Mrs. Rittenhouse, ever since I met you, I’ve swept you off my feet.
I feel like anyone who is a fan of the Marx Brothers remembers when they first watched their movies and have vivid memories of it. I know I do.
See, when it happened, I didn’t plan on checking out several of their Paramount films on DVD. But one day in the summer of 2011 – a few months before I would begin my senior year of high school – they somehow caught my attention and I snatched them up.
For those of you reading who may not be too familiar with the Marx Bros, their Paramount films were done at the beginning of their film careers. They began there in 1929 with the film The Cocoanuts and remained through 1933 with the release of one of their most popular comedies, Duck Soup. I watched The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers (1930), Monkey Business (1931), Horse Feathers (1932), and Duck Soup first. I loved every movie, but I was especially taken with Animal Crackers and The Cocoanuts.
To talk about a couple of those films…
Animal Crackers (1930) is actually my favorite Marx Brothers film. It’s not their strongest one, but it kills me. I think I love it so much because it’s just basically Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo running around a mansion (owned by a Margaret Dumont character, no less) for ninety-seven minutes, causing mayhem and throwing around sidesplitting one-liners – usually at the expense of unamused house guests.
The Cocoanuts (1929) is by no means a spectacular production on film – it’s clunky all over, which is understandable for an early talkie musical based on a stage play, but it’s total madcap fun and there are some hilarious one-liners tossed around. The boys are just getting going too, and it’s cool to think about how far they’d go after ’29.
I got hooked on watching these guys throughout my senior year – what a vice! It seemed like I couldn’t stop watching their movies, talking about them, or reading about them.
I read several books, including Chico Marx’s daughter’s recollections of living with her father, who really was a genius (but also a Lothario) in real life.
To this day, Harpo’s autobiography Harpo Speaks! remains one of my favorite books. In it, he fleshes out the life he shared with his brothers, mother, father, and extended family in New York City and continued through his later years. It’s filled with humor and a lot of hear. I highly recommend it to any fan. You’ll adore the man behind the trenchcoat, top hat, and harp.
At some point, I need to read more about Groucho.
I’ve noticed that hardcore fans tend to debate over which era was the best for the Brothers in film: the Paramount era versus the MGM era. After Duck Soup, The Brothers moved over to MGM in 1935. Their other most popular film, A Night at the Opera, was released that year. In my opinion, their Paramount films (1929 – 1933) are far superior. When they moved over to MGM, their creative rights were traded in to ensure that there was a thicker plot in each film. Basically, more love subplots.
Ehhhhh. In doing this, most of their MGM films were actually much weaker than their Paramount films.
With that said, my personal favorite Marx Brothers MGM flick is actually A Day at the Races (1937). Although it’s not as solid as their earlier work, there are some great scenes and jokes in it.
I have to say that I wholeheartedly enjoy the musical number shared between Allan Jones and Maureen O’Sullivan. It’s just so optimistic and emotional all at the same time.
And there’s that incredible swing dance number performed by Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, which is still a marvel to watch eighty years later.
Besides their jokes, it’s important to remember that the Marx Brothers were also incredibly talented musicians. In many of their films, they often took time out of the madcap plot lines to serenade the audience with the piano, harp, and voice.
Just watch Harpo sit down at his harp and see how he gets so into playing each piece. You can see the “real” Harpo come through every time.
Chico’s ability to “shoot” the keys when he plays the piano is fascinating to watch. Bonus points go to him for making flirtatious facial expressions while he’s playing.
Groucho often got to sing and dance and his numbers, of course, were typically over-the-top and funny as all get-out.
Zeppo was said to have actually been the funniest of the brothers. However, in the five films he appeared in, Zeppo always played the straight man. Either way, he definitely had a fine singing voice and used it several times in his movie appearances.
I want to thank Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo, Margaret Dumont, Thelma Todd, and everyone else featured on and off screen in the Marx Brothers’ films. I fell in love with the Marx Brothers pretty early on in my reintroduction to the Golden Age of Hollywood and they will always hold a special place in my heart. (Would Groucho approve of such a cheesy statement? Hey, it’s true!)
What’s your favorite Marx Brothers film and/or “era”? Let me know in the comments!