One thing about the format of DVD, some studios have used it not only to sell their high profile, big budget films but also to preserve film classics and make them available to a new generation of film enthusiast.
Universal has done this with the presentation of five of the best known and loved classics from the Marx Brothers; Duck Soup, Horse Feathers, Monkey Business, Animal Crackers and The Cocoanuts. Although the earliest of these films are now seventy five years hold they still will make you laugh out loud. After all, this is what makes for a classic film, a timeless quality that can transcend the generations. A little note for the younger viewers of these films, try to put aside the slick production qualities that you have be privileged to grow up with, these films represent the very beginnings of film as an American media.
The Cocoanuts, made in 1929 was one of the first ‘talkies’, yes young readers, movies once upon a time where devoid of sound. It was also one of the first musical comedies ever witnessed by an audience. ‘Cocoanuts’ is considered by most the weakest of the Marx Brothers films but there is a reason for this. ‘Cocoanuts’ was a trial effort not only for the Brothers but also for the rest of the cast and crew. After all, they where used to performing on a stage, concerned only with the live audience in front of them, not the placement of cameras and those new microphones. This was a time of experimentation, of transition between live performances and film. As the Brothers Marx prance about the set the action is often difficult to follow. The jokes come at the pace of a machine gun, never really giving the audience time to focus or even absorb the humor. Still, the unique style of each Marx Brother can be seen forming almost before your eyes. The plot of running a resort in Florida is only the framework for the antics, the humor comes more from the interaction of these brothers than the situations they are in, as with most of the Marx Brothers films the story is secondary, an excuse to perform.
‘Animal Crackers’, like ‘Cocoanuts’, was taken from a stage production made famous by the Marx Brothers. Here they take on the world of adveture with Groucho as a famous African explorer and the search for a missing painting. Once again the jokes are non stop, everything from quick one liners to drawn out series of soliloquies, usually provided by Groucho. Released in 1930 the cast and crew where still very much on the learning curve. The production values where primitive, even crude. No one had yet gotten the hang of the difference between the stage and a movie set.
‘Monkey Business’, made in 1931 was the beginning of a bit more focus for the Brothers. There is a slicker feel to the film. This was the first opus created by them exclusively for film and it shows. They seemed to have finally abandoned the need to recreate their stage success and focus on the new art of movie making. This film also has one of the most classic and often imitated routines, the classic ship’s state room gag where it seems that everyone on board winds up in a single, small cabin. This film is often considered to be the best of their body of work; it is funny almost on a gut level.
‘Horse Feathers’, made in 1932, takes on the often staid world of the academics. Here Grocho is the dean of a college so bizarre that it makes the campus of Animal House seem Ivy League. Here the Brothers do what they did best, poke fun at any and all authority figures. Typical of their humor there is no reason for much of what goes on and the audience is too busy laughing to really care. May consider this film tied with Monkey Business as the best of the bunch. It may be best to consider them each on their own merit. With each film the Marx Brothers grew in their command of this brand new art form, film. The action here is smoother, more professional yet always retaining the zany antics of the four brothers.
The final film in the Universal collection is Duck Soup, a political satire that still holds up today, especially considering current events. This time Groucho is Rufus T. Firefly, the dictator of the small nation of Freedonia. Bankrupt and completely lacking any resources they decide to invade the neighboring Sylvania. There is no political commentary about war, or international politics, it is just another platform for the Marx Brothers to completely let go and entertain.
There was something special about the Marx Brothers, a quality that I doubt will ever be seen again. In each film they each held a specific position, an archetype each one fulfilled perfectly. Groucho was always in the lead. The fact that he was completely clueless didn’t matter, he would charge ahead on his quest for wine, women and song. In one joke later in his life Groucho stated that a doctor told him wine, women and song would be the death of him. Grouch replied, ‘I’ll give up singing’. Harpo was the silent clown. Dressed in his trademark baggy clothes he would pull props from the depths of his endless pockets. Chico was the wise guy, the one always ready with a quick comeback. He was the perfect foil for the loud Groucho. The last brother was Zeppo, youngest and best looking of the troupe. He was the stable one, the romantic lead among the purveyors of laughs.
The Silver Screen collection is not perfect. The mono audio is often scratchy, uneven and occasionally difficult to understand. The video is marked with defects, the random white speck and glitch. I mention this only because this is to some degree a review of the DVDs. No, they have flaws but how well will you hold up after seventy five years? The merit of this release is not the technical perfection of the media of DVD; it is the remembrance of these pioneers of film. Get this collection not to show off your expensive home theater system, get it to witness the history of comedy in film.
by Doug MacLean of hometheaterinfo.com
Click Here To Return To The DVD Reviews Page