The best of the best: The Marx Brothers

by Martin Hafer

The Marx Brothers are a very unusual comedy team.  Unlike Laurel & Hardy or Abbott & Costello, who made tons of films, the brothers managed to become very famous comedians even though they only made 15 films together.  While they are not my favorites (nor are they close favorites), they made a few very good films.  In fact, their four best were made one after the other.  As for the rest, they are an uneven lot–mostly because it seems that the brothers really didn’t care much about making films.  This clearly shows with dull efforts like The Big Store and Love Happy.  If you’ve never seen their movies, try any of these four.

Horse Feathers (1932):  Huxley College, inexplicably, is led by Professor Wagstaff (Groucho).  He hates the school’s rival, Darwin College, and will do anything to beat them…even if it means bringing in some professionals to pose as students.  Unfortunately, he thinks Pinky and Baravelli (Harpo and Chico) are talented football players…and so do professional gamblers who will stop at nothing to bring Darwin the victory.

Why I love this film:  While the end of the film is a bit dopey, the film is much better paced and funnier than their other movies because the usual musical interludes are missing.  It also was among the team’s most popular films–resulting in their landing on the cover of Time magazine!

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Duck Soup (1933):  The wealthy Miss Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) has bailed tiny Fredonia out of bankruptcy.  Inexplicably, she insists that the incredibly incompetent Rufus T. Firefly  (Groucho) be appointed dictator of this bizarre land.  Along the way, he hooks up with two even bigger idiots, Pinky and Cicolini (Harpo and Chico)…and the three end up going to war with rival, Sylvania!

Why I love this film:  The film was meant as a parody of fascism in Europe.  However, the public didn’t care and the movie flopped.  Today it’s considered a classic and works well because of the very funny and ultra-strange musical numbers as well as some great comic bits, such as the mirror scene.

A Night at the Opera (1935): Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho) has convinced everyone he is an opera expert and can bring culture to the masses.  Along the way he once again picks up two idiots, Fiorello and Tomasso (Harpo and Chico) who are going to help him impress the society swells.

Why I love this film: After the disastrous public reaction to Duck Soup, the Brothers moved to MGM and the style of their movies changed dramatically….in some cases, clearly for the worse.  However, this particular film has so many funny moments that you won’t mind all the high-brow music.  As Groucho recommends, that’s a good time to go get a snack!

A Day at the Races (1937):  Dr. Hackenbush (Groucho) is a vet.  Mrs. Upjohn doesn’t realize that when she invites him to become the head of her sanitarium…and Hackenbush isn’t about to tell her the truth.  As usual, he meets up with two idiots along the way, Stuffy and Tony (Harpo and Chico) and crazy stuff ensues–including a shockingly politically incorrect song and dance number that is bound to raise a few eyebrows!

Why I love it:  This film isn’t quite as funny as A Night at the Opera but has far less singing…making about the equal of the predecessor.  It’s the last truly successful film the brothers made for MGM.

Those are my four favorites and the best bets if you are unfamiliar with the team.  What about the rest?  The early ones are very rough in style but also VERY fast-paced and Monkey Business and Animal Crackers are worthwhile even if they aren’t their best films.  As for the movies after A Day at the Races, it seems obvious that the brothers were doing it for the money.  Too many of these later films are very lethargic and the laughs are fewer and farther between–and are films mostly for the die-hard fans of the Marx Brothers.  Don’t believe me?  Try watching Love Happy or The Story of Mankind and you’ll know what I mean.

The Big Store – Piano Scene