The Marx Brothers Collection

In the evolution of film comedy, the Marx Brothers were the stepladder into the sound era. The silent Harpo (with his whistles and broad physical gags) bridged the gap from Chaplin and Keaton, while Groucho was the modernist, injecting rapid-fire dialogue and non-stop one-liners. As for Chico (pronounced "chick-o," not "cheek-o"), his pseudo-Italian dialect formed the blueprint for the generically ethnic comic character that today still sustains the career of Tony Shaloub. But together, the Marx Brothers formed the first team of comic anarchists — story, logic and common sense are all thrown out the window, with the baby, the bathwater and the maid for good measure. While other, more formal comedies revelled in the delights of witty wordplay, the Marx Brothers were more likely to throw pies and give wedgies. The two best films on this seven-film collection are the earliest — A Night At the Opera and A Day at the Races. Both came off their greatest accomplishment, Duck Soup, which had been a financial disaster for a different studio. Fourth brother Zeppo stopped performing with the group when they changed studios; on all seven films here, the Brothers stick to what works, with uneven results. The injection of their anarchic spirit into the most staid and uppity of social functions (the opera and the racetrack) provides the most hilarious contrast, especially embodied by their favourite foil, the string of deadpan socialites played by Margaret Dumont (herself a key element of the Marx formula). What worked on those two early films gets reproduced, with less and less clarity, as the Brothers simply get thrown into another scenario to do what they do: whether in hotels and circuses (Room Service and At the Circus), playing prospectors or detectives (Go West and The Big Store), the results are always the same. At their height, no one can touch the balance of social rigidity and water balloon fights; when the reins are relaxed and the Marx Brothers simply run roughshod, the results are less compelling. But for a four-film stretch — two before this collection and two that are included — no one could touch their genius for anarchy. (Warner)