Movie Review: A Night in Casablanca (1946)


Welcome to  the final Marx Brothers Mondays! I’ve skipped over several  of the Marx Brothers later movies as they’re considered to be not so good, and this is the only one I found free on a streaming service.  This will be my final review for now.

Title: A Night in Casablanca
Release Date: May 10, 1946
Director: Archie Mayo
Production Company: Loma Vista Productions
Summary/Review:

The Marx Brothers are set in a post-World War II spy thriller parody.  Groucho plays Ronald Kornblow who is hired as the new manager of the Hotel Casablanca, unaware that Nazi war criminal Heinrich Stubel (Sig Ruman) murdered the previous 3 managers as part of a plot to find stolen art hidden within the hotel.  Lisette Verea plays the femme fatale Stubel sends to seduce and distract Kornblow.

The comedy isn’t as sharp as the earlier films, but I did find myself guffawing quite a bit all the same. I especially like the antics of Harpo, Chico, and Groucho in the final 20 minutes as the subvert Stubel’s attempts to escape.  This may be controversial, but I found it funnier that A Day at the Races.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: A Day at the Races (1937)


Welcome to Marx Brothers Mondays! I’ll be watching and reviewing the Marxist oeuvre over the next several weeks.

Title: A Day at the Races
Release Date: June 11, 1937
Director: Sam Wood
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Summary/Review:

The previous movie introduced a “kinder, gentler” Marx Brothers, but the change in tone is more jarringly evident in their second film with MGM.  The feel of the movie is more sitcom than the “vaudeville-on-film” that preceded it.  Chico and Harpo adapt well, but Groucho just seems out of place.  The general plot is that a sanitorium in a resort town run by Judy Standish (Maureen O’Sullivan) is facing a fiscal crisis and could be bought and turned into a casino. Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush (Groucho Marx) is brought in to care for a wealthy client who could be impressed upon to invest in the sanitarium, Mrs. Emily Upjohn (Margaret Dumont).  What no one knows is that Hackenbush is actually a horse doctor.  Meanwhile, fiancé Gil Stewart (Allan Jones) has unwisely spent his life savings on a race horse hoping to win a big race and give the prize money to Judy. The movie feels a little feminist by having its two main women characters be responsible and sensible, while the men are irresponsible and nonsensical.

The movie feels very episodic with the Marx Brothers comedy bits inserted between bits that advanced the plot and musical numbers.  There are two major musical numbers.  The first is “On Blue Venetian Waters” is a Busby Berkeley-esque song and dance spectacular with Jones singing solo and Vivien Fay leading the dancers.  “All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm” features the Marxes and Jones in a barn when out of nowhere dozens of African American singers and dancers appear, featuring Ivie Anderson from Duke Ellington’s orchestra and troupe of lindy hoppers.  It’s a delightful sequence and I was pleased that the Marx Brothers weren’t wearing blackface, until, of course, they do.  They actually but axle grease on their face to disguise themselves from the sheriff.  If one is feeling generous, one could say that they are mocking how ludicrous it is to wear blackface since it doesn’t make them look Black at all.

I feel this movie is hit-or-miss, but the hits are good enough to make it worth watching.  It is a good, but not great, Marx Brothers movie.  But with the Marx Brothers, good is still pretty entertaining.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: A Night at the Opera (1935)


Welcome to Marx Brothers Mondays! I’ll be watching and reviewing the Marxist oeuvre over the next several weeks.

Title: A Night at the Opera
Release Date: November 15, 1935
Director: Sam Wood
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Summary/Review:

A Night at the Opera is the Brothers Marx first film with MGM and the first produced by Irving Thalberg. At Thalberg’s suggestion, the Marx Brothers were to become less anarchic and only use their sass and nonsense against the movie’s antagonists while offering their help to the film’s heroes.  After being absent from Duck Soup, a romantic subplot and non-comic musical numbers return.  In fact this is the first time the Marx Brothers bits, romance, and musical aspects are all tied together into a coherent plot.

