Whenever the topic of the Marx Brothers and their cinema careers is discussed these days, it’s become conventional wisdom to state that their earlier Paramount films were superior to their later MGM films.
This 2013 article from the now defunct website The Dissolve sums up this perspective. Namely that while MGM producer Irving Thalberg saved their careers after they’d fallen out of favour at Paramount, their 5 MGM films as a whole were weaker than their 5 Paramount films. This is because the 5 Paramount films showcased Groucho, Chico, Harpo & Zeppo at their anarchic hilarious best with virtually no restrictions placed on them whatsoever. In contrast, their MGM films (minus Zeppo) saw them become less inspired and zany, the jokes reduced, overblown musical numbers appeared more often and significant time wasted with boring romantic subplots involving even more boring personalities. The Paramount films may have been cheaper and more rudimentary but they contained the Marx Brothers at their peak.
This conventional wisdom – which has been around for a while – seems to be taken a step further these days. Just the other week I was heard on a podcast an expert on Marx Brothers say that ALL of their Paramount films were superior to even the best of the MGM films, specifically ‘A Night At The Opera’. This is a pretty amazing change in perspective as for decades ‘A Night At The Opera’ and their final Paramount film ‘Duck Soup’ were battling it out for what considered the best film of their illustrious career.
Indeed, growing up I felt pretty much the same watching the Marx Brothers films. Their final Paramount film ‘Duck Soup’ was my favourite not only because it had an insane amount of great jokes but because it didn’t have the endless music numbers that the MGM films or the Chico piano/Harpo harp solos which seemed like unnecessary intermissions from the comedy.
One on occasion when their first MGM film ‘A Night At The Opera’ came on TV, we actually edited out the romantic subplot and the music numbers so we could just have the 40 minutes of pure comedy. It was like YouTube before YouTube existed!
Time marches on and I hadn’t seen a Marx Brothers film for close to 20 years when the opportunity arose recently to watch a bunch of their MGM films and see how they held up. And I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed all of them on their own terms, even without edits.
It brought back to mind the process by which they were brought over to MGM by Irving Thalberg. His philosophy basically was that the brothers couldn’t be completely anarchic that they had to be helping people (usually a young romantic couple) to get more audience sympathy towards them. Also, he believed in reducing and spacing out the amount of jokes so audience laughter wouldn’t drown out the next rapid-fire joke. And also he believed in using MGM’s great resources for more elaborate music numbers, some with the Marx Brothers but not always.
It’s fair to say that these changes Thalberg installed (who died tragically young in 1936) – while well received by critics back in the day – are now considered at the heart of the decline of the Marx Brothers as a cinematic force.
It is true that there are issues with the Marx Brothers MGM films, especially the last three made after Thalberg’s untimely death. Post-Thalberg the studio seemed to lose a bit of interest in them and the A-Grade gloss and production they were given in ‘A Night At The Opera’ and ‘A Day At The Races’ is downgraded. The straight romantic leads get worse, the plots seem a bit more ho-hum and many of the musical numbers are dull and not even that well-staged.
But while many carp about what’s absent from the MGM Marx Brothers films, too often it’s forgotten how much good stuff there still is in them. Their most acclaimed MGM film ‘A Night At The Opera’ has more laughs than probably all of the comedies released this decade combined. One only need to look at the Quotes section on its IMDB page to see the incredible array of great one-liners it had. And of course this excludes all the great silent comedy Harpo provides.
Even what is widely considered to be their weakest MGM film, ‘The Big Store’, has some great comedic scenes, particularly an early scene where Groucho & Harpo are trying to fool a potential client that they are a prestigious detective agency.
And the bigger budgets MGM were able to offer over Paramount could be used not just for surface gloss, but for impressive comedic scenes. For example the finale to ‘Go West’ where the Marx Brothers are driving a train to overtake the bad guys while totally dismantling the train at the same time is a marvellous comedic and technical scene, and above all else a great demonstration of the comedy team actually being good guys while being total anarchists.
And, as derided as it is by Marx Brothers aficionados, Thalberg’s belief that having the brothers act not as total anarchists and instead be helping other characters actually works for me. It’s not like they’ve abandoned their anti-establishment ethos; they’re almost always helping out individuals who are being pushed around by people in power, whether they be pompous establishment types and/or powerful crooked businessmen. And they not only save the day but totally humiliate those in power in the process.
To be sure, the later MGM films began to seem tired and uninspired. Especially their MGM farewell ‘The Big Store’ which has some misfiring comic routines, a neverending musical number ‘The Tenement Symphony’ whose negative reputation is fully deserved and it’s rather sad to see stunt men obviously standing in for the Marx Brothers during the action finale.
But overall, rewatching four of their MGM films again was a highly enjoyable experience. I think the critical consensus now has gotten too negative to these films. Perhaps they don’t reach the inspired lunacy of their peak Paramount efforts but they have so much pleasurable to offer. Just enjoy them for their own sake.