The Marx Brothers: A Night At The Opera

I tell people at work they need to give the Marx Brothers a chance. However, I usually get the same responses from them:  "Black and white movies are boring!" or "I don't get that sort of humor." or "Who are the Marx Brothers?"

Boring? Not the Marx Brothers. Not at all. And who are the Marx Brothers? Groucho? Harpo? Chico? Zeppo? Gummo?  Okay, I'll give people Gummo and Zeppo (Gummo didn't appear in any of the films, but Zeppo appeared in all the Paramount films). But everyone should know Groucho, Chico, and Harpo.

Two of the Marx Brothers' films are in AFI's top 100 movies of all time:  Duck Soup at #60 and A