Saturday, December 4, 2010

My Favorite '30s Actors: #12

I’ll admit it: I’m not a huge fan of The Three Stooges.

A sacrilegious statement to some, and it’s not that I don’t like them. They just wear me out. The relentless physical humor is numbing after a while.

Some may say the zany humor of the Marx Brothers can be wearying, but not to me. They are crazy, fun and unmistakably unique. Their move from Broadway to film at the dawn of the sound era was well-timed, and a second move from Paramount to MGM in the mid-1930s to work with the great Irving Thalberg resulted in one of their best films.

Even in lesser films, they display flashes of comedic brilliance, and their on-screen personas were so well-honed that their movies remain classics of film comedy.

The brothers were still performing their long-running Broadway hit “Animal Crackers” when Paramount began filming “The Cocoanuts” in New York, an adaptation of their 1925 stage hit. Released in 1929, their singular brand of craziness dazzled audiences and ushered in a new kind of screen comedy during the infancy of the talkies. It also featured an actress named Margaret Dumont, who would become the perfect “straight woman” to the Brothers. While the movie is stagy, like most movies of this time period, and the musical interludes an intrusion, the brothers’ comedic brilliance and vitality shine through.

The next year, 1930, saw the film adaptation of “Animal Crackers.” Still stagy, it’s nevertheless a vehicle for fun. The slim plot, about a stolen painting, is all that holds together one gag after another. Groucho gets to sing “Hooray for Captain Spalding,” while Chico and Harpo are involved in one of my all-time favorite scenes as they play bridge – or rather their own version of bridge (above) – with Dumont, showing just as much comedic flair.

“Monkey Business” (1931) is the first of their films written especially for the screen. Despite the absence of Dumont, it’s a brisk, fun-filled romp as the brothers stowaway on a cruise ship. It’s also written by S.J. Perlman, who would pen “Horse Feathers” – a collegiate comedy – released the next year.

“Duck Soup” continued the annual release schedule. The last film to feature Zeppo, with the welcome return of Dumont, and directed by Leo McCarey, this zany film revolves around one country declaring war on its neighbor just for fun. While we can see yet again the marvelous brilliance of the brothers at work, “Duck Soup” was a failure at the box office. Since “Horse Feathers” didn’t fly either, Paramount did not renew the brothers’ contract.

Enter the great Thalberg. Oddly enough, Thalberg was not known for producing comedy or for showing a broad sense of humor. However, when Groucho went east to take a part in “Twentieth Century” – his first break from the team – Chico remained in Hollywood and struck up a friendship with Thalberg, who was convinced the brothers still had a future in film. Thalberg even wore down Louis B. Mayer, who agreed with Paramount that the brothers were through.

Thalberg felt that while males liked the comedy, the lack of romance kept women away. Wary, the brothers went along with Thalberg. Then the plan was hatched that the brothers should get in the way of something classy, like the opera, and “A Night at the Opera” was born. However, the brothers were nervous about their return with new material, so Thalberg suggested they take the best comedy bits from the script on the road, performing it in front of live audiences, and then revising the material as necessary. Even then, the first screenings did not go well. But that changed when Thalberg, a genius in the editing room, ordered changes.

The result? Arguably the brothers’ best-loved film, with the now-classic overflowing room on a ship sequence (above). The film was a smash, both critically and commercially, and the brothers were back on top even higher than before. “A Day at the Races” and “Room Service” followed, with the lesser-known “At the Circus” rounding out the decade.

They would never achieve the movie heights reached during the 1930s, but what a comedic legacy they left. The plots were more or less there to provide a broad movie structure for the comedy to run wild. Instead of wearing me out, the Marx Brothers leave me craving more.


  1. What an awesome post! I am a huge admirer of the works and talents of the incredible Marx brothers, too. I can't wait to read your following eleven favourite 30ies actors!

  2. A fine choice for #12. While I love all their Paramount titles, I've never quite warmed to "Monkey Business." I'm not sure why and I need to see it again.

    Some friends and I tried to introduce the Bros. to my friend's kids. They were early teenagers at the time and we watched "Duck Soup." They didn't get it at all, especially Harpo, which shocked us. They didn't respond to his surreal antics at all, with the boy, and highly intelligent he is, complaining his actions made no sense. The adults were laughing too hard to respond.

  3. That's a great story. NOt sure why the teens weren't into it. Perhaps it's an acquired taste! Oh well.

    I must admit I'm having a hard time with the list this year -- too many choices, and for some I simply haven't seen enough of their films. I'm second guessing myself all over the place. We'll see how it turns out!

  4. You've certainly piqued my interest on what the other 11 will be! My favorite Marx Bros. pic is DUCK SOUP, which allowed the brothers to be untamed but not outlandish. Still, even their most conventional films (e.g., LOVE HAPPY) contained their share of classic comic bits.

  5. HI Rick, Thank you for the comments. I'm interested in what the other will be! I'm having a hard time this year, second-guessing myself and moving much too slowly. I've got to make up some ground fast to get this countdown finished!!