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What does unite these seven pictures is that they were produced by MGM. Duck Soup (1933), while regarded by many as the best Marx Brothers movie of them all (or at least tied for that distinction with A Night at the Opera), was a notable flop upon release with the public and critics alike, and Paramount decided to throw in the towel.
Chico (pronounced "Chicko," not "Cheeko") Marx, who was very social in Hollywood, played a weekly bridge game with Irving Thalberg, and he told the legendary head of MGM production that the Brothers had been dropped by Paramount. Thalberg agreed to take them on with the provision that they allow him to reshape the structures of their films, for he felt that their Paramount pictures had been too zany and silly, and not focused enough narratively. Having the Brothers create comic mischief around another story altogether involving other major actors, Thalberg decided, would allow the audience to become more emotionally invested. The three Brothers agreed, and the first two films that resulted, A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races, were smash hits and instant comedy classics. (Zeppo, the "4th" Marx Brother, left the screen after Duck Soup to become the manager for the other three.)
Another big reason for this success was that Thalberg allowed the Marx Brothers to test the material on the road in traveling stage shows. Their first two Paramount films had been based on stage hits, and the team therefore knew from all those live performances what the perfect timing was for each joke and bit of business. Testing the new film's major sequences in the same way seemed like a wise idea, and the Marx Brothers ended up tweaking gags for every performance until they had honed them to perfection. They even timed pauses and audience laughter with a stopwatch.
Ironically, the most famous scene in the movie (and one of the most famous comedy scenes of all time, for that matter) didn't work on stage and was almost cut out entirely. This was the stateroom scene in which Groucho's room fills with an impossible number of people and things, leading to a brilliant payoff. (One exchange: a manicurist shows up and asks Groucho, "Do you want your nails long or short?" "You better make them short. It's getting kind of crowded in here.") Of course, the conceit of the scene is cinematic and difficult to convey on a stage. Thalberg astutely realized this and kept the scene in.
Another interesting tidbit is that the movie was trimmed by three minutes for a 1940s rerelease. The offending material was all the references to Italy, including an opening musical sequence that sets the stage in Rome. During WWII, the studio did not want to portray Italy in a positive light. Unfortunately, the trims were not saved, and the edited version is the one that has been around ever since.
With the success of A Night at the Opera, Thalberg immediately announced two more films and began work on A Day at the Races. It had the same kind of plot as Opera, many of the same supporting players, and it did equally well. (Horse doctor Groucho gives a horse a pill and says, "Take one of these every half mile and call me if there's any change.") Groucho, in fact, thought these two films were the Marx Brothers' best. Both were directed by Sam Wood, with whom Groucho had frequent run-ins. After one argument, Wood sighed, "You can't make an actor out of clay," to which Groucho replied, "Or a director out of Wood."
Unfortunately, Thalberg died during production of pneumonia, at age 37, and suddenly the Marx Brothers' driving force was gone. Louis B. Mayer took over supervision of the series but never gave the Marx Brothers the same level of respect and care that Thalberg had given them. Their next films were essentially B pictures, although they had some notable guest stars like Lucille Ball, Ann Miller, and Tony Martin. They all have their moments, especially A Night in Casablanca, but for the most part they lack the luster and magic of the first two MGM films.
Several of them also feature Margaret Dumont, in the role she was born to play, as the object of Groucho's antics. She really was in every way a member of the team, having performed with the Brothers since their Broadway days before their first movie.
Much more information is supplied by Leonard Maltin on his excellent commentary track for A Night at the Opera. The Day at the Races DVD includes commentary from Glenn Mitchell but it is comparatively sporadic and rather dry. Other extras in the 5-disc set include 4 very amusing trailers, 9 live-action shorts, 8 cartoons, 2 radio promos, 2 audio outtakes (including Tony Martin's nice rendition of "Where There's Music" from The Big Store), and a clip of Groucho's 1961 appearance on a television talk show. There are also 2 new documentaries on the Marx Brothers which feature interviews with Larry Gelbart, Carl Reiner, and TCM's own Robert Osbourne, among others. In short, there is enough information here to satisfy the vast majority of fans, and it is presented in attractively packaged cases and nicely-designed menus. The print quality is quite good throughout.
Since these pictures were literally and painstakingly designed for large audiences and the laughs that would come from them, they do lose something when viewed alone in a living room, where the laughter between gags won't last as long as with a big audience. They're still funny, but the effect is a tad diminished. So gather a group around a large television, make some popcorn, turn off the lights, and let these movies work the way they were meant to.
For more information about The Marx Brothers Collection, visit Warner Video. To order The Marx Brothers Collection, go to TCM Shopping.
by Jeremy Arnold