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Five Marx Brothers Comedies

Animal Crackers (February 19/06)

That Animal Crackers - the Marx Brothers' second movie - started out on the New York stage comes as no surprise whatsoever, given the distinctly loose vibe that occasionally resembles a variety show rather than an actual film. The storyline - thin as it is - revolves around the return of a famed explorer named Captain Spaulding (Groucho Marx), who finds himself mixed up in the hijinks at a fancy palatial estate. Animal Crackers is undeniably quite effective when Groucho is allowed to just do his thing, as the actor delivers an expectedly charismatic performance that is often quite funny (this is, after all, the film in which he utters the immortal line, "one morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don't know.") But the almost complete lack of structure ultimately transforms Animal Crackers into an exceedingly hit-and-miss affair that is, unfortunately, more miss than hit.

out of

Monkey Business (February 23/06)

Though it's slightly more cinematic than Animal Crackers, Monkey Business ultimately reveals itself to be just as ineffective as its predecessor - though Groucho Marx's antics are, as expected, good for a chuckle or two. Like Animal Crackers, the film generally eschews plot in favor of a non-stop barrage of one-liners, puns, and various other rambunctious shenanigans. This time around, the brothers - Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo - engage in tomfoolery aboard a luxury transatlantic cruise, where they encounter irate crew members and dangerous gangsters (among others). It goes without saying that Monkey Business will have a much more positive effect among fans of the brothers, as the rampant silliness can occasionally be awfully difficult to take. It's clear, though, that the brothers were not looking to convert neophytes with these early films; there's a distinct sense that the four men were, in a big way, just preaching to the choir.

out of

Horse Feathers (February 25/06)

The zaniness continues with this expectedly overblown comedy that revolves around the wacky hijinks at Huxley College, where Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff (Groucho Marx) has just been installed as the new president. His first act is to assemble a top-notch football team to defeat the school's rivals, though his decision to employ a pair of bumbling idiots (played by Chico and Harpo) soon proves to be disastrous. Horse Feathers, more than either Animal Crackers or Monkey Business, often emphasizes outrageously broad instances of physical comedy over clever one-liners and absurd puns, which, as it turns out, is a far-from-preferable tradeoff. The bulk of the movie follows Chico and Harpo's over-the-top antics, with Groucho's fast-talking schtick generally left by the wayside. The needless inclusion of musical numbers for Chico and Harpo certainly doesn't help matters, nor does the frantic, prank-heavy finale that only exacerbates the overall feeling of pointlessness at work here.

out of

Duck Soup (February 26/06)

Duck Soup is generally considered the Marx Brothers' masterpiece, and routinely pops up on various lists as one of the best comedies ever made. As expected, however, detractors of the quartet will find very little here to embrace - though there's no denying that the film is, at the very least, far more accessible than any of the brothers' earlier efforts. After Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) is named President of a small country named Freedonia, one of his very first acts is to declare war on neighboring Sylvania in order to win over a wealthy society figure (played by Marx Brothers foil Margaret Dumont). Duck Soup is jam-packed with pratfalls, wacky misunderstandings, and a whole host of double-entendres and puns, but the film suffers from the same problem that seems to plague all of the brothers' films: ie the majority of this just isn't funny (something that's particularly true of an excruciatingly prolonged sequence involving Harpo and Chico's harassment of a blustering street vendor). The conclusion, which is action-packed and mind-numbing, does the movie absolutely no favors, and it's extraordinarily difficult to understand why this is generally regarded as some kind of a comedy classic.

out of

A Night at the Opera (February 28/06)

A Night at the Opera - the Marx Brothers' sixth movie together, and their first without Zeppo - is generally an entertaining piece of work, something that can undoubtedly be attributed to George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind's fairly traditional screenplay. Instead of allowing the brothers to take over the production with their broad antics, the trio seems to have been forced to step into actual characters this time around (well, as close to characters as these guys could possibly get). The result is a film that, while not terribly funny, succeeds in keeping even detractors engaged, though it's clear that the film will work best among devotees of the brothers. The unusually complicated storyline revolves a shady business manager (Groucho Marx) and his efforts to secure a spot in a prestigious opera for his new client (played by Allan Jones). As expected, A Night at the Opera is rife with superfluous musical numbers and unreasonably over-the-top instances of physical comedy - though director Sam Wood does an effective job of reigning in the trio's more outrageous tendencies (with the most obvious exception the requisite inclusion of a piano number for Chico and a stint on the harp for Harpo, both of which feel like outtakes). The bottom line is that A Night at the Opera, like the rest of the Marx Brothers' output, will provide big laughs to viewers with an appreciation for this sort of thing (thankfully, though, the movie isn't a flat out bore for everyone else).

out of

© David Nusair