The Marx Brothers = The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, Duck Soup – Blu-ray (3)

A Silver Screen Blu-ray collection of the first five (and funniest) Marx Bros. movies.

The Marx Brothers  = The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, Duck Soup – Blu-ray (3) (1929-1933/2016)

Cast: Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, Zeppo Marx, Margaret Dumont
Directors: Victor Heerman, Norman Z. McLeod, Joseph Santley, Robert Florey, Leo McCarey
Studio: Paramount/ Universal Studios Home Ent. 61181320 (10/18/16)
Video: 1:33 for 4:3 B&W
Audio: English mono PCM
Subtitles: English SDH, French
Extras: See below
Length: TT: 408 min.
Rating: *****  

At least three of the four Marx Brothers are the reigning kings of comedy on film and they remain one of the most iconic comic teams of all time. And these – their first five films for Paramount – are the most hilarious of all their work – the later ones for MGM get more serious are are not filled with comedy sketches, witty dialogue and plenty of gags like these five. The first one, from 1929, was actually the first all-talking and music sound film – The Jazz Singer only has a part with sync sound. And this was when many films had the sound on separate discs that had to be synced up with the images on the films.

The Marx Bros. – Groucho, Harpo Chico and Zeppo – talked with ordinary language (except for Harpo) and captivated audiences as a result. It was after their most popular (and possibly best) film, Duck Soup, that Zeppo left the group because he was tired of constantly being just the singer and straight man. So these are the only movies with all four brothers, who you learn in the extras were put together and encouraged by their mother, who saw they could command a good income from the vaudeville stage. Their father wanted to be part of the foursome after her death (the five Marx Bros.?), and also encouraged them. At one point they were shooting one of the films for Paramount in New York early in the day, and then appearing in a Broadway show in the evening, and the dialogue for one got confused with the other occasionally.

There are many extras with this three Blu-ray set: Film Scholar Anthony Slide gives a commentary track for The Coconauts of 1929, and Film Historian Jeffrey Vance provides one for Animal Crackers. Historian/Author Robert S. Bader is joined by a son of Harpo Marx for the commentary track on Monkey Business, and Film Critic F.X. Feeney is heard on Horse Feathers.

Duck Soup has a commentary track by Leonard Maltin and Robert S. Bader, plus there are three “Inside the NBC Vault” excerpts from past TV shows: Interviews with Groucho, Harpo and Bill Marx again (a son of Harpo). As well as a feature-length featurette on “Hollywood’s Kings of Chaos,” which is great fun and very informative. Dick Cavett is one of the talking heads; he idolized his friend Groucho, and describes how Groucho didn’t realize how much the Marx Bros. and especially himself were idolized by the youth since they made fun of the status quo in so many ways.

The piano-playing of “shooting the keys” Chico and the fairly serious concert harp playing of Harpo are fit into the five films, and sometimes in a very corny way that you may want to fast forward to get to more of the Marx Bros. chaos. The worst seems to be the first film, The Coconauts, because the filmmakers had not really learned how to fit the musical numbers into the film yet. If you have only viewed some of these old films on TV, you owe it to yourself to see the gorgeous Blu-ray remasterings, and the mono sound even on the 1929 effort is quite good. Only once for short while (in the last of the five) does it become distorted and unwieldy. Also Duck Soup is regarded as their best effort of the five, and the opening Groucho bit as the new president of Fredonia reminded me somewhat of the current Republican candidate. The latter quarter of the film where there is a war between Fredonia and Sylvania was not a bit funny to me. Harpo had been to Europe in the 1930s and was very upset about Hitler, but this effort to make fun of the national socialists (and patriotic nationalist stuff in general) was not nearly as successful as Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. 

But the Groucho speeches are all amazing and only-Groucho in nature, if you know what I mean. His trying to sell Florida real estate in the first film, his bits with the wonderfully-cooperative and important “straight woman” in four of the films – Margaret Dumont – his speech (and dance) as head of Huxley College in Horse Feathers, and his speeches as the leader of Fredonia in the fifth film are just too much. Then there’s the terrific “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” when he plays the African explorer in Animal Crackers. Groucho really couldn’t sing or dance, but that didn’t stop him for a minute, and what came out of that mouth couldn’t be replicated by anyone else.

—John Sunier

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