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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Classic Reviews Roundup #6 - June 2004

This time out, I'll be looking at a couple of Marx Brothers offerings - The Marx Brothers Collection from Warner Brothers and a documentary, The Marx Brothers in a Nutshell from Direct Cinema. Other Marx Brothers material worth looking for includes another documentary, The Unknown Marx Brothers (issued by Winstar in 1998), and the five early Paramount films (previously available on DVD from Image, but now out of print). The Paramount films are rumoured to be on their way to DVD anew from Universal later this year.


The Marx Brothers Collection (1935-1946)

A Night at the Opera (1935 - also available separately)
A Day at the Races (1937 - also available separately)
A Night in Casablanca (1946 - also available separately)

(released on DVD by Warner Bros. on May 4th, 2004)

The Marx Brothers Collection

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A Night at the Opera

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A Day at the Races

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A Night in Casablanca

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After having to make do with the passable, but now out-of-print, Image DVD versions of the Marx Brothers early Paramount films for years, fans have been provided with a very fine fix of the other Marx Brothers films, those under the control of Warner Bros. Included in Warners' newly released five-disc box set are the MGM productions A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races, At the Circus, Go West, and The Big Store, the RKO production of Room Service, and the brothers' final joint screen performance, A Night in Casablanca, independently produced by David Loew and released through United Artists. Room Service, At the Circus, Go West, and The Big Store are presented on two double feature discs and are exclusive to the box set. A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races, and A Night in Casablanca each have their own disc and are also available for purchase individually.

A Night at the Opera (1935) and A Day at the Races (1937) are clearly the class of the collection. Fans have debated for years over the merits of these two films compared with their Paramount predecessors. Both were developed under the guidance of MGM production chief Irving Thalberg and that care shows in the way the brothers' strong points are able to shine when supported by a strong back story and an able cast of supporting players headed by their traditional foil, Margaret Dumont, and supplemented by the reliable Sig Rumann. These look like classy efforts as would be expected of major productions from the Cadillac of studios. The films may not have the anarchic quality of some of the Paramount films, but they do offer many of the brothers' classic routines (the stateroom, the sanity clause, the medical exam, Chico's hot tip courtesy of tootsie-frootsie ice cream) and the musical numbers are expansively mounted. The fact that the Marxes don't have to carry the whole show makes their contributions all the more effective, for my taste.

The two DVDs are both appealing packages. The full frame images are quite film-like in appearance with a fairly crisp look and some modest grain. The source material for A Night at the Opera is obviously in the poorer condition of the two with its transfer exhibiting some speckling and debris as well as the odd scratch. (Marx aficionados will notice that the jerky quality of the opening storyline remains, reflecting the editing that was applied at the time to excise some specific references to Italy in the early scenes.) The mono sound tracks are both quite adequate and English, French and Spanish subtitles are provided. For supplements, A Night at the Opera offers a typically thorough and entertaining audio commentary by Leonard Maltin, the new documentary Remarks on Marx, a 1961, Groucho Marx television appearance, two vintage shorts Sunday Night at the Trocadero and Robert Benchley's Academy Award-winning How to Sleep, and the theatrical trailer. A Day at the Races offers audio commentary by "The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia" author Glenn Mitchell, the new documentary On Your Marx, Get Set, Go!, the theatrical trailer, a couple of audio-only items, the vintage short Robert Benchley's A Night at the Movies, and three cartoons (Gallopin' Gals, Mama's New Hat, and Old Smokey).

Unfortunately, Thalberg died just before A Day at the Races was released and the brothers' subsequent MGM outings were increasingly uninspired. In fact, at first MGM seemed uncertain what to do with them and in the interim, the Marxes managed to line up an outside job through RKO. Room Service (1938) was a successful Broadway farce for which RKO paid a then-record sum of almost a quarter million dollars for the screen rights. The play (about an insolvent producer and his troupe who are sponging off a hotel while they try to mount a play) was adapted to include some typical Marxian lunacy and the results, while far from the quality of their best efforts, comprised an entertaining 78 minutes. Returning to MGM, the Marxes found themselves in At the Circus (1939) which was characterized by a less elaborate back story. There's a circus, yes, but the circus atmosphere is unconvincing. Nor are many of the brothers' gags as inspired as their best efforts. Too often, they just seem more stupid than anything else (for example, the badge sequence).

Warners' DVD which presents both films full frame, one per side, looks great. At the Circus is the crisper-looking of the two, but it also has somewhat more speckling and debris in evidence. Both offer good mono sound free of hiss and crackle. English, French, and Spanish subtitles are provided. Room Service is supplemented by the Our Gang comedy Party Fever, the Daffy Duck/Porky Pig cartoon The Daffy Doc, and the theatrical trailer. At the Circus is supplemented by the Our Gang comedy Dog Daze, the cartoon Jitterbug Follies, and the theatrical trailer.

