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The Big Store (1941) was the fifth and final film the Marx Brothers made for MGM. Their earlier efforts A Night at the Opera (1935) and A Day at the Races (1937) had flourished under producer Irving Thalberg's care and his plan to attract a wider audience (i.e., more women) to the brothers' brand of comedy by adding an element of romance to their zany plots. But Thalberg died before A Day at the Races was released. And the subsequent pictures at MGM - At the Circus (1939), Go West (1940) and The Big Store - suffered from the loss of Thalberg's attentions.
Actually, the three brothers were growing tired of moviemaking after twelve years in Hollywood and Thalberg's death seemed to clinch it. In April 1941, just two months before the June release of The Big Store, Groucho told the Los Angeles Herald, "When I say we're getting sick of the movies, I mean the people are about to get sick of us...Our stuff is simply growing stale. So are we." He would go on to explain, "After Thalberg's death, my interest in the movies waned...the fun had gone out of picture-making." A breakup was coming, but the three brothers would give audiences one last round of fun in The Big Store before hanging it up.
Louis K. Sidney was brought in to produce The Big Store (which Groucho had already announced would be the Marxes' final film). Unfortunately Sidney's interests were more financial than creative. While in pre-production, he gave the boys a pep talk. "Your last two pictures have lost money," Sidney pointed out. "We are not going to lose money...we're going to have a good picture." He also asked for the Marxes' undying cooperation in achieving this goal. But despite Chico's responding, "I love you...I'm going to go all the way with you," Sidney would run into some trouble with the brothers.
The problem stemmed from a single line in the picture. Late in the film, Margaret Dumont tells Groucho, "I'm afraid some little blonde will come along and you'll forget all about me." Groucho's punch line would follow, "Nonsense! I'll write you twice a week!" But for some reason, Sidney hated Groucho's retort and ordered the line cut from the movie. Luckily, the film's director Charles Reisner, a former vaudevillian, loved the line. He and Groucho had it put back in before the preview screening of The Big Store and the line got the biggest laugh of the night at the screening in Pomona, California. But producer Sidney was not laughing. He stormed out of the theater and confronted one of The Big Store's writers, Sid Kuller (who had no part in the decision), demanding to know how the line ended up in the picture. What happened next became Hollywood gossip. Apparently Louis B. Mayer was informed of this accusation, which directly implicated the Marx Brothers. Harpo explained to Mayer that there was a line in question. And when Mayer was told which line was the point of controversy, he exclaimed, "greatest line in the picture." However, Mayer's response only angered Sidney further, who demanded to know who had gone against his orders. No one answered for a moment. Then, Chico finally uttered the classic line, "Well, let's just say the god of comedy put it in."
In the end, the Marx Brothers kept to their word, retiring from the movies after The Big Store. But the retirement wouldn't last long - the boys would sign with United Artists to make A Night in Casablanca in 1946.
Producer: Louis K. Sidney
Director: Charles "Chuck" Reisner
Screenplay: Hal Fimberg, Ray Golden, Sid Kuller, based on a story by Nat Perrin
Cinematography: Charles Lawton
Film Editing: Conrad A. Nervig
Original Music: George Bassman, Hal Borne, Milton Drake, Ben Oakland, Artie Shaw
Cast: Groucho Marx (Wolf J. Flywheel), Chico Marx (Ravelli), Harpo Marx (Wacky), Tony Martin (Tommy Rogers), Virginia Grey (Joan Sutton).
BW-84m. Closed captioning.
by Stephanie Thames