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Title: The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection

Movie: :4.5stars:
Video: :4stars:
Audio: :3.5stars:
Extras: :3stars:

HTS Overall Score:77


There are several names in old fashioned comedy that are instantly recognizable to people of any generation. George Burns, Lucille Ball, The Three Stooges, and of course, the Marx Brothers. Groucho, Harpo, Gummo, Chico and Zeppo made their name on Vaudeville for their various antics and were later known for making some incredibly funny movies in the 20s and 30s. This was a COMPLETE surprise to me to see Universal putting out a boxset of their 5 best films (they have made some good ones past these initial 5, but in my personal opinion “Duck Soup” was the last REALLY great Marx Brothers comedy out of all their films). All 5 films are spread over 3 discs, with a foldout case that also includes a color booklet shows some great images of the 5 movies encased within.

The Marx Brothers were famous for their offbeat style of humor that revolved around chasing women, and making jokes about money. Being Jews themselves they incorporated gags about the classic miserly stereotypes related to their heritage (especially Groucho), while others in the comedy troupe fleshed out their characters as a pantomime (Harpo), while Chico utilized about half a dozen different accents to augment his comedy routine. Their humor style mirror pieces of the slapstick goofiness of the three stooges, but also were predecessors to the wit and sharp dialog that fellow Jew, Woody Allen, would share decades later. The brothers created an enormous following in Vaudeville and their stage following soon crafted a well-loved film career as well. Their 1920’s and early 1930’s offerings were really their best work, with “Duck Soup” being the final “great” movie of their career (although their later movies still have quite a bit of charm to them). In that regards this 5 film set epitomizes the very best that the family had to offer in the comedy world.

The Cocoanuts :3.5stars:
Reviewing these 5 films is an astronomical task under normal circumstances, but even more so when they’re some of the best the comedy has ever done. As such I will be trying to review each one in order of presentation in the set vs. actual quality of the films or ordering them in terms of favorites. First up is “The Cocoanuts” and “Animal Crackers. Both of which were originally Broadway and Vaudeville acts that were written by famous Jews George Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind for the stage. They were lauded as song and dance numbers that would bring about the new age of cinema, and to an extent they were right. “The Cocoanuts” is a solidly acted film that brings their unique style of humor and slapstick physical comedy to the big screen for the first time (well, maybe not the FIRST time, as their short film, “Humor Risk” made it to the screen 8 years earlier).

While there is a generic plot for “The Cocoanuts” it is basically just an excuse, or setup, for a series of vignettes and sketches for the comedic family. Little bits of Groucho owning a hotel and setting himself up for future riches when he’s invaded by a handful of nerdowell’s that come in and cause mischief and mayhem. Groucho is short on funds for his hotel “The Cocoanut”, but that doesn’t stop him from trying to con the rest of his staff as well as a few patrons as well (who turn out to be trying to do a con of their own). All of this is solved with some singing, some dancing and some hilarious slapstick comedy that proves once again that the “Marx Brothers” can bring the giggles.

Animal Crackers :4.5stars:
“Animal Crackers” was their follow up film only one year later, and it is a much superior film to their freshman outing. Being that this was also a Broadway show that was translated to film from Ryskind and Kauffman, “Animal Crackers” doesn’t REALLY have a major plot to it. Once again it is really just a framework for the sketches and vignettes of the comedic brothers. Groucho is playing Captain Spaulding, an adventurer back from the reaches of Africa who is heading out to society dame Mrs Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont). Along for the ride are the Professor (Harpo), Horatio Jamison (Zeppo), Senor Ravelli (Chio) and an assortment of other people who add to the craziness that will ensue. Be aware that there is an overarching mystery that brings all of the vignettes together, but this is best watched as a set of comedy sketches from the brothers.

Hilarious and definitely better than “The Cocoanuts”, “Animal Crackers” takes the comedic stylings of the brothers and polishes up their work to better fit film than the stage. Their humor is more evident here and the jokes seem to flow smoother. Their physical comedy incites more laughter than ever before and it has to be one of the single best Marx Brothers films to date. While this one doesn’t cram in all of the Jewish humor and Yiddish vocal patterns as some of their others, Groucho still drops in a few Yiddish words with a wink and a nod to the audience if you know what you’re looking for (these guys just adore blending in their ethnic humor with each and every film).

Monkey Business :4stars:
“Monkey Business” was a new start for the brothers. This was the first film of theirs that wasn’t based off of pre-existing material from their Vaudeville days and was also their first film shot in Hollywood proper. Then add to the fact that they dropped character names for the first time and just went by their own stage names (even though they were always playing themselves, just using traditional “actor” names in their previous two films). Yeah yeah yeah, we know what’s next. There really isn’t a big overarching storyline to the short film (only 78 minutes long), but that’s what you’ve come to expect from the Marx Brothers. Vignettes and sketch comedy bits that make you laugh and somehow tie to together in the end. This time the tying factors happen to be being stowaways aboard a ship.

