By Todd Kirshenbaum
I recently completed my collection of 13 films of the Marx Brothers films. I got the last one several months ago…I just found it a while ago. The last in my collection was actually the last movie they did together. It’s mostly a solo effort by Harpo with his brothers as an afterthought. It is also the first film of a young starlet named Marilyn Monroe. Overall, “Love Happy” was an okay movie. Before seeing it, I always heard that it was a mediocre film and the least funny of their images. I found it quite funny and better than some of their others. The biggest change in this movie was that Groucho was without his commercial mustache and eyebrows. Here he grew up and he was always funny. Admittedly, it was mostly Harpo’s film, but the others contributed to it.
What started in 1929 with “The Coconuts” ended in 1950 with “Love Happy”. Along the way they changed from “The Four Marx Brothers” to simply “The Marx Brothers”. The youngest member, Zeppo, left the group after five successful films to become their agent. Zeppo had no routine, like his famous brothers. Instead, he was cast as the straight man. Legend has it that Zeppo was the funniest of the brothers in real life. It’s a pity that he was never able to demonstrate it on film. There was a fifth brother, Gummo, who was active during the vaudeville days but he was never in their movies.
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Their first two films, “The Coconuts” and “Animal Crackers”, were plays first and later adapted for film. Both were wildly successful, and audiences marveled at the brothers’ antics. “Animal Crackers” introduced the world to the famous Jeffery T. Spaulding, the African explorer. Groucho took off with this character that made him famous.
Their next film was written especially for them, titled “Monkey Business”. This film finds the boys as stowaways on a boat. This will be one of the only times Groucho will be on equal footing with his brothers. He generally had a superior position in society. The film is very funny because they try not to get caught in the boat. There are some very funny scenes.
Their next two are considered classics. In each film, they put their own stamp on madness. “Horse Feathers” is set on a college campus, of which Groucho is the new president. He is convinced that to be successful, the college needs a winning football team. Harpo and Chicco are mistaken for two soccer champions, and Groucho tries to get them to play on the team. It all ends with the boys destroying the game and winning.
“Duck Soup” is considered their best effort. It takes place in the imaginary country of Freedonia where Groucho has just been named president. He quickly insults the president of neighboring Sylvania and the two countries go to war. The scene where they are preparing for war is hilarious but the battle scene between the two is amazing. Even though the film was (and still is) a critical success, it did not do well at the box office in 1934. This is when Zeppo left the act and the three remaining brothers departed. .
They worked with Irving Thalberg on their next two films. He first made them test new material in front of the public. This resulted in their two most successful films (both critically and financially) “A Night at the Opera” and “A Day at the Races”. Both had identical cast and crew working on the films. These are two different stories, but similar situations. Groucho plays Otis B. Driftwood, in charge of the New York Opera Company. There are many memorable scenes, including the famous cabin scene where dozens of people are herded into a cramped cabin until Margret Dumont opens the door and they all cascade out. The scene where they try to stop the corrupt singer from performing in the opera is perfect for them.
The “races” are similar where they try to stop a racehorse from running with the whole Marx Brothers stamp of approval on it. Thalberg died suddenly during production, so he couldn’t get his hands dirty and it shows. While “Races” has its moments, it’s not as polished as “Opera.”
Their next film is a perplexity for their fans. “Room Service” was an established piece at the time and didn’t quite fit their mayhem. Despite featuring a young Lucille Ball, who had yet to establish her comic genius, the film was a flop. She returned the favor 20 years later when she featured Harpo in her amazing “I Love Lucy.”
Their next three films are considered mediocre. “At the Circus” featured Groucho’s song, “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady”. “Go West” was a movie that any comedian of the time could have starred in and “The Big Store” was truly a waste of their talents. After these, they announced their retirement.
They had each gone their separate ways when Zeppo brought “A Night in Casablacna” for them to review. Since they all needed money at the time, they came together for it. It was well worth their efforts and helped capture the madness of the past.
And Harpo brought them “Love Happy” which would be their last movie.
Then they returned to their solo career. Chico toured with his band, Harpo made guest appearances, and Groucho began a 10-year run with “You Bet Your Life” on radio and then TV.
Chico died in 1961 and Harpo died in 1964, ending one of the most notable acts in movie history. Groucho died in 1973, Zeppo and Gummo living until 2000. . . they were remarkable.
Groucho accepted an honorary Oscar on behalf of his brothers shortly before his death. They are a big story from very humble beginnings and I am happy to own their legacy.