Allan Jones takes over for Zeppo as a chorister named Ricardo Baroni who is in a romance with the opera company’s lead soprano Rosa Castaldi (a strong performance by Kitty Carlisle).  The “bad guys” in the film are the abusive lead tenor Rodolfo Lassparri (Walter Woolf King) director of the New York Opera company Herman Gottlieb (Sig Ruman), and the dowager investor Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont, of course!).  The Marxes get several set pieces including the famous contract scene between Chico and Groucho, the crowd of people in Groucho’s tiny stateroom, and the general disturbance they cause in the concluding opera scenes. Chico and Harpo get their traditional piano and harp solos, but they’re vastly improved by performing on a ship’s deck surrounded by Italian children and comically interacting with them.

A Night at the Opera may not be my #1 or #2 Marx Brothers film, but it is a worthy classic.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Duck Soup (1933)


Welcome to Marx Brothers Mondays! I’ll be watching and reviewing the Marxist oeuvre over the next several weeks.

Title: Duck Soup
Release Date: November 17, 1933
Director: Leo McCarey
Production Company: Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review:

The Marx Brothers did not set out to parody Mussolini, Hitler, or any other autocrat, but nevertheless this film’s satire of a corrupt government going to war to enrich its leader remains topical and astute. The wealthy widow Gloria Teasdale (Margaret Dumont, returning after a two film absence) insists on appointing Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) as the leader of the country of Fredonia.  Harpo and Chico are spies for the rival nation of Sylvania.  And Zeppo is Groucho’s secretary.

At a lean 68 minutes, Duck Soup is packed with gags.  There is no romantic subplot, and even Harpo’s harp solo and Chico’s piano recital are excised. The movie includes gags such as Harpo & Chico tormenting a lemonade vendor while swapping hats and the famed mirror sequence where Groucho and Harpo mirror one another.  I particularly liked the musical number “All God’s Chillun Got Guns” which is the rare occasion where all four brothers sing and dance together (and the last one too, as Zeppo would step down from performing after this movie).  The war scenes that complete the movie are full of references and puns and visual gags (such as Groucho’s uniform changing in every shot) that it’s worth rewatching to see all the things you missed.

This movie is definitely the Marx Brothers at their best and nearly 90 years hasn’t made it any less relevant.

Rating: *****

Movie Review: Horse Feathers (1932)


Welcome to Marx Brothers Mondays! I’ll be watching and reviewing the Marxist oeuvre over the next several weeks.

Title: Horse Feathers
Release Date: August 10, 1932
Director: Norman Z. McLeod
Production Company: Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review:

The Marx Brothers set their sights on roasting universities and college football with the topics of satire remaining remarkably current.  Groucho (as Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff) is appointed President of Darwin College ushering in his inauguration with a wonderful song and dance number. Zeppo plays his son (!), a college student, while Chico and Harpo are ice vendors mistakenly recruited as ringers for the football teams big game against Huxley College (and yes, I do love the Darwin and Huxley allusions).

While the topics are ripe for satire, I find this movie to be a bit of a dud compared to other Marx Brothers comedies. Unfortunately, much of the movie relies on the tired Marx Brothers trope of “Creepy Men Chasing Women.”  Even if you could set aside 21st century ideas of feminism and consensual relationships, I can’t understand why anyone finds men chasing women to be inherently funny.  Most of the movie has all four Marx Brothers attempting to woo the “college widow” Connie Bailey (Thelma Todd) and the laughs are few. At least this movie is short.

Rating: **

Movie Review: Monkey Business (1931)


Welcome to Marx Brothers Mondays! I’ll be watching and reviewing the Marxist oeuvre over the next several weeks.

