"Here your ice-a cream.
Here your tootsie-fruitsie ice-a cream."
We can rejoice at the appearance of any new compilation of Marx Brothers comedies, even if, as here, the studio has already issued them singly. In this two-disc TCM Greatest Films collection, we get "A Day at the Races" (1937), "Room Service" (1938), "At the Circus" (1939), and "A Night in Casablanca" (1946). They are not all among the Brothers' absolute best work, but they are fun, nonetheless.
The Marx Brothers got their start in movies as Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo, filming their stage hit "The Coconuts" for Paramount in 1929. Then followed "Animal Crackers" (1930), "Monkey Business" (1931), "Horse Feathers" (1932), and "Duck Soup" (1933), also for Paramount. But "Duck Soup," today often considered their best film, was a box-office bomb, and by this time Zeppo, playing the eternal straight man to his brothers' zaniness, quit the team. The Marx Brothers weren't sure if they'd ever work again. But Irving Thalberg, the young genius head of MGM, came to the rescue. He lured them to his studio, gave them a tighter script than they had ever performed in before, a rather silly subplot involving two young lovers (Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle), bigger production numbers, and a larger budget than the boys had ever seen. The combination worked, and "A Night at the Opera" became the most financially successful movie the Marx Brothers made, leading to six more movies at MGM, including the four represented here, before they retired the act in the mid 1940s. Unfortunately, "A Night at the Opera" is a film WB leave off this four-movie collection. Oh, well....
Let me describe briefly three of the films we do get in the set and then go into a little more detail on the one I like best, "A Dat at the Races. So, first up, we have "Room Service." William A. Seiter directed it, and Lucile Ball, Ann Miller, and Frank Albertson co-star. This was something of a change of pace for the Marxes, doing a movie that was originally a Broadway play, which the screenwriter, Morrie Ryskind, rewrote with the brothers in mind. It's all about a group of theatrical performers who can't get enough money together to put on their show and have to stall the manager of a hotel from throwing them out on their ear. It's rather stage bound for a Marx Brothers movie, but there are still a few good scenes.
Next, there's "At the Circus," directed by Edward Buzzell and co-starring Kenny Baker, Florence Rice, Eve Arden, Margaret Dumont, and Nat Pendleton. Groucho's singing "Lydia, the Tattooed Lady" is the highlight of an otherwise fairly routine Marx Brothers affair.
Then, there's the final movie the brothers did together for the big screen, "A Night in Casablanca." Archie Mayo directed and Charles Drake, Lois Collier, Lisette Vera, Sig Ruman, Dan Seymour, and Lewis Russel co-star. You can see from the movie's title that the producers were trying to remind people of the Brothers' previous hit, "A Night at the Opera," while at the same time capitalize on Bogart's "Casablanca." Critics generally gave the film a bum rap, but it holds up surprisingly well. Or maybe it's just my sentimental nostalgia for the Brothers' last film together. The Marxes are up against Nazis in a Moroccan hotel, all quite exotic, with several funny moments, especially at the beginning and end.
Which brings us to probably the best of the four films included here, "A Day at the Races," directed by Sam Wood, who also directed the Brothers in "A Night at the Opera" and would later do such classics as "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" and "Our Town." "A Day at the Races" would mark the first major decline in the Marx Brothers' fortunes, but at least the movies they made prior were all genuine classics and the movies they made after, even if they weren't up to the best of the early stuff, were better than most comedies of their day or our own.
"A Day at the Races" takes place at a sanitarium in Sparkling Springs, Florida, and at a nearby racetrack. Judy Standish (Maureen O'Sullivan) owns the sanitarium, but it's not doing well and the bank is about to foreclose. Breathing down her neck are a pair of weasels--Whitmore (Leonard Ceeley) and Morgan (Douglas Dumbrille)--who want to buy her out. Morgan already owns the racetrack and a nightclub, and he wants to turn the sanitarium into a hotel-casino. What Judy needs is a wealthy patron to help her out. And there is one possibility: Mrs. Emily Upjohn (Margaret Dumont), who might just donate to the cause if she can get her favorite doctor, Hugo Z. Hackenbush (Groucho), to join the hospital's staff.
