When I wrote about watching the original Ghostbusters at a Fathom Event, I talked about how my sense of humor has been refined into a very specific concoction that prefers comedy that comes from a sense of story, flowing naturally from well-written characters. I don’t tend to like being bombarded with jokes when they aren’t grounded in something more realistic. Watching the films in The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection really put that theory to the test.
Story is completely irrelevant in a Marx Brothers movie. Their films have some semblance of a plot, but it only exists as a means to string together a series of gags. The movies are like joke factories and the plot is the conveyor belt that delivers them to the audience. The brothers raison d'être is to throw as many jokes as they can at the audience and see what sticks. Luckily, they are really good at what they do and so if one gag doesn’t work, a moment later you’ll get another one that does.
While I can’t say I’m going to change up my theory of comedy, I will have to add in a Marx Brothers exception to the rule.
The Marx Brothers were five real-life brothers that came up through vaudeville honing their manic comedy styles, had several successful plays on Broadway, and became runaway stars in a series of films in the 1930s and '40s. They are widely considered to be among the greatest and most influential comedy stars of the 20th century. Several of their films are often cited as some of the funniest movies ever made.
Fans have long hoped to see their films brought to Blu-ray and this set finally brings their first five films (The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, and Duck Soup) into that format. With upgraded video and plenty of bonus features, this is a fantastic set for anyone who loves comedy.
Both The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers are based upon plays (in fact, while shooting the film version of The Cocoanuts in the morning, they were also performing in the stage version of Animal Crackers in the evenings). The theatrical origins of the films certainly show. They are more stagey than the rest of the movies in this set, and much longer than they need to be. The Cocoanuts feels especially bloated with numerous musical numbers (the songs were written by Irving Berlin, though it should be noted this was the only film filled with his music that didn’t create a hit) and long moments without a laugh. When the brothers, especially Groucho, are on screen, it's very funny, but there are far too many moments when they are on the sidelines.
In it, Groucho plays the proprietor of a unsuccessful hotel in Florida who gets involved in some shady land deals. Chico and Harpo play a couple of drifters who sort-of help him out. There’s also some business about an engagement, but it's so uninteresting I forget the details.
Animals Crackers finds Groucho playing Captain Spaulding (Hooray!) who returns from an expedition in Africa a celebrated hero. Chico and Harpo play drifters cooking up plans to make a little money anyway they can get it. Once again, there is a side love story and a silly plan to switch out a valuable painting with a fake. The script is tighter, the musical numbers limited (though still there, but this time they actually make them funny), but it could still use a good trimming.
Monkey Business is the first Marx Brothers film written specifically for the movies. At 77 minutes, it's nicely trim with most of the extemporaneous business of the first two films thrown out - including the plot. The story involves the brothers stowing away on a transatlantic ship and running afoul of some gangsters but really it's putting the boys on a boat and seeing what gags they can come up with. It's a bit too scattered (and with the Marx Brothers that’s saying a lot), but there are plenty of laughs.
In Horse Feathers, Groucho plays the president of Huxley College (it must have been a rough year for finding presidents), who tries to improve the school by making the football team great. After missing out hiring a couple of ringers, he winds up with Chico and Harpo. You can imagine what happens next. It's filled with some great gags and the climatic football game simply must be seen to be believed.
Lastly is Duck Soup, arguably the brothers' best film. Made in 1933 just as Hitler becomes Chancellor of Germany and began stripping the country of numerous civil liberties, Duck Soup can be seen as a biting war satire. Groucho plays Rufus T. Firefly, president of Freedonia, and Chico and Harpo are spies for the rival country of Sylvania. Through a series of events, the two countries go to war with each other, and much hilarity ensues. At a tight 68 minutes, with direction by Leo McCarey, who really understood how to film the brothers. Duck Soup is a non-stop joke machine. You’ll likely need to pause the movie just to catch your breath before the next joke.
Each movie has been cleaned and faithfully restored. They look quite good considering they are roughly 80 years old and some of them have been culled from non-original prints. The Cocoanuts is especially mixed as it was spliced together from at least three different prints and it's still missing several minutes. All of them have minor scratches and inconsistency in brightness but really when comparing them to older versions, they look fantastic. The audio holds up as well. Obviously, these movies aren’t gonna knock your speaker’s socks off, but I never had any trouble understanding the rapid-fire dialogue and the songs sound fine.
Extras include very informative commentaries on every film, a really nice 79-minute documentary that digs into the brothers' early years plus a few interviews from The Today Show. There’s also a nice book filled with pictures and an essay.
The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection is absolutely wonderful. These five films are comedy gold and essential movies in the history of comedy. The audio and video are markedly improved over previous versions with some nice extras that fill it out. I can’t recommend this enough.