margaret Dumont:  If no one cares for more coffee, we'll be going.
(everyone rises)
Groucho: I'll have another cup of coffee.
(everyone sits)
(In 1939, the idea was considered so absurd as to get a big laugh; in the 21st century, people think that, if they want another cup of coffee, everyone else should wait.)
Harpo Moment: turning into Santa.

Weak but watchable.  The movie picks up when Dumont is shown again, and it's always nice to see Eve Arden, but the team just wasn't what it used to be.  It's telling that the best routine was a musical number.

Go West
Ranking Groucho's name:  S. Quentin Quayle (8) -- Joke too obvious
Best sequence:  Opening where Groucho tries to swindle Chico.
Favorite overlooked line:
Groucho: You love your brother, don't you?
Chico: No, but I'm used to him.
Harpo Moment:  Fastest whiskbroom in the west

Been a while since I've seen this one.  Some of it was OK, but the chase at the end was not good at all.

The Big Store
: 4
Ranking Groucho's name:  Wolf J. Flywheel (5) -- one of the best things about the movie.
Best sequence:  Can't think of anything.
Favorite overlooked line:
The sign on Groucho's car:  "Welcome Admiral Dewey, Hero of Manilla"

Their worst.  Not much comedy and the chase was again a disappointment:  you're just watching stuntmen running around.  A few tolerable scenes with Margaret Dumont, but they only underscore the problems.

A Night in Casablanca
Ranking Groucho's name:  Ronald Korblow (7) -- so so.
Best sequence:  The Packing/Unpacking scene
Best overlooked line:
Chico: Hey boss!  You got a woman out there?
Groucho: No.
Chico: Then go away.  I have one in here.
Harpo moment: the swordfight

Their most underrated film; fewer people have probably seen this one than any film other than Room Service.  The final chase sequence is weak (though an improvement on the previous two), but the scene where Sig Rumann tries to pack to leave Casablanca, hindered by the Marxes, of course -- is pure gold, the best the did since A Day at the Races, equal to many of their best.  (Heresy:  I like it better than the stateroom scene.)

Love Happy
Ranking Groucho's name:  Sam Grunion (6) -- Grunion soundsfunny, and, of course, it's the name of a fish, which are always funny (don't get me started on fish puns).
Best Sequence: Final chase (man, that's saying a lot).
Favorite overlooked line:  Line?  What lines? This is Harpo'smovie.

Barely a Marx Brothers film -- Groucho is in only about four scenes and narrates.  It's about Harpo, with Chico hanging out.  It's not Harpo at his best, either.  As an interesting note, though: it was probably the first film to use product placement in the modern meaning.  The producers were running out of money, so they approached advertisers to use their logos in the final sequence -- for a fee.  That's why you see all the old corporate logos in the final chase.

The Story of Mankind

Included for completeness' sake.  The Marxes didn't appear together.  It's as bad as you've probably heard it was.

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