"I haven't seen so much mudslinging since the last election."
Hackenbuch, of course, is a quack. He's been treating Mrs. Upjohn at her house because he is actually a veterinarian, a horse doctor. Still, Hackenbush is keen on the idea of becoming the sanitarium's chief medical officer and keener still on the salary that goes with it. Meanwhile, Chico plays Tony, Judy's driver and general handyman, and Harpo plays Stuffy, a jockey. Then, because by this time Zeppo had left the Brothers' act and they had to have a handsome young leading man somewhere, Allan Jones plays Gil Stewart, Judy's boyfriend and a singer at a nearby club.
Groucho's job, as always, is to romance various women: "Hold me closer, closer, closer," one exclaims. "If I hold you any closer, I'll be in back of you."
"A Day at the Races" may not inspire one to gales of laughter the way "A Night at the Opera" or the earlier Marx Brothers films did, but there are still some good laughs here. Mrs. Upjohn's examination turns into a shambles. "X-ray, x-ray, get your x-ray." There are also several big musical numbers with Jones, and, naturally, Chico gets to play a piano piece and Harpo gets his turn on the harp.
Unhappily, there is also a sequence toward the end of the movie involving some questionable racial stereotypes that might well offend audiences today. And the climactic horse race goes on far too long. You take the bad with the good.
"I've never been so insulted in my life!"
"Well, it's early yet."
As always, Warner Bros. obtained very good prints of the films, cleaned them up further, and transferred them to disc in pretty good shape. One notices by their general absence any lines, scratches, and age spots, leaving only occasional white specks and a minor degree of roughness in the original 1.33:1 ratio picture. Black-and-white contrasts show up vividly, with blacks reasonably deep. There is a fine, natural grain visible most of the time, but we wouldn't want it any other way.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural soundtracks do a good job clarifying the audio, which is mostly midrange dialogue, to be sure, but smooth, clean midrange dialogue. Background noise is minimal unless you turn up the volume insanely high, and the soundtracks even show their stuff in terms of dynamic range (as when Harpo destroys a piano in "A Day at the Races"). It's well-preserved sound for its day.
The extras on the discs vary from movie to movie, but most of them include featurettes, short subjects, classic cartoons, audio-only bits, outtakes, and theatrical trailers.
Specific to "A Day at the Races" we find the largest number of bonuses. First, there's an audio commentary by Glenn Mitchell, author of "The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia" that is pretty straightforward but enlightening. Next is the twenty-seven minute featurette "On Your Marx, Get Set, Go!," which contains comments on the Marx Brothers from comics, screenwriters, other filmmakers, and film historians. Then, we get the ten-minute Robert Benchley comedy "A Night at the Movies," which somewhat requires that you be a fan of dry humorist; followed by three vintage cartoons: "Old Smokey," "Mama's New Hat," and "Gallopin' Gals," the first two in black-and-white with the Captain and the Kids and the third in color. The last of the primary extras is a pair of audio-only pieces: a musical outtake and a "Leo Is On the Air" radio promo.
The extras conclude with scene selections menus; theatrical trailers; English as the only spoken language; English, French, and Spanish subtitles; and a slipcover for the slim-line double keep case.
WB's two-disc in the TCM Greatest Films line is undoubtedly a bargain. However, the true Marx Brothers will want all the movies, which Warners and various other studios have made available either individually or in a pair of big box sets.
And speaking of box sets, Warners are making not only the Marx Brothers available in two-disc/four-movie sets but two other collections as well: "TCM Greatest Films: Romance" with "Splendor in the Grass," "Love in the Afternoon," "Mogambo," and "Now Voyager" and "TCM Greatest Films: Sci-Fi Adventures" with "Them!," "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, "World Without End," and "Satellite in the Sky."
"Get-a your tootsie-fruitsie ice-a cream."