This outing allowed for more Jewish humor (the band comes out of barrels of Kippered Herring) and tends to wreak havoc on the crew of the ship. Like usual each scene is fairly self-contained, but always a riot. You’ll notice that Zeppo tends to be the least humorous of the group, but that has always been the case with him playing the straight man to Groucho. Zeppo actually left the comedy group after this set of films and went on to other business ventures while the other 4 brothers continued on the work. There’s almost a Punch and Judy element to “Monkey Business”, especially when Groucho and Harpo tend to get into things a bit physically.

Horse Feathers :4.5stars:
The more films the group went through the better the brothers got at their jobs. “Horse Feathers” is one of the best movies in the entire set, hovering just underneath the critically and publically acclaimed “Duck Soup” (which is actually the pinnacle of their careers). “Horse Feathers” ironically doesn’t have anything to do with equine beasts at all, but rather deals with the ups and downs of collegiate football (there is a hilarious and over the top football game at the end of the movie that very well may be one of the best choreographed and funniest football games in all of comedy film history).

Groucho Marx is playing a professor who has been hired by Huxley University to bring them out of the doldrums and back into financial success. Hiring his son, Frank (Zeppo Marx) to beef up the football team in an effort to bring back popularity for the school, Groucho finds out that things aren’t exactly as easy as it seems. Frank decides to hire professional players for the collegiate sport to give them an edge and soon enough the rest of the Marx brothers end up coming on board for Huxley’s “tumultuous” ride up and down the sports ladder.

“Horse Feathers” is the most cohesive and plot driven film that the brothers have done to date and it shows. While there are plenty of sketch comedy moments in the film, the overarching story with the football team and Huxley University trying to make it are much more prevalent than the last 3 films. Groucho also takes center stage more than he usually does and really starts to lay the groundwork for becoming the “lead singer”, so to speak, in the group. Something that will show up more frequently in their later films.

Duck Soup :5stars:
“Duck Soup” is both the crowning achievement and the top of the hill just before the decline for the Mark Brothers. It is the film that really shot them WAY into stardom, but is also the film where the next set of movies were obviously subpar in comparison. This would not only mark the final collaboration between the brothers and Paramount pictures, but also the final film with Zeppo Marx in it. Zeppo had been trying to get out of the limelight for years, unhappy with his roles, and decided to make the switch to a producer and behind the scenes agent. A choice that turned out to be quite beneficial for him as made quite the career for himself that way for many many years.

“Duck Soup” is the most political and most “serious” of the Marx Brothers films, but also one of the funniest they ever created. This go about long time Marx Brother foil, Margaret Dumont, is back as the financial means for the bankrupt nation of Freedonia to gain its rightful glory in the world. The only thing is that she is salaciously following after Groucho the entire time and even makes her financial conditions hinge on the fact that Groucho has to be the reigning leader of the nation (along with her of course). This creates a reverse cat and mouse game where Groucho is dodging the amorous touches of Mrs. Teasdale (Dumont) while trying to stay just out of reach of her clutches.

The film manages to balance a tightrope of serious “war and peace” style labors of the nation of Freedonia, and the hilarity that the Marx Brothers are known for. In fact this particular movie is where Woody Allen derived some of his trademark witty dialog from with Groucho having some of the best back and forth verbal battles with Mrs. Teasdale in “Duck Soup”. A few scenes with may be hailed as the pinnacle of verbal banter known to the silver screen.


Not Rated by the MPAA

Video :4stars:

The Cocoanuts :3stars:
“The Cocoanuts” is probably the weakest of the 5 films in terms of picture quality, and it’s not due to lack of restoration. The print was in a bit of a weak state of being and some scenes will look better than others. Some of them even looking downright poor. One scene may have a mildly soft looking black and white image that doesn’t suffer too much, but then the next scene could be smeared and degraded to the point of looking like a beat up old VHS tape. Even the commentary with Anthony Slide doesn’t bring much light to the scenario and makes one wonder how the image could literally shift from good to “wow that looks bad!” in a matter of seconds. USING THE SAME SHOT! Once can only assume that they had to cobble together the pieces from several different sources to make this once whole film, but that is not really given readily to the audience to understand. Detail is a bit sketchy throughout and contrast is a bit funky, but overall it is a decent enough picture.

