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The Marx Brothers are, quite simply, some of the funniest people to ever take the stage or the screen. While it's been nearly 100 years since the brothers Marx brought one of their popular stage plays to the big screen, real comedy is timeless, and the best of the Marx Brothers still hold up today as some of the greatest comedies of all time.
Having said that, not every Marx Brothers film is a comedy classic. There are only 13 feature-length films that star at least three of the five brothers (and one never made any films at all), and while some of them are magical, others are pretty awful. Which is which? Let's dive deep into cinema's history and rank the movies of Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo.
13. Love Happy
Love Happy was the last movie to star Groucho, Harpo, and Chico and there's a reason. After a movie like this one, it would have been remarkable if anybody had wanted to try and make another. The film was originally designed to be a solo vehicle for Harpo, but Chico talked his way into joining the movie, reportedly so he could pay off gambling debts.
The movie itself went into debt and investors would only supply more cash if Groucho, the bigger name in the family, showed up. This leads to Groucho performing as a narrator over the top of a far-from-memorable story. This is clearly the worst effort by the Marx Brothers by a wide margin, because it's not much of an effort at all.
There's only one reason to bother remembering that Love Happy even exists, a cameo appearance by a beautiful young actress who had never been in a movie before, named Marilyn Monroe.
12. The Big Store
Quite often, a Marx Brothers movie seems to take a similar path to the screen as creating a Die Hard movie or one of the many knockoffs. It's the Marx Brothers in (fill in the blank). When the blank is getting filled in with "Department Store," you can be sure somebody is scraping the bottom of the barrel. Groucho is a floorwalker tasked with protecting the heirs to a department store from an evil store manager who wants to kill them and take the store. The premise could be ridiculous if the comedy was on point, but it's not. The brothers joked that this was their farewell movie, and one has to wonder if they should have retired before they made it.
One of the best scenes in the movie is a physical gag where Chico and Harpo get chased around the store on roller skates, which is frustrating because the scene is obviously using doubles and not Chico or Harpo. It's that kind of movie.
11. A Night in Casablanca
As the name would imply, A Night in Casablanca was inspired by the classic film Casablanca and at one time was designed to be a more direct parody of that movie. The final version of this movie is more of a send-up of World War II dramas in general that sees Groucho as the new manager of the Hotel Casablanca, a position whose previous inhabitants have tended to leave in a box. While it doesn't quite work as well as most Marx Brothers films, I actually kind of enjoy this one. Everybody is clearly older, Groucho's receding hairline is obvious, but everybody came to play. The jokes may not all land, but they're all delivered with the same energy as the best Marx Brothers movies.
10. Go West
Go West has pretty much all of the elements that the rest of the Marx Brothers movies had, but for some reason, they just don't really click here. As the title suggests, the film is a western that sees Chico and Harpo playing brothers who end up in possession of a piece of land on the western frontier which, while devoid of gold, is about to see the railroad go through it, making it much more valuable. The movie does have a great finale on board a train that is as lunatic as anything the Marx Brothers have ever done, making this one worth seeing for that, if no other reason. But you have to get through some pretty significantly lame material to get there.
9. Room Service
Room Service is a unique film in the Marx Brothers filmography because it's the only one that wasn't written specifically with them in mind. It's based on a stage play, made obvious by the fact that nearly the entire film takes place in a single hotel room, and while the brothers are still playing their traditional characters, they're significantly toned down, making for a movie that barely feels like a Marx Brothers movie at all. In the end, the brothers are best when the material plays to their strengths, but there's a lot to like about the odd intermission in Marx history.
One thing worth liking is a young Lucille Ball in the role of Christine. She wasn't a star yet, but it's clear here that she would be.
8. At The Circus
While this is only the number eight spot on this list, it's actually in many ways the mid-point. Every movie we've been through so far is, on balance, not great, while everything from here on is legitimately hilarious. At the Circus is somewhere in-between. You might love it as much as the best Marx Brothers movies, or you might not, but everything that there is to love is here. The high point of At The Circus has to be Groucho's rendition of "Lydia the Tattooed Lady" one of his best musical performances in a run that actually includes some great bits. You can do better than At the Circus, but you also can certainly do worse.
