Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Most Assuredly Zeppo

A year ago, the Castro Theater showed a Marx Brothers double feature.  The two films were Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera.  The Castro upped the ante in May with a Marx Brothers triple feature.

Horse Feathers starring the Four Marx Brothers & Thelma Todd; directed by Norman Z. McLeod; (1932)
Animal Crackers starring the Four Marx Brothers and Margaret Dumont; directed by Victor Heerman; (1930)
Monkey Business starring the Four Marx Brothers & Thelma Todd; directed by Norman Z. McLeod; (1931)

Combined with the two from last July, the five films represent the bulk of the Marx Brothers' quality films.  Coconuts (1929) preceded Animal Crackers and A Day At the Races (1937) proceeded A Night at the Opera.  Those seven films represent the total output of the Marx Brothers at Paramount and at Irving Thalberg-controlled MGM.  After A Day At the Races, they bounced from RKO back to MGM to United.  In my opinion, they never regained their comic genius.  As I wrote last year, I think they lost a step when they lost Zeppo when they moved from Paramount to MGM.  Either Zeppo exerted an off screen presence or his departure coincided with the switch from films based their stage material to custom screenplays.

Animal Crackers is the one where Groucho plays Captain Spaulding, the noted explorer.  He delivers the "shot an elephant in my pajamas" joke. Most of the plot revolves around a counterfeit painting.

Monkey Business is set on a cruise liner with the brothers as stowaways.  There are two gangsters who each hire a differnt pair of brothers to be their bodyguards.  Thelma Todd (Hot Toddy), in her first collaboration with the Marx Brothers, plays the girlfriend of one of the gangsters.  Notable gags include each one singing You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me while doing a Maurice Chevalier impersonation.  There is also an extended scene with Groucho and Todd that has Groucho going into the closet repeatedly.

Horse Feathers is my favorite Marx Brothers film.  Groucho plays the college president and Zeppo is his son who has taken up with the "college widow" (Thelma Todd).  You'll have to look up that term.  Chico works at a speakeasy and Harpo is a dogcatcher.  Groucho goes to the speakeasy to hire some football ringers who he misidentifies as Chico & Harpo.  Notable gags include the extended sequence on the gridiron and Harpo's running feud with the guy that runs a lemonade cart.  The film also features their best musical number - Everyone Says I Love You; Groucho's rendition has him serenading Hot Toddy on a lake while she rows the boat.

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