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: 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: The Lion King (1994)


Title: The Lion King
Release Date: June 24, 1994
Director: Roger Allers & Rob Minkoff
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Walt Disney Feature Animation
Summary/Review:

I first saw The Lion King in the movie theaters with a group of college friends and we all had an enjoyable time and loved the movie.  Oddly, I didn’t see another Disney animated film in the theaters until Moana 22 years later (although I did see plenty of Pixar films).

The Lion King draws upon Shakespeare’s Hamlet (and possibly a Japanese anime series) for inspiration, but this is the first Disney animated feature that’s not an adaptation of another work and I think it was very freeing for the creators.  They were able to create a universe within the wilderness of Africa to tell a story of love, betrayal, and redemption.  And I think this may also be the first Disney movie with no human characters.

The opening scene with Simba’s presentation is perhaps the most awe-inspiring animation Disney has ever created. And having it all end with a dramatic sting and the movie’s title is a bold choice before beginning the movie proper.  The Lion King strikes the right balance of humor, drama, romance, and adventure.  And the music drawing on African traditions is amazing.  Elton John as composer was an odd choice (and the beginning of a trend of pop artists composing soundtracks for animated movies), but even if his songs do get a little cheezy at times they are definitely memorable.

The Lion King is a great film that I believe will continue to reward viewings for quite some time.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Aladdin (1992)


Title: Aladdin
Release Date: November 25, 1992
Director: John Musker & Ron Clements
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Walt Disney Feature Animation
Summary/Review:

I missed Beauty and the Beast when it came out and didn’t see it until years later, but I have good memories of seeing this movie in the theater with my sister.  The big attraction for Aladdin was Robin Williams as Genie.  Even kids who had no idea who Ed Sullivan and Senor Wences were enjoyed Williams many celebrity impersonations and overall manic performance.  It was the first time a big-name movie star voiced a character in a Disney movie and it would not be the last.  I suspect the animators had a lot of fun animating Williams’ bits especially the constant flow of gags in the songs “Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali.”

Speaking of songs, the movies of the Disney Renaissance were known for their great music, and The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast sold a lot of soundtracks and earned Oscars and Grammies.  But it was Aladdin that made a full assault on the music charts.  If you were not around in 1992-1993, I can’t begin to explain the inescapability of the movie’s love song, “A Whole New World,” in the aural soundscape of the time.  Perhaps only “Let It Go” from Frozen could compete with the utter ubiquity of a Disney movie song.

I hadn’t watched Aladdin in a long time, and mostly only remembered the Genie parts.  I was impressed that overall the movie is very funny and clever.  Aladdin (Scott Weinger) and Jasmine (Linda Larkin) are well-characterized and likable characters and while their romance may be swift it is believable. The themes of being true to oneself and escaping imprisonment (real and metaphorical) are well-done. Even Gilbert Gottfried – who usually annoys me – is pretty funny as the sardonic parrot Iago.

If there’s a downside to Aladdin it is that it relies on some tired stereotypes of Arabic people.  Also, the casting of Aladdin and Jasmine makes them sound like white teenagers from an American suburb rather than from the Middle East. To its credit, the Disney company has gotten better about cultural sensitivity and representative casting in recent years in movies like Moana. But it would’ve been revolutionary if they’d offered more positive representation of Arabic people and culture in 1992, especially so soon after the Persian Gulf War.

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 Little Mermaid (1989)


Title: The Little Mermaid
Release Date: November 17, 1989
Director: Ron Clements and John Musker
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Walt Disney Feature Animation | Silver Screen Partners IV
Summary/Review:

I don’t know what the experience was for moviegoers who saw Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on the silver screen in 1937, but I can tell you that there was an incredible buzz in 1989 when The Little Mermaid was released.  Disney was back.  Growing up in the 70s and 80s it was hard to see the classic Disney animated features which you might see in a theatrical rerelease, or the Wonderful World of Disney or on the Disney Channel, but generally as a Gen X kid you just kind of knew these movies existed without actually seeing them. By the late 80s, Disney started trickling out VHS releases of classic films, but it was the Millennial kids who’d get to watch them over and over.