The Marx's next outing, Go West (1940), makes At the Circus look like a masterpiece. Normally a western setting and a good train sequence give a film a substantial advantage for me, but this whole effort is a major letdown. The film opens in a promising fashion with a great train station gag in which Chico and Harpo manage to fleece Groucho out of his train fare, but that's the last spark of inspiration in it. Of all the great screen comedians who have attempted western lampoons including Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, and Abbott and Costello, the Marx Brothers effort is the poorest. Aside from the opening, they bring nothing unique to the film and MGM might just as easily have dressed up three unknowns actors as the Marxs. The last MGM film, The Big Store (1941), is a little better. Allowed to run loose in a department store, the Marx Brothers seem to be revitalized somewhat with the reappearance of Margaret Dumont and an extended sequence in the store's bed department offering throwbacks to the better days. The whole department store background is well-enough established to give the film a better footing than the two previous films had as well.

Warners' double feature DVD is on a par with the Room Service/At the Circus one. Both films (full frame) look very good, quite crisp with only modest age-related speckling and debris. Go West is somewhat cleaner than The Big Store. Both offer good, clear mono sound and subtitles in English, French, and Spanish. Go West is supplemented by the Pete Smith short Quicker 'N a Wink, the James Fitzpatrick travelogue Cavalcade of San Francisco, the theatrical trailer, a Leo Is on the Air radio promo, and the cartoon The Milky Way. The Big Store is supplemented by the short Flicker Memories, the cartoon Officer Pooch, the theatrical trailer, and a musical out-take of Tony Martin singing "Where There's Music".

The Big Store had been intended as the brothers' final film together, but in 1946, there was a swan song, A Night in Casablanca. As a finale, it's quite a satisfactory concoction of Nazi criminals in a hotel in wartime Casablanca, and one that offered some good moments for each of the brothers individually and well as together. The brothers were looking older (all were in their 50s by now) and some of the gags were old too, but maybe just because we know it was five years between this and their previous film, we're more accepting of it. Harpo perhaps comes off the best of the three, with a number of good opportunities including one early in the film involving a falling building. It's also nice to see familiar nemesis Sig Rumann around once again.

Warners full frame DVD presentation is a crisp, clean job with only some modest grain in evidence. The mono sound is more than adequate once again and sports the standard English, French, and Spanish subtitles. Supplements include a Joe McDoakes short So You Think You're a Nervous Wreck and the Bugs Bunny cartoon Acrobatty Bunny.

Warner Bros.' five-disc, seven-film Marx Brothers Collection does the Marx Brothers proud with very good transfers (for the most part), sufficient contextual information in the form of commentaries and documentaries, and some entertaining supplementary materials. Add in the fact that the package is very attractively priced and that all the discs are in keep cases, and for any Marx Brothers fan, you have an offering that's a no-brainer. Highly recommended.


The Marx Brothers in a Nutshell (1982)
(released on DVD by Direct Cinema Limited on May 22nd, 2004)

The Marx Brothers in a Nutshell was the first in-depth film biography of the Marx Brothers. It appeared on PBS in 1982 and was the product of then 22-year-old filmmaker Bob Weide who had devoted four years to the project. The film was highly acclaimed upon its release and seen now, some 22 years later, it's easy to see why. Running some 98 minutes and including some footage not included in its initial release, the documentary provides an excellent portrait of the brothers and their work and serves as an essential supplement to the Warner Bros. box set.

The Marx Brothers in a Nutshell

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The documentary's strength lies in its wealth of comments from both those who worked with the Marx Brothers (for example, writers Irving Brecher, Nat Perrin, Robert Pirosh, and Morrie Ryskind) and the children of the brothers themselves. Thus both the historical and work contexts are addressed as well as the brothers' personal lives and how they reflected the characters we saw on the screen. The interviews are liberally supplemented with extensive clips from virtually all the films, later television work, and some home-movie sequences. Modern perspectives are provided by the likes of Dick Cavett, David Steinberg, and Woody Allen. The comments of the latter three are generally insightful, with the exception of Allen's, which are more obvious observations (which is perhaps why they were not included in the original release version). Gene Kelly provides the overall narration from a script by Joe Adamson (author of "Groucho, Harpo, Chico and sometimes Zeppo"). There is excellent material here for both the Marx Brothers aficionado and neophyte.

Direct Cinema's DVD (NTSC, region-free) presents the documentary full frame in accord with the original aspect ratio. The image is quite presentable although the modern footage (in colour) is a little tired looking with appreciable grain in evidence and an overall look somewhat lacking in crispness. Naturally the vintage footage (black and white) reflects the quality of the source material, which means noticeable speckling, scratches, dirt, and debris. The sound is Dolby Digital stereo although there's little discernible difference from a mono presentation. Some age-related hiss is present, but otherwise the dialogue is clear. There are no supplements. Despite the merely average disc, the title is recommended on the basis of content alone.

Barrie Maxwell
barriemaxwell@thedigitalbits.com


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