Warner Home Video
Extras: Commentary Tracks, Theatrical Trailers, Documentaries, Television Excerpts, Audio Outtakes, Vintage Cartoons and more
When films transitioned from the silents to the talkies, screen comedy underwent a pivotal transformation as well. Whereas silent comedy relied solely on the visual with sight gags, pratfalls, and physical shtick, sound brought a new element into the comedic mix: words. The trouble was, the silent comics really didn’t know what to do with them.
Charlie Chaplin took thirteen years before making his first full-talking picture. Buster Keaton quietly receded from the screen, reduced to a gag writer (remember this tidbit). Harold Lloyd made a few sound films, most notably "The Cat’s Paw" (1934) and "The Sins of Harold Diddlebock" (1947) directed by Preston Sturges, but never achieved the heights of "Safety Last" or "Girl Shy." The four Marx Brothers first hit movie screens in 1929 with Paramount’s "The Cocoanuts," basically a filmed version of their successful Broadway play, featuring songs and score by Irving Berlin. At first, the Marx Brothers seemed to follow the established pattern of the silent comics, drawing humor from physical appearance. The Little Tramp had his bowler and cane, Keaton had his Great Stone Face and Lloyd his spectacles. For Les Freres Marx, leader Groucho had his thick eyebrows and moustache, Chico with his pointy cap and Harpo with his golden curly hair, raggedy top hat and overcoat stuffed with enough gadgets that puts Batman’s utility belt to shame.
Where the Marx Brothers differed and ultimately excelled in the new age of sound cinema was their understanding of the stage microphone hovering over their heads. Simply put, what made The Marx Brothers the talkies’ first great comedians was their command of words. For many early filmmakers, words meant dialogue, a means to forward the story without necessarily showing action. In the Marx Brothers’ hands, er, mouths, words became props. As the silent comics contorted their bodies, manipulated scenery and the film frame itself, the Marxes twisted language, dispatching puns, malapropisms, non sequiturs, and misplaced modifiers with unrelenting agility. In many ways, what the Marx Brothers did for film comedy was give it the biggest shot in the arm. Consider every seminal movie comedy of the last seventy years and, six degrees of separation later, you’ll wind up at the Marx Brothers.
Also, their output can be distinctly separated between the two studios that they called home. Their early films for Paramount were ground-breaking exercises in comedy anarchy, with such films as "Monkey Business," "Animal Crackers," "Horse Feathers," and in this reviewer’s opinion, their magnum opus "Duck Soup." These films also featured a fourth Marx Brother, Zeppo. Because of his good looks and (relatively) stiff demeanor, Zeppo played the straight man or romantic lead in the early films, leaving Groucho, Chico and Harpo to mind the comedy store. In 1934, the three Marx Brothers (Zeppo left the act to become their manager) found a new home at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and a new patron in production chief and movie wunderkind Irving Thalberg. What kind of genius was Thalberg? He "reinvented" the Marx Brothers so successfully that our current understanding of their comedic genius stems from the contrast between the Paramount and MGM features.
The Marx Brothers films on DVD have been, up until now, spotty in terms of availability and quality. In the format’s early days, Image Entertainment released the Paramount features, now owned by Universal, in versions basically rehashing not-so-good-to-begin-with laserdisc masters. The source prints varied in quality and appearance, with the disc containing zero extras, supplements or even liner notes. Now out of print, they are highly sought after (although I’ve heard that "Duck Soup" is undergoing restoration). The MGM pictures, on the other hand, have just been given a new lease on life with Warner Home Video’s impressively mounted "Marx Brothers Collection" DVD set. With seven films, two <$commentary,commentary track>s, two respective documentaries, short subjects, vintage cartoons and more, the MGM years of the Brothers finally have the representation and presentations they deserve.
The two Thalberg-initiated projects, 1935’s "A Night At The Opera" and 1937’s "A Day At The Races" receive their own discs as well as 1946’s "A Night In Casablanca." RKO’s "Room Service" (1938) and MGM’s "At The Circus" (1939) and the MGM duo of "Go West" (1940) and "The Big Store" (1941) are presented as double features on two separate DVDs. "Opera," "Races" and "Casablanca" may be purchased individually, but the double features are only available through the box set.
Plot-wise, the seven films are variations on the same melodramatic theme, a formula devised by Thalberg to give the Brothers more universal appeal. Whereas the Paramount films skewered everything – college, politics, elite society – under the Everest-motivated "because it’s there," the MGM features focused their anarchy by providing a romantic interest to root for, a hissable villain to direct their comedy chaos and gain audience sympathy, a few typically MGM-lavish musical numbers and more visual gags to the verbal mayhem. Starting with "A Night At The Opera" in 1935, the subsequent films simply plopped the Brothers and the formula in different settings – a race track, a circus, a department store, even the Old American West. By 1946’s "A Night In Casablanca," the Brothers were fighting Nazis for the freedom of the Western World!
"A Night At the Opera" and "A Day At The Races" both have the best gags and moments of the MGM films. "Opera" features the classic stateroom scene with the Brothers about a dozen ship’s personnel stuffed into a closet, the legal wrangling over a contract’s "sanity clause," or as Chico boasts: "You can’t fool me! There ain’t no Sanity Clause!" and the inspired, almost-Sisyphean bickering between Groucho and eternal foil Margaret Dumont.
