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From 1928 to 1933, the Marx Brothers were flying high: with the release of The Cocoanuts (1929), Horse Feathers (1932), and Duck Soup (1933), the quartet known to the world as Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo made their indelible mark on American cinematic comedy. In 1934, however, the siblings experienced some stumbling blocks, including the departure of Zeppo. Forging a working relationship with Irving Thalberg, the remaining brothers signed with MGM in September of the same year. The first film released under the contract was A Night at the Opera (1935), a commercial and critical smash hit. Its success put the Marx Brothers back on top, and paved the way for more projects. In 1940 MGM released Go West, a comic western designed to capitalize upon the trend established by Laurel and Hardy in their film Way Out West (1937). While not achieving the blockbuster status of their earlier films, Go West still features some classic Marx moments, including the systematic dismantling of a train. Although rather thin on plot, the vehicle offers the audience a sampling of what the threesome did best: mad-cap scenarios, priceless ad-libbed one-liners, and a bevy of comic antics.
The script went through many reincarnations in its development: it was originally designed as a rodeo piece by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, the writers of Duck Soup. This version, however, was scrapped and an entirely new story line was created by Irving Brecher and Dore Schary that more closely resembled the final script. The working title Go West was the only aspect of the project retained, and this was done to avoid negative publicity. Ultimately, Brecher revamped the script again for the last time; only his name appears on the writing credit. During production headaches such as these, Groucho became increasingly restless and dismissive of the whole affair, writing, "Looks like the boys at the studio are lining up another turkey for us."
Working with the Marx Brothers was often a formidable task, and the man in charge of organizing all the chaos for Go West was Jack Cummings, the nephew of Louis B. Mayer. This producer proved himself up to the task by agreeing to allow the brothers to take the show on tour. Performing live road shows of their material allowed the troupe to test what bits worked and what needed to be retooled. This process, used to great success in preparation for A Night at the Opera, was pioneered by their mentor Thalberg, and ensured that they were getting the best audience response possible - the tour from A Night at the Opera concluded that there were 175 "surefire laughs" in the show. Cummings agreed to the Go West tour, but due to the exorbitant expenses involved (and the loss of support with Thalberg's death in 1936), the brothers had to help subsidize the cost. The project had a total of 103 performances, from Chicago to Detroit, and a notable ending that was cut from the filmed version. At the conclusion of the stage show Harpo had a lengthy speech, but in order to preserve the popularity of the mute character the studio axed it for the movie.
The director, Ed Buzzell, bore a track record of some distinction: he had managed to work with the Marx Brothers before and emerged relatively unscathed. In fact, he was crazy enough to do it twice; his first venture was At the Circus (1939), and Buzzell had a method to his madness. He made it a point to never laugh or otherwise react to the brother's antics; his theory being that doing so would forever derail the production's progress. And it worked; given the poor track history between the Marxes and directors, industry insiders remarked that just getting the three of them together in the camera's range was an impressive feat.
A derailment of another kind is one of the highlights of Go West; the train chase scene, in which the locomotive is stripped in order to provide more fuel for the engine. Classic film comedy buffs will recognize this comic bit as inspired by a similar scene in Buster Keaton's The General (1927). In fact, Keaton served as an advisor on Go West, so the likeness is not merely coincidental. On a final trivial note: viewers may be puzzled by the moniker of Groucho in the film: S. Quentin Quale. This was a lascivious sexual reference to underage girls. A name pairing the notorious prison (San Quentin) with the common quail, traditionally depicted as an amorous animal, might have gone over the head of the average viewer, but the meaning of the name was not lost on the film community: jail bait!
Producer: Jack Cummings
Director: Edward Buzzell
Screenplay: Irving Brecher
Cinematography: Leonard Smith
Film Editing: Blanche Sewell
Original Music: George Bassman, Roger Edens
Cast: Groucho Marx (S. Quentin Quale), Harpo Marx (Rusty Panello), Chico Marx (Joseph Panello), John Carroll (Terry Turner), Diana Lewis (Eve Wilson), Walter Woolf King (John Beecher).
BW-81m. Closed Captioning.
by Eleanor Quin