Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection

Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection
The Marx Brothers: chatty, punning Groucho, silent, horn-honking Harpo, faux-Italian stereotype Chico and poor, lost straight man Zeppo. Their iconic images are more famous than their films in many ways; many viewers who've never seen a moment of Duck Soup still recognise Groucho's stooped walk and cigar dangling just as they recognise the silhouette of Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp. Here, collected together for the first time, are the first five Marx Brothers features (The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, Duck Soup), the only five to feature all four performing Marx Brothers before Zeppo left in frustration. In the first two films, one can see the Brothers establishing their personas. Both The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers were toured extensively as vaudeville shows, so by the time they were set to film, much of it was already laid out: plot, characterisation, gags, timing, even the cast were all fairly set in stone. Around the thin premise presented to them, the Brothers simply did their thing with confidence and glee — having worked the stage shows for so long, they knew exactly where the laughs were and how to play them. (It's a struggle for them all, in fact, to not pause for the laugh in the middle of scenes.) Both films were huge successes in the early days of talking pictures, and more "scenarios" were written for the Brothers to play around in. Both Monkey Business (misadventures as cruise-ship stowaways) and Horse Feathers (misadventures at a college, where Groucho pretends to be Dean) are little more than sketchy canvases on which the Marx's established personas were acted out. There are some genius moments in both films — and both were quite big box office hits, particularly Monkey Business — but they were artistically unsatisfying, one gets the sense, particularly to Groucho, who believed that Monkey Business was a terrible film and was going to completely flop. The crown jewel — and the most fascinating film in the set — is Duck Soup, the masterpiece from the Marx Brothers. The political satire features Groucho as the Prime Minister of the bankrupt state of Freedonia; he declares war over a neighbouring country over the love of a woman, and political and social anarchy ensues. From Groucho's double talk to Chico and Harpo taking over propaganda duties to a trial scene and some of the most innovative comic/visual tricks, Duck Soup is a masterpiece. And yet, it was an utter failure financially. Here's where The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection really drops the ball. The massive failure of such an icon of comic genius deserves some critical exploration or at the very least explanation, of which there is none. None of the five features contains commentary or more than cursory hints in a sparse booklet. There is no documentary featurette exploring the Brothers' lives or history together. In fact, despite advertising an extra disc of bonus materials, it consists only of three brief Today Show appearances by Harpo, Groucho and Harpo's son William. Total running time: less than 30 minutes — hardly a full disc's worth of bonus material. One should be happy that the advent of DVD allows this genius to be seen — several scenes from the films have already been lost and clearly couldn't be restored — but one can't help but notice the incredible missed opportunity that this reissue represents. (Universal)