Steve Goble

Choose life. (Deuteronomy 30:19)

Eight discs containing a scattergun of the iconic brothers' movies from across 20 years, many of which appear to have interchangeably irrelevant titles.

The Cocoanuts

Time has not been kind to the four Marx Brothers' attempts to run a hotel with great apathy. This 1929 film adaptation of a stage play is very strange to watch today with, tragically, just about no redeeming features.

80 years on, puns have to work harder to achieve, so the word 'viaduct' just doesn't sound enough like the phrase 'why a duck' to carry it. Much of their loud vocal projection for the stage appears to have been toned-down for the closer cameras, with the result that their anarchic personas seem kind of reserved. There are also several dance numbers, apparently, and a sub-plot that really should be the main plot.

If you try really hard to like this, I suppose it's probably possible, but likely easier with a big screen, cleaned-up audio and a crowd of people to laugh along with you. Much like in a theatre.

Disc also contains 3 brief excerpts from The Today Show of Groucho (in 1961), Harpo (in 1963) and Harpo's son William (in 1985).

Animal Crackers

This is much better, due in part to the advent of dubbing. (Coacoanuts actually had a live orchestra behind the cameras for the songs!) Both the picture and sound are much clearer, and the boys seem to have some idea what they're doing this time. They're mixed-up in an art-fraud/prank. Groucho's scattergun approach to humour delivers some great laughs, but while many of his quips stand up well, I couldn't find any scene that could really represent this film in a great light. The songs are still here breaking things up, but the dances have gone.

Monkey Business

At last the guys are starting to show some form. This is much more of a movie than the previous two, with much shorter scenes and heaps more visual humour. There's an immediacy to Groucho's verbose presence that makes me feel as though I'm watching his material live. This is much more in line with what I've been expecting.

Disc contains the same clips from The Today Show as included with The Cocoanuts.

Horse Feathers

After a slow first half, the film gets more and more pleasingly inventive. The location work looks and sounds great, with Harpo charging around in a chariot and Groucho idly strumming away to his latest intended in a boat. The final football sequence is a tremendous meshing of silent and talkie comedies, and surely original for its day. This kind of final reel surely paved the way for The Goodies, Monty Python and Vision On. Not brilliant, but fascinating.

Disc includes trailer.

Duck Soup

Already reviewed here.

Disc includes trailer.

Room Service (1938)

The brothers' only RKO comedy is their funniest yet! It's another adaptation from the stage (albeit a play that they weren't even in) but the sharp picture and sound quality make this fast-paced farce a real pleasure. The presence of such an overwhelming threat throughout works wonders for the characters' motivations and desperation too.

Love Happy

Billed on the back of the DVD as "The last official Marx Brothers Film", this is definitely a return to early form. Unfortunately, as noted above, I found their early form to be remote and a bit slow. After 20 years, the film still dwells too much on guest characters between indulging in long musical interludes.

Strangest of all is the three remaining brothers' apparent reluctance to share the screen together. Chico and Harpo just meet occasionally, while Groucho only enters the action in the final act, when I think he shares maybe two brief shots with Harpo. (he never appears in frame with Chico)

That said, there are several outstanding sequences which particularly highlight Harpo at his very best. The closing chase is nothing less than a live-action cartoon. Throw in a really formidable villain (who thanks to a sprawling plot actually wins at the end) and we have some of the brothers' finest film material ever. That the actors have aged 20 years, while their characters apparently have not, is a little odd but at least consistent.

A Girl In Every Port (1952)

Again, here's what the back of the box says:

"Screwball comedy starring Groucho Marx as a sailor embroiled in a scam involving a lame racehorse and a pair of identical twins!"

It omits to mention that said lame racehorse actually is one of those twins…

Thankfully it's another RKO comedy, co-produced by Irwin Allen, and plays like it's a movie-length version of Sergeant Bilko.

Fusing a new US serviceman character with his usual fast-talking persona, Groucho uses his brain to play umpteen factions more powerful than himself off against each other. It's a huge gambling scam where helping someone out ultimately means more to him than the money. All this and his commanding officer goes quietly mad due to witnessing crazy late-night equine goings-on through his bedroom window. Yes, Groucho's up to something!

We watched this in two halves, and such a complex plot seriously suffered for it. Although the lone Groucho is gentler here than he is when accompanied by his brothers, the whole cast is on top of their game.

Special note must go to Marie Wilson, who as the random Jane Sweet is highly reminiscent of Mary Jo Keenan as Julie Milbury in the 1990s TV sitcom Nurses. Get those two together, and this actually could have been about identical twins.

Jane: "Make sure to come in first, then be sure to win."

Overall, for me this box set collection didn't paint a great picture of these comedy legends. Although they - particularly Groucho - are today known as the definitive image of comedy, much of their material here has either dated or not been captured on film particularly well in the first place. Styles seem to have changed too, particularly the huge detours for straight musical numbers, but I find that difference in culture refreshing.

Though I have no idea if I'm right, I can't help supposing that a straight filming of their vaudeville shows might have worked better.

Still, their positive influence on comedy today is incalculable, and I'm so glad that some record of their work has survived.

The Marx Brothers will always hold a special place in my heart, but on the basis of this selection, I do think that history has sharpened their memory.

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