Skip to main content

Screenings

June 2024
2min read

The Marx Brothers


It may be apocryphal, but the legend persists that Benito Mussolini banned the Marx Brothers’ 1933 antiwar film Duck Soup from being shown in Italy. If he didn’t, he should have. The word subversive has been much devalued by overuse, but surely no comics were more worthy of the label than the Marxes. No one else has ever been able to approach their combination of anarchy and method or match their range of appeal. The Farrelly brothers, God help us, have announced that they intend to re-create the Three Stooges, but outside of sketch comedy and the like, no one has dared, or ever will dare, to re-create Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and (sometimes, though not in their new DVD set) Zeppo. The Marx Brothers have never gone out of fashion and never will; they were simply, for a short while, unavailable.

The seven-movie, five-DVD set from Warner Home Video goes a long way toward rectifying this. For once, the bonus material is a real bonus, including a pair of documentaries on the Marx Brothers, an interview with Groucho, genial commentary by Leonard Maltin, and, for six of the seven films, the original theatrical trailers. While the set omits Duck Soup and the brothers’ other freewheeling early efforts from 1929 to 1933, it does include two classics, A Night at the Opera (1935) and A Day at the Races (1937). Along with these come five later films of uneven quality: Room Service (1938), adapted from a Broadway play (and less uneasily than one might fear); At the Circus (1939), far from their best, although it does have Groucho singing “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady"; Go West (1940) and The Big Store (1943), both barely watchable (in the former, Groucho ties a bandanna around someone’s mouth and says, accurately, “This is the best gag in the picture"); and the surprisingly good A Night in Casablanca (1946), a loose takeoff on the Bogart-Bergman classic.

But A Night at the Opera and its “companion,” A Day at the Races , are worth the price by themselves. Many fans think Duck Soup is the Marxes’ best film, and I agree, but A Night at the Opera , their most popular, contains four of the funniest sequences in movie history. There’s the famous scene in which at least 20 people crowd into Groucho’s tiny stateroom on an ocean liner; the hotel room switch, in which the brothers transfer all the furniture from one room to another while being pursued by a detective; Groucho and Chico’s “sanity clause” routine; and, of course, the immortal trashing of Verdi’s II Trovatore .

A Day at the Races has no such sensational set pieces, but it does contain some of the most quoted Marx Brothers absurdities, like this one from Groucho as he takes Harpo’s pulse: “Either he’s dead or my watch has stopped.” (Less inspiring is a sequence in which Harpo visits the African-American section of town and elicits all sorts of stereotypical behavior, culminating in a group sing of “All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm.”)

The Marx Brothers and DVDs are a match made in heaven. No other comedies so reward repeated viewings. After hearing a line like “You big bully, stop picking on that little bully” four times, you begin to understand it. On the fifth, you realize you have no idea at all what it means.

Allen Barra

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.

Donate