As for the movies Disney released during the 70s and 80s, this was a well-documented down period for the animation studio, although The Rescuers was a hit and I have a personal soft spot for The Fox and the Hound. The reputation of Disney movies during this time was that they were “kiddie movies.” Teenagers, and even older grade-school children would turn their noses up at them.  The Little Mermaid was different.  It was a movie audiences of all ages enjoyed.

One thing that set this movie apart is the music by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. Teenage boys more macho than me at my high school enthusiastically admitted that they loved the songs.  The calypso numbers by Sebastian the crab ( Samuel E. Wright), “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl,” were the gateway, tying into the World Music trend of the late 80s. All of the songs fit into to the story following the Broadway musical model, and the soundtrack proved very popular.

The animation for the film is also excellent, looking better than any Disney movie had for decades.  The aforementioned musical numbers “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl” are particularly spectacular in the use of various marine life and visual gags.  The fluid mermaid movements of Ariel (Jodi Benson) and her hair are also spectacularly brought to life in animation.  While Ariel’s dream of marrying a prince may not be a particularly feminist plot, her characterization is more realistic and relatable than previous Disney portrayals of young women.

I hadn’t watched The Little Mermaid in a long, long time, and I was pleasantly surprised at how fresh and funny and just downright entertaining it remains after all of these years.

Rating: ****1/2

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: Sleeping Beauty (1959)


Title: Sleeping Beauty
Release Date: January 29, 1959
Director: Clyde Geronimi
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions
Summary/Review:

In the public imagination, Sleeping Beauty is what people imagine Disney films are like (or at least they did until more recent years): a fairy tale story where a princess survives dangers to find true love with her prince.  Sleeping Beauty Castle was even given prime real estate in Disneyland (which opened four years before the movie was released!). The reality is that after this movie performed poorly at the box office, Disney waited a whole 30 years before making a fairy tale princess movie again with The Little Mermaid. The Disney Princess marketing angle wasn’t even introduced until the 2000s!

The movie is good enough and competently-made but nothing jumps out as exciting.  While the characters and their movement are excellently animated, it strikes me as odd that the movie relies on rather flat backdrops which make it look cheaply-made.  Although there are moments when the characters are frozen against those backgrounds that look like woodcuts, so maybe that was what they were going for.

Despite being referred to in the title, Princess Aurora (alternately Briar Rose) is not the main character of the movie.  The protagonists are the good fairies Flora, Fauna and Merryweather who are responsible for just about every action in the movie, or at least reactions to the villain Maleficent.  Even when Prince Phillip is charged with rescuing Aurora, it is the fairies who are helping out along the way.  So let’s have a Disney live action remake called The Good Fairies that focuses on their stories.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Muppets Most Wanted (2014)


Title: Muppets Most Wanted
Release Date: March 21, 2014
Director: James Bobin
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Mandeville Films
Summary/Review:

As much as I enjoyed The Muppets, the movie did play it safe and nice.  Any restrictions on pure Muppet anarchy were removed for the sequel which picks up immediately from the end of its predecessor.  The Muppets are lured into going on a world tour by the vinous Dominic Badguy (played by the villainous Ricky Gervais).

Badguy is actually working for Constantine, the World’s Most Evil Frog (Matt Vogel). Constantine swaps places with Kermit (Steve Whitmire), leading the Muppets to various European destinations to pull of heists while the rest of the troupe performs (did Spider-Man: Far From Home kind of borrow this plot?).  Meanwhile, Kermit is stuck in a gulag in Siberia where he’s watched over by an obsessive guard, Nadya (Tina Fey), and forced to direct the prisoners’ talent show. A CIA agent, Sam Eagle (Eric Jacobson) and French Interpol agent Jean Pierre Napoleon (Ty Burrell) form a comic duo investigating the heists related to the Muppets performances.  I particularly like their “Interrogation Song,” which sounded like it could’ve fit in Hamilton.

Like it’s predecessor, there are touches of nostalgia with the plot being a throwback to The Great Muppet Caper, and a wedding scene and the song “Together Again” (which is now “Together Again, Again”) hearkens back to The Muppets Take Manhattan. It’s great to see the Muppets continue to be creative and funny over all these years and I look forward to watching their new program Muppets Now.

Rating: ***1/2