Title: Monkey Business
Release Date: September 19, 1931
Director: Norman Z. McLeod
Production Company: Paramount Publix Corp
Summary/Review:

Monkey Business is the Marx Brothers first film written for the screen and their second classic.  Set aboard a transatlantic liner, the four Marx Brothers are introduced as stowaways hiding in barrels. The bulk of the plot involves their various hijinks as they attempt to avoid capture by the crew while also getting recruited by opposing gangsters.  Thelma Todd plays one gangster’s daughter, Lucille Briggs, and serves as a saucy comic foil.  There are a lot of great comic bits in this film including all four of the Marx Brothers singing a Maurice Chevalier song in an attempt to use his passport.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Animal Crackers (1930)


Welcome to Marx Brothers Mondays! I’ll be watching and reviewing the Marxist oeuvre over the next several weeks.

Title: Animal Crackers
Release Date: August 23, 1930
Director: Victor Heerman
Production Company:  Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review:

This is the Marx Brothers first true classic film.  Like The Cocoanuts, it is adapted from their Broadway musical, which is reflected in the stage-like sets of the film.  But in this movie the songs reflect and commentate on the plot (thin as it is) and support the Marx Brothers antics. The setting is a party at the home of socialite Mrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont) who is hosting the celebrated African explorer Captain Jeffrey Spaulding (Grouch Marx). Another guest, art collector Roscoe W. Chandler (Louis Sorin) will be displaying a famous work of art by a painter named Beaugard.  Not one but two parties of guests decide to steal the Beaugard and put their own work in its place leading to the thin plot for the film and the source of most of its antics.

The movie has some cringe-worthy moments considering that Grouch is playing a man who hunts big game in Africa, thus leading to many horrible stereotypes about Africans (including being carried in a sedan chair but several Black men). Another running gag has Harpo chasing a young woman who is clearly not interested in him.  But all-in-all the movie is not as cringe-inducing as you might expect from a 90-year-old comedy.  Groucho’s song “Hello, I Must Be Going” is one of my favorite bits and a song I had on my voicemail greeting when I was in college.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: The Cocoanuts (1929)


Welcome to Marx Brothers Mondays! I’ll be watching and reviewing the Marxist oeuvre over the next several weeks.

Title: The Cocoanuts
Release Date: August 3, 1929
Director: Robert Florey & Joseph Santley
Production Company: Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review:

This the Marx Brothers first talkie and second movie overall after the lost 1921 silent film Humor Risk. Excepting Harpo, I can’t imagine the Marx Brothers in a silent movie since they are so reliant on witty dialogue. The movie is adapted from a stage performance and it doesn’t appear that all too many changes were made to adapt to the new medium.  Performances of dancing girls and musical numbers are awkwardly intercut with sketch-like performances by the Marx brothers and the requisite romantic subplot, but in more of variety show pattern than something that flows from one thing to the next.

Released a few months before the Great Stock Market Crash of 1929, The Cocoanuts is a timely parody of the Florida land boom with Groucho as the unscrupulous hotel owner Mr. Hammer, Zeppo as his lazy assistant, and Chico and Harpo as a pair of crooks and conmen. As noted above the plot is very thin and this is more of an episodic linkage of Marx Brothers zaniness with song and dance.  It’s fun to watch but the Marx Brothers will learn to take better advantage of movies as they gain more experience

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: A Night at the Opera (1935)


In 2019 I found some old Word documents with movie reviews I wrote back before I had a blog. I’m posting each review backdated to the day I wrote it.

Title: A Night at the Opera
Release Date: November 15, 1935
Director: Sam Wood
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Summary/Review:

I confess – I’m a Marxist! At least when the Marx Brothers are involved. And somehow I’d never seen this one before. Allegedly this movie has a plot involving a pair of young lovers attempting to succeed in the opera, but really it’s just a pretext for Groucho, Harpo, and Chico (no Zeppo) to perform their wacky antics. The Onion includes the shipboard musical number as a “bad scene in a great movie” but I enjoyed it too. Lots of fun and laughs. There were even kids in the movie theater where I saw this who were laughing hysterically, so it works for all ages.

Rating: ****