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#062. The Marx Brothers

While there have been many families to grace the silver screen, none have been more influential than the Marx Brothers. Their story is a classic progression from stage to screen. And while Gummo (actual name: Milton) didn’t make it to the movies, he was still a part of the group while they performed on Vaudeville and Broadway. Similarly, Zeppo (actual name: Herbert Manfred), who was usually the straight-man for the group stopped making movies after their contract with Paramount was finished. At any rate, even if you haven’t seen any Marx Brothers films, the personas of Chico (actual name: Leonard), Harpo (actual name: Adolph, then Arthur (for obvious reasons)), and Groucho (actual name: Julius Henry) are well known and often parodied by comedies today. This week’s two films examine the Marx Brothers’ work at Paramount and MGM.

Duck Soup
Year: 1933
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 68 minutes / 1.13 hours

The last movie to be filmed with all four Marx Brothers at Paramount was clearly the gem in a string of comedies in the late 20’s and early 30’s. Of the Paramount films done by the Marx Brothers, it was clear that the acts they had done on the stage were made into movies. In fact, The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930) were based off of two of their stage acts of the same names. The Marx Brothers were incredibly talented and most exhibited not only their skill at acting with their trademark personas, but also their skill musically, with Chico’s piano playing, Groucho’s singing and (obviously) Harpo’s harp playing. And while Duck Soup doesn’t necessarily have as much musical emphasis as their previous works, it remains a high point in terms of wit and satire.

Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) has just been appointed to the position of leader of Freedonia. While most disagree with this decision, they are stuck with it as it is connected to a large financial contribution by Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont). The one who most disagrees with this is the Sylvanian ambassador, who sends in Chicolini (Chico Marx) and Pinky (Harpo Marx) to find the skeletons in Firefly’s closet. When Chicolini and Pinky are found to be spies, war is eventually declared in a courtroom (along with the standard song and dance that goes with declaring war). By the end of the film, Firefly, Chicolini and Pinky are hunkered down during an enemy attack. Will Freedonia survive, or will Sylvania have a new province?

A Night at the Opera
Year: 1935
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 96 minutes / 1.6 hours

A few years after their contract at Paramount expired; Groucho, Chico and Harpo came together under the MGM banner to make more films. Their first at the new production company was A Night at the Opera. This film saw a change in the Marx Brothers’ routine, mainly based on input from MGM. While their work at Paramount had been plotless, and more a random series of hilarious events, MGM insisted that there be a plot and that the jokes were refined to maximum effect. Even though to some this constrained the genius of the Marx Brothers’ comedy, the film still stands as a prime example of their genius and sits at #85 on the American Film Institute’s top 100 list (the spot once occupied by Duck Soup, which had moved up to #60 in the most recent list).

Riccardo Barroni (Alan Jones) wants to be the best tenor in the world. In order to accomplish this, he hires Fiorello (Chico Marx) to be his manager. Through an incident involving the current best tenor in the world, Rodolfo Lassparri (Walter Woolf King), harassing his ex-dresser, Tomasso (Harpo Marx), Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho Marx) almost signs Riccardo to the New York Opera Company instead of Lassparri. After a series of unfortunate events, Riccardo, Fiorello and Tomasso are eventually caught for stowing away on an ocean liner, which also costs Otis his job. And yet, in retaliation, Fiorello, Tomasso and Otis wreak havoc on the opening of Il Trovatore at the New York Opera House, which leads Riccardo to an opportunity to prove he’s the best tenor in the world.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 masterpieces of the Marx Brothers

Bacon #: 2 (Skidoo (Groucho) / Austin Pendleton -> Starting Over / Kevin Bacon)


6 responses to “#062. The Marx Brothers

  1. Pingback: End of Act Two | Cinema Connections

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  4. Pingback: #319. Shirley MacLaine | Cinema Connections

  5. Pingback: #320. Jack Lemmon | Cinema Connections

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