The Marx Brothers

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The Marx Brothers

Postby wpqx » Sun Jan 06, 2008 8:05 pm

Animal Crackers (1930) - Victor Heerman

Chaos is the best word to describe the Marx Brothers in particular their Paramount films. Animal Crackers, like The Coconuts was originally a stage play and the four brothers came to the film having performed it for months. The result is a film that besides the basic plot constraints seems like it was made up on the spot. Extras and supporting players noticeably laugh in scenes and there is so much in the script that even after a couple of viewings you won't catch it all. The film was directed by the largely forgotten Victor Heerman who only directed one more film after this, although he continued to work as a screenwriter along with his wife. Heerman didn't seem particularly well suited for the Marx Brothers and legend has it he built a jail on set with four cells for each of the Marx Brothers if they happened to get out of line during the shooting. Whether or not those cells were used is another matter.

Plot is largely inconsequential in any of their films and the story is routinely done away with. A very weak story involving a starving artist who paints a forgery of a painting that winds up being stolen and replaced by another forgery. Groucho plays Geoffrey Spaulding a famous explorer who recently returned from Africa which he describes as "God's country, and he can have it". Little evidence that Spaulding is an explorer and actually went to Africa exists and constant holes in his story appear. Chico plays a musician who although a blatant thief at least does have enough musical ability to pull off his story. Harpo is ironically referred to as the professor and he's just there to ruin everything. Zeppo is Groucho's secretary and although he's given a few moments is largely kept off screen. Margaret Dumont plays her typical role as Groucho's punching bag. When Spaulding first meets her he remarks "You're the most beautiful woman I've ever seen, which isn't saying much for you."

Now its quite possible to sit here and quote the film to death and most of the lines are memorable. Playing this on stage gave the brothers a sense of their audience, and you feel like they're performing for us as well as the people on the set. Heerman, despite his differences was fairly smart in his directing. Most of the scenes play out in one long take (particularly the Harpo and Chico bridge scene) and you can debate how he handles the extras. There are a few cutaways during scenes, and whatever character occupying the background usually just stands their smiling or more accurately trying not to laugh. However the film largely feels like a stage play brought to film with little to no alteration. The brothers make the film worthwhile and the anarchy is always worth the price of admission.

Re: The Marx Brothers

Postby wpqx » Wed Jan 09, 2008 7:29 am

Monkey Business (1931) - Norman Z. McLeod

After two stage to screen translations Paramount decided to make their next Marx Brothers vehicle specifically for the screen. The result is a much more open and expansive film, with several set pieces and a lot more breathing room. They may also have had an idea to make Zeppo Marx into a romantic idol. Zeppo gets his most screen time here by far, playing in essence himself, the one and only sane member of a rambunctious family. Although it isn't mentioned that they are related here, all four of the Marx brothers begin as stowaways on a ship, and the credits list all of them by their names so none of them are playing fictional characters. It really is starring The Marx Brothers. I'd wager to say that at least considering their original work no film of theirs puts the brothers as such a group. They work together to achieve a common goal, and although temporarily put on different sides of a feuding gang war, they wind up working for the good guy, sort of.

The formula was significantly tweaked in this film, Groucho found a new romantic foil in Thelma Todd a woman worth pursuing because of her looks if nothing else. Zeppo found himself a more convincing and straight laced love affair with Ruth Hall, the daughter of the one time racketeer. As he plays his end fairly straight and getting into a knock down, drag out fist fight at the end to rescue his love, the rest of the film is more chaos. The scenes on the ship are by far the best as the brothers make themselves a nuisance all over the place. When too much time is spent on the "plot" things get bogged down. Unfortunately these straight sub-plots had been with the brothers since the start, and would become an even greater disgrace in the MGM years. However the film was a success, and I think it may be due to all brothers getting an equal footing here.

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