7. A Day At The Races
A Day at the Races is probably the last universally loved Marx Brothers movie, chronologically speaking. The story sees Groucho in the role of a veterinarian who has been brought in to treat a wealthy and eccentric human at a sanitarium, played by the Marx Brothers' frequent straight woman, Margaret Dumont. The sanitarium is in danger of closing and being turned into a casino. The only way to save the sanitarium is to bet everything on a horse and hope it wins. Yeah, it's silly, but you were expecting anything less? The operating room scene is a classic, as is the sequence where Chico scams Groucho by selling him a tip on a horse race, which can only be read by the use of a codebook, which Chico has available to sell. Of course, the codebook requires a master codebook to be useful, and I bet you can guess who can sell you one of those.
6. The Cocoanuts
The Cocoanuts was the first Marx Brothers film to make a wide release (an earlier attempt at making a movie, Humor Risk, was apparently so bad that it was only shown once and the rumor is Groucho bought the only print and burned it), thus it's also the first one on our list to feature the fourth Marx Brother, Zeppo. Zeppo was the straight man in the family, and often played the romantic lead in the early movies. He does so here, in a film that sees Groucho as a Florida resort hotel manager trying to sell swampland at auction. Meanwhile, Chico and Harpo attempt to rob one of the hotel's few paying customers. The great routine in this one sees a viaduct found on a map, leading Chico to ask, "I give up, why a duck?"
5. Horse Feathers
Horse Feathers is, from start to finish, a hilarious film. Groucho plays a college professor and Zeppo plays his son, a student at the college, which is the first reason you know the movie will be ridiculous. The speakeasy sequence where Groucho tries to guess the password (Swordfish) is a classic, as is Groucho's song, "I'm Against It." Groucho looks to recruit a couple of people to join the college football team, but ends up getting Chico and Harpo by mistake. They win the game anyway, via shenanigans of course. It's not exactly Remember the Titans, but a funnier football scene in a movie you're unlikely to find.
4. Monkey Business
Monkey Business is Marx Brothers insanity in its purest form. The characters in the movie played by the four brothers aren't even given actual names in the script, proving that the plot here is inconsequential. The brothers are stowaways on an ocean liner who end up going to work for a couple of competing mobsters in order to avoid being discovered. One mobster kidnaps the daughter of the other, which sounds important, but it's not. In the end, the lack of plot lets the Marx Brothers just be the Marx Brothers, and the result may not make any sense as a movie, but it's frequently hilarious.
It's difficult to pick a "best part" of Monkey Business but it's probably the passport bit that sees the brothers all attempt to use the stolen passport of French superstar of the day Maurice Chevalier (who never actually appears in the film) to get off the boat.
3. Animal Crackers
Animal Crackers is the brothers' second movie and also the second one based directly on one of their stage plays. It may contain one of Groucho's most memorable performances ever as Captain Geoffrey T. Spaulding (literally the least silly name for a Groucho character ever) which includes the great "Hooray for Captain Spaulding" song. The film has several of Groucho's most quotable lines ("One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don't know"). The film is so stacked with comedy they even let Zeppo get in a few lines. It's proof that the fourth brother was criminally underused in the films. It makes one wonder how much funnier these movies all could have been if he were part of the ensemble.
2. A Night At the Opera
The packed stateroom scene where the Marx Brothers, and most of a cruise ship, get crammed into a tiny room is one of the best known Marx Brothers bits in history. It's enough to put A Night at the Opera near the top of this list by itself. But that's not the only great bit in the film. It's also got the contract exchange between Groucho and Chico ("That's what they call a sanity clause." "You can't fool me, there ain't no Sanity Claus.") It's glorious shenanigans combined with a story that holds together remarkably well for a Marx Brothers film. It's so good that the movie was essentially remade in 1992 as Brain Donors, a movie that's far better itself than it has any right to be.
1. Duck Soup
Groucho becomes the leader of the nation of Freedonia, and his ego gets them involved in a war. That's as good a place as any to start a movie.
If there's a moment in the history of the Marx Brothers more famous than the Night at the Opera stateroom scene, it's the mirror sequence from Duck Soup. Harpo and Chico both disguise themselves as Groucho in order to steal Freedonia's war plans. Harpo finds himself standing directly across from Groucho, and starts to mimic every move Groucho makes in an attempt to make Groucho think he's standing in front of a mirror. As the scene is done in complete silence, it's Harpo's shining achievement. But he's not the only great performer here. Groucho and Chico here have some of the best dialogue they've ever had Duck Soup wasn't well loved when it was new, but it's aged well and has become the greatest work of the Marx Brothers ever.