Animal Crackers :4stars:
“Animal Crackers” is a LOT better looking than “The Cocoanuts” is and rightfully so. It supposedly is struck for a new 4K master that uses the original film elements to create a homogenous looking picture that isn’t spliced and cut together from differing elements. Meaning that this is the first time that the picture has ever been seen in its original element since the silver screen presentation. Detail is quite nice, and while it isn’t as sharp as a digital blockbuster or 70mm print of “Lawrence of Arabia’, the film is a marvel to look at compared to how it has always been presented on home video. Contrast levels are spot on and the black and white textures are sumptuous.

Monkey Business :4stars:
“Monkey Business” is presented on home video with an academy 1.33:1 AVC encoded aspect ratio and looks ALMOST as good as “Animal Crackers”. The film has definitely been restored a good bit and it shows with exceptional fine detail throughout. The only real weird issues that I could see crop up was the grain structure which is a bit compressed at times and the inclusion of vertical lines and a few scratches on the print here and there. Debris and flickering is not a problem, but the scratches tend to be the biggest “eyesore” in the image. Other than that, it is a great looking image and one that should please fans quite nicely. Black levels are strong and contrast keeps good facial tones.

Horse Feathers :3.5stars:
“Horse Feathers” isn’t as nice as the previous two films, but tends to fall part way in between “The Cocoanuts” and “Animal Crackers”. There are some grain problems that pop up here and there, and once again there seems to be some vertical lines that pop up in the middle of the screen. Fine detail is acceptable throughout although there is a really weird shake or “wobble” to the image that stays throughout the film. It’s not excessive or distracting, but it is there if you know what to look for and sometimes is VERY obvious. Black levels are impressive and other than the problematic grain and wobbling, the image looks quite pleasing to the eye.

Duck Soup :4stars:
“Duck Soup” is a well done transfer with plenty of good going for it, but also suffering from a few source and compression related incidents. The image is consistent and constant throughout, not showing the variable issues that cropped up in a few of the previous films. But it also has some problems with the grain structure again as well as a few odd shots about half way through the movie that almost make one look as if they’re viewing a picture within a picture (it’s hard to describe, but you’ll notice it around the 30 minute mark). Contrast is well balanced and fine detail is more than acceptable to me, leaving me to give a solid thumbs up on the transfer.

Audio :3.5stars:

Each of the 5 films has been given a 2.0 DTS-HD MA encode to enjoy and each one is more similar than different, which leaves me grading them as one item here. I will state first and foremost that “The Cocoanuts” and “Animal Crackers” are the worse for wear by a hairs breadth. Dialog is rather muted and recorded at a lower volume than the rest of the track and I noticed inconsistent raising and lowering of dialog levels in “The Cocoanuts” (most likely due to the different cobbled together sources in the film). The rest of the tracks are your basic 2.0 dialog driven tracks. There’s some nice imaging here and there (such as in the football game in “Horse Feathers”, but really we’re listening to the gags and jokes coming from the mouths of our favorite comedians. Vocals are crisp and clean throughout, although they do sound a bit boxy and restricted compared to more modern recordings. All around, great replications of the theatrical audio experiences.

Extras: :3stars:
The Cocoanuts
• Commentary with Film Scholar Anthony Slide.
Animal Crackers
• Commentary with Film Historian Jeffrey Vance
Monkey Business
• Commentary with Marx Brothers Historian and Author Robert S. Bader and Bill Marx
Horse Feathers
• Commentary with Film Critic F.X. Sweeney
Duck Soup
• Commentary with Film Critic/Historian Leonard Maltin and Marx Bros. Historian/Author Robert S. Bader.
• The Marx Brothers: Hollywood's Kings of Chaos
• Inside The Today Show Vault: The Interviews

Overall: :4stars:

This 5 movie boxset from Universal chronicles some of the best 1930’s ear comedy known to man. Charlie Chaplin is a legend from before the “talkies”, but once the ability to hear vocals on screen took over, the Marx Brothers were legends in that genre. These films are easily their best works, despite there being quite a few other Marx Brothers movie to get out on home video. Part of me really wants every one of them to come out, yet a selfish part of me doesn’t want to as these are the crème de la crème of their work and is the best you’re going to get. However, I know I can’t honestly say that I really wish those movies were suppressed. BRING THEM ALL ON I say! The audio and video have gone through a pretty solid restoration process and these 5 films look and sound better than they ever have before. VERY VERY highly recommended.

Additional Information:

Starring: Zeppo Marx, Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, Gummo Marx
Directed by: Various
Written by: Various
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1 AVC / 1.35:1 AVC / 1.33:1 AVC / 1.33:1 AVC / 1.35:1 AVC
Audio: ENGLISH: DTS-HD MA 2.0 (all films)
Studio: Universal
Rated: NR
Runtime: 94 Minutes / 99 Minutes / 78 Minutes / 68 Minutes / 69 Minutes
Blu-Ray Release Date: October 18th, 2016

Buy The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection Blu-ray on Amazon

Recommendation: Must Own

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