Turner Classic Movies Greatest Classic Films: Marx Brothers

Turner Classic Movies Greatest Classic Films: Marx Brothers
"Anarchy" is the word most closely associated with the Marx Brothers, and in their films for Paramount from 1929 to 1933, Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo Marx showed anarchic disrespect not simply to their high society foils, but also to the medium of film. Charmingly flimsy low-budget vehicles like Animal Crackers and Horse Feathers were few frills, bald-faced excuses to let the brothers run amok, and this ramshackle ambience gave them the opportunity to frequently break the fourth wall. "I've got to stay here," says Groucho before a musical interlude in Horse Feathers, "but there's no reason why you folks shouldn't go out into the lobby until this thing blows over." After the box office failure of Duck Soup, the brothers, sans Zeppo, moved to MGM, where producer Irving Thalberg challenged them to make films "with half as many laughs, but I'll put a legitimate story in it and I'll bet it will gross twice as much as Duck Soup." The formula worked for 1935's classic A Night at the Opera, but the films in this collection show the team becoming domesticated in a series of increasingly stale programmers. A Day at the Races (1937), their last film under Thalberg's supervision, isn't quite top-tier Marx — there are pacing issues and a few too many bad musical numbers — but Sam Wood's static directorial style gives the brothers ample room to simply perform, and there are plenty of strong routines ("Either he's dead or my watch has stopped"). The brothers were loaned out to RKO for 1938's Room Service, based on a then-popular play about a down-on-his-luck Broadway producer trying to ward off eviction until the premiere of his latest show. But the claustrophobic script and set-dependent film are a poor fit for the brothers' off-the-wall sensibility (notice how the writers' can't figure out what to do with Harpo?). They were back at MGM for At the Circus (1939), a moderately funny assembly-line comedy memorable for Groucho's signature song, "Lydia the Tattooed Lady," but weighed down by a lame romance between Kenny Baker and Florence Rice, and too much recycled shtick. Plus, isn't putting the Marx Brothers in a circus a little redundant? They were at their best when deflating the pretentious, not fooling around with strongmen and trapeze artists. The collection ends on a sour note with A Night in Casablanca (1946), where they fight off Nazis in post-war Casablanca, but this lazy effort barely bothers to target the classic film that provided its inspiration. The brothers, looking very old and tired, are clearly phoning it in, and it's downright embarrassing to see them struggle through the painfully unfunny chase climax. This double-sided, two-disc DVD set includes all the extras from 2004's Marx Brothers Collection box: Races gets a sporadically informative, but gap-filled, commentary by historian Glenn Mitchell and a good documentary, while the others get vintage shorts, cartoons and trailers. (Warner)