Personally, I like the Paramount films because of their sheer relentlessness with the humor, particularly the political humor of "Duck Soup." While "Opera" was their most successful film, I prefer "A Day At The Races," which rings closer to the surrealism of the early comedies. In subsequent films, moments of inspired hilarity were strung together with now-predictable plot turns. "Go West" has the famous "train disintegration" scene, mimicked years later in Michael Todd’s "Around The World in 80 Days" where a steamship is cannibalized for fuel.
Of course, MGM being home of the world’s best movie musicals, Music and Marx also became more aligned, not only with full-blown musical numbers but showcases for Chico’s amazing piano-playing talents and Harpo on the harp, naturally. Groucho is no sloucho in the singing department either, belting out such classic ditties as "Lydia The Tattooed Lady" (from "Circus") and "Sing While You Sell" (from "Store").
Each film is presented in their original black and white, in the appropriate 1.33 Academy ratio. With seven films offered, I expected some titles would look better than others and some would have better or cleaner source prints. Having said that, overall, the transfers are uniformly excellent. Surprisingly, the later, "lesser known" films exhibit better contrast, image sharpness and gray tones than the "classic" catalog titles. While still terrific, "Opera" and "Races" show less uniformity with contrast shifts and more apparent film grain. Don’t misunderstand me; "Opera" and "Races" have never looked better, but the sparkling transfers of "Go West" and "The Big Store" were a revelation. Details really pop out, including Groucho’s obviously painted moustache and eyebrows or the even more evident rear projection shots. I suppose I really don’t need to keep remarking this, but I found no compression or digital artifacts.
The <$DD,Dolby Digital> mono soundtracks perform on par for their age. For the most part, the audio presentation is clean with minimal defects. The main audio consideration on a Marx Brothers film is legible dialogue and with that in mind, the soundtracks replay perfectly. Levels are nice and full, as I didn’t have to crank the receiver volume. Other than some analog mono compression artifacts like occasional tinniness and some hiss, the audio doesn’t get in the way of the video.
Each film presentation includes at least one cartoon, one short subject and the original theatrical trailer. Sources vary from black and white to color. Of all the shorts, the best are the two featuring 30’s satirist Robert Benchley. His Oscar-winning "How To Sleep" (on the "Opera" disc) and the Oscar-nominated "A Night At the Movies" (with "Races") still work today because of his deadpan delivery when it comes to personal frustration, either with a pillow or an usher. There’s even an "Our Gang" short, "Dog Daze," on the "Service/Circus" DVD. The animated cartoons are all from MGM, in color and black & white. While MGM cartoon stars Tom and Jerry or characters from the Tex Avery menagerie are absent here, we do have Bugs Bunny represented on the "Casablanca" with "Acrobat Bunny." Like the shorts, the cartoon presentations range from crystal clear and sharp to occasionally soft with source print blemishes.
The theatrical trailers for all the films run about two minutes each, trumpeting the same old Hollywood-style hyperbole and exhibit varying audio/video quality. The best part is on the "Opera" trailer when Leo undergoes a startling but funny transformation.
Leonard Maltin provides a <$commentary,commentary track> on "Opera" and author Glenn Mitchell chimes in on the commentary audio for "Races." Maltin displays great enthusiasm for the film and its stars. He’s chock-a-block with fascinating tidbits about how the trio came to MGM, how Thalberg was personally involved with the production of "Opera" and apparently some he authorized last minute editing before release and what was lost. Glenn’s insights on "Races" pretty much cover the same thematic turf, but his remarks are not wall to wall like Maltin’s. I did love Glenn pointing out how two shots of Groucho walking along a racetrack gate and slipping was basically the same shot from two angles and how Thalberg (who died during production) would have caught such a gaffe.
On the "Opera" and "Races" DVDs, two newly produced video documentaries give historical perspective and current comedy establishment analysis of the films and their stars. "Remarks on Marx" on "Opera" runs thirty-four minutes and offers insights from Dom De Luise, Carl Reiner, director Robert B. Weide ("Curb Your Enthusiasm"), writers Irving Brecher ("Go West"), Anne Beatts and Larry Gelbart on such topics as how the Brothers were wooed by Irving Thalberg, the famous story of how Thalberg walking into his office to find the three Brothers sitting naked roasting potatoes over an open fire, and the Brothers’ impact on their comedy and modern comedy in general. Clocking in at twenty-eight minutes, the "On Your Marx, Get Set, Go!" documentary on "Races" has the same participants from the "Remarks" feature, but also filmed sound bites from co-star Maureen O’Sullivan.
A 1961 TV excerpt from British talk-show host Hy Gardner has Groucho talking (very fondly) about his days at MGM, the famous "naked" story (we hear that story almost a half dozen times!) and comments particular to the making of "Opera." On the "Races" DVD, there is an audio outtake of star Allan Jones singing "A Message From the Man on the Moon," a number that was recorded but not filmed, as well as "Leo On The Air," a radio promo to promote the film. There is also a radio promo for "Go West." Whew!
Warners is to be commended for such a thorough and well produced box set. The "Marx Brothers Collection" belongs in every DVD library. Highly, HIGHLY recommended.
TRIVIA: As an uncredited gag writer, Buster Keaton contributed comedy bits to of the films in the set: "Opera" and "Go West." Guess which ones.