My love of film started to develop when I was much younger. As I was growing up my parents could have taken a stance that I needed to get out more and spend less time watching movies (which they sometimes did), but instead they saw the spark of interest I had for movies and decided to support that. Part of their support came in the form of diversity - making sure I knew there were more movies out there than Star Wars and whatever was currently in theaters. They felt I needed to understand that there was a huge history of films out there and, like anything I might study in school, it was important to know that history in order to better appreciate modern day films. Part of that history included the films of The Marx Brothers, the comedic geniuses who helped bridge the gap between vaudevillian broadway and the silver screen.
There’s very little that can be written about the early films of the Marx Brothers that hasn’t already been said in the last seventy five years. The Brothers comedy stylings were brilliant, and their execution was flawless, inspiring everything from Bugs Bunny to modern day comedies. For the seventy fifth anniversary, Universal has released “The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection”, made up of the first five films of the four Brothers, showcasing the comedic force in their earliest and best years.
The film titles included in this set have very little to do with the movies themselves, except for the first picture, The Cocoanuts where Groucho plays the manager of the Cocoanut Beach Hotel, auctioning off land in a con-job along with Chico and Harpo. The con-job plotline would dominate most of the Marx Brothers other films, allowing them to reuse schticks and situations. Animal Crackers sees the Brothers swapping out a famous painting with replacements. Monkey Business finds the quartet as stowaways on a ship, eventually leading to them dividing up and becoming bodyguards for two different gangsters. In Horse Feathers, the foursome attempt to stack the deck in a college football game. It’s only in the last film of the set, Duck Soup that the con-job plotline is set aside as the Brothers offer a farcical look at politics... so maybe the con-job isn’t so far off after all.
Watching these five films not only shows the evolution of comedy, but the evolution of movies as a whole as well. The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers were adapted from Broadway shows the Brothers were part of, and it shows. The Cocoanuts is particularly painful to watch, with little to no comprehensive plot and song and dance numbers interrupting the film. In fact, there are three musical numbers in the first ten minutes alone! It’s hard to believe the film was well received and responsible for the Marx Brothers’ career since, in retrospect, it’s probably their worst film. Each subsequent film released was stronger and more developed especially as the films started being written specifically for the big screen beginning with Monkey Business. The work continued to improve, culminating in Duck Soup which is widely accepted as the Marx Brothers’ best film (and my personal favorite). Unfortunately at the time the picture was poorly received and almost bankrupted Paramount, leading to the Brothers being traded off to another studio.
Between the stylings of the Brothers, almost every form of comedy is represented. Every film has some classic Marx Brothers routine, from Chico’s playful piano rendition of “Sugar in the Morning” to the Brothers’ famous mirror sequence in Duck Soup. The four siblings were simply comedy personified, each with their own unique style. Harpo was the embodiment of physical comedy with his perfect mime ability. Chico and Groucho were both quick tongued and played on words, although each one had their own unique style. Zeppo was the perfect straight man, although it was said he was actually the funniest of the Marx Brothers off camera, and being stuck as the straight man led to him leaving the team on screen after these five films. Outside of the four Brothers, it should be mentioned that Margaret Dumont (who was often considered to be the “fifth Marx brother”) was always exceptional as the perfect foil to Groucho’s constant quips.
It would be a lie to say the films aren’t extremely dated and probably won’t appeal to the masses these days, which is a shame because they are still extremely funny seventy five years later. Unfortunately too many people won’t appreciate the comedy of yesteryears, not understanding Groucho’s painted on greasepaint mustache, or a simpler humor that doesn’t rely on vulgarity or bodily functions, and then you have the group of people who are just turned off by black and white pictures. If you have any interest in classic movies though, these are a must see.
At first glance it appears the Marx Brothers have gotten a better treatment than previous classic sets that Universal has put out (most notably the eight movies on two flopper disc Abbot & Costello set). The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection set looks beautiful, with each movie getting its own disc, and the inclusion of a forty page “collector’s booklet”. Unfortunately a closer look at the set reveals that appearances can be deceiving.
First off, the discs are just sort of thrown into the digipak packaging. Basically whoever put the set together just saw this as five movies and a bonus disc, so while the bonus disc is placed last, the five movies are placed in a seemingly random order. Being a bit of the obsessive compulsive type, the first thing I did was put my discs in chronological order, but that should have been done originally, don’t you think? I mean, it’s an anniversary release - you’d automatically take dates into account when putting the set together.
Secondly, that forty page collector’s booklet is part of the packaging. It’s attached to the seam of the digipak, meaning you have to drag around the entire package to read the booklet. Fortunately that’s not much of a problem since the book takes about ten minutes to read. Containing mostly pictures, the booklet gives a brief amount of trivia about each movie in the set, as well as the film’s poster and a chapter listing for the disc. I wouldn’t think of it as a forty page collector’s booklet as much as ten pages of information with a lot of pictures.
Each disc contains one movie, some of which have trailers (but not all of them). There are no other extras on the discs, just the movies with the traditional language options. This is where the set really starts to fall apart. The movies have not been remastered in any way whatsoever. Now I’m typically one of those people who is okay with older films being presented with flaws. I feel the dirt or scratches in the picture and audio adds character to older films. However, parts of The Cocoanuts is practically unwatchable because of the degradation of the film over all these years. The picture is fuzzy and blown out, and the audio is terrible. If only this one movie had been remastered I would have considered this set a lot better, but presenting one of the five films in an almost unwatchable state is a big issue. Given the quality of the film, they would have been better off omitting the movie from the set. It’s unlikely I’ll be watching that particular movie again.
All of the bonus materials are contained on the set’s sixth disc. Unfortunately “all of the bonus materials” is made up of three “Today Show” segments, averaging around five minutes each. Two of the segments are interviews with much older versions of the Marx Brothers, Harpo and Groucho - each making an appearance to discuss a book they’d written. The third segment celebrated a reprinting of Harpo’s book with an appearance by Harpo’s son William Marx, who brought older home movies of the Brothers, offering a glimpse at the private life of Harpo. Unfortunately at less than five minutes, even that brief glimpse is too short, making it difficult to be excited about any of the extras. Fifteen minutes worth of "Today Show" appearances is hardly worthy of being the only bonus material on a five movie set.
The release of these five classic films is fantastic, but this is an extremely poor way to celebrate the seventy fifth anniversary of the Marx Brothers, offering nothing really other than the films, and giving those movies such a shoddy treatment. Would it really have hurt to include a documentary about the Brothers’ lives or a film historian’s commentary on some of the movies? Sure it’s true something is better than nothing, but with this release I’d almost suggest nothing had been put out. Practically a bare bones release is not satisfactory for such a notable anniversary, and Universal should be ashamed of this set.