Music Box booker Brian Andreotti says that of all the classic comedians, the Marx Brothers are the theater’s biggest draw. From Sunday, December 25, through Saturday, December 31, the venue (3733 N. Southport, 773-871-6604) will screen six features tracing the brothers’ brilliant career from 1931, when they arrived in Hollywood after two successful film adaptations of their Broadway shows, through 1938, when they lost their way. One ticket lets you watch any two movies that are screening back-to-back, so if you need to get away from your crazy family, you can kill several hours with theirs.
In a world glutted with comedy programming the Marx Brothers’ best work is still astonishing for its velocity, aggression, and bursts of surrealism. Groucho was widely acknowledged as the best verbal comic in the business (even Bob Hope admitted it), and his older brother Harpo ranked with the great silent-movie comedians as a persona and gagman. Holding these two disparate talents together was Chico, the eldest, whose ethnic Italian character fluctuated between extreme cunning and epic stupidity. Their students are legion, but none could get his arms around the whole package: Mel Brooks captured their anarchy but never their sophistication, Woody Allen equaled their literacy but never their jubilance, and the Farrelly brothers, for all their taboo-smashing gusto, can’t compete with a fraternal unit that was consistently smart and smarter.
Despite their reputation, the Marxes pursued a conservative strategy at Paramount, making only one picture a year and jamming it with material. Groucho served as a withering script supervisor, and the writing stable for the first two pictures included the scintillating S.J. Perelman and the peerless comic songwriters Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. In Monkey Business (1931, 77 min.) the four brothers (including juvenile/straight man Zeppo) run amok as stowaways on an ocean liner, with Groucho wooing blond gun moll Thelma Todd and Harpo taking part in a surreal Punch-and-Judy show (Sun-Mon 12/25-12/26, 1:50, 5:30, and 9:10 PM). Horse Feathers (1932, 68 min.) ups the ante by making Groucho an authority figure: as president of suffering Huxley College, he heeds son Zeppo’s advice to recruit some ringers for the football team but mistakenly comes back with Harpo and Chico. Todd returns, as Zeppo’s love interest, and the movie’s centerpiece–lifted from their 20s show I’ll Say She Is–is a frantic seduction scene with the four brothers running in and out of her room (Wed-Thu 12/28-12/29, 3:10, 6:10, and 9:10 PM; Sat 12/31, 11:30 AM). Norman Z. McLeod was more traffic cop than director, and both pictures move at a breakneck pace.
Duck Soup (1933, 70 min.) is the team’s masterpiece, still celebrated for its trenchant antiwar satire. But as Simon Louvish reveals in his superlative Marx Brothers bio Monkey Business, the original script was even more cynical, with Groucho as an arms merchant who becomes dictator of tiny Freedonia to have a ready client. Directed by the great Leo McCarey (who heartily disliked the experience), the movie dispenses with romantic subplots and instrumental solos, building to a crescendo the earlier films couldn’t quite manage. Margaret Dumont, the airy dowager who appeared in eight of their pictures, plays the rich widow sponsoring Groucho’s presidency, and Louis Calhern makes another excellent foil as the scheming foreign ambassador who recruits Harpo and Chico as spies (Wed-Thu 12/28-12/29, 1:40, 4:40, and 7:40 PM; Fri 12/30, midnight; Sat 12/31, 12:45 PM).
After Duck Soup flopped, Paramount dumped the Marx Brothers, Zeppo quit the act, Groucho tried his hand at straight acting, and Harpo toured the Soviet Union (becoming a real-life spy when the U.S. ambassador enlisted him to smuggle a letter to New York). Chico landed them a deal with MGM wunderkind Irving Thalberg, who resuscitated their careers, but any radical politics had to be checked at the studio gate: Thalberg had just finished making a series of fake newsreels that smeared Democratic gubernatorial candidate Upton Sinclair, and director Sam Wood would later help launch the red-baiting Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. A Night at the Opera (1935, 92 min.) is a more conventional but consistently charming entertainment, with excellent comic scenes set off by a straight plot, romantic interludes, and polished musical numbers (Sun-Mon 12/25-12/26, 3:30 and 7:10 PM). A Day at the Races (1937, 111 min.), completed after Thalberg’s untimely death, follows the same reliable formula, though it’s overlong and sometimes grating, particularly Harpo’s awful musical romp with some shucking-and-jiving stable hands (Tue 12/27, 3:20 and 7:10 PM).
Cast adrift again, the Marxes were presented with various options–including a Salvador Dali script featuring a 50-foot loaf of bread and a stampede of flaming giraffes–but ultimately went with the cautious choice of adapting a successful stage play. Made at RKO, Room Service (1938, 78 min.) casts Groucho as a theatrical producer trying to keep his show afloat until opening night, with lots of shenanigans involving unpaid hotel bills. Of the films screening, it’s the only real dud, proof that the Marx Brothers required not just their own writers and producers but their own reality (Tue 12/27, 1:40, 5:30, and 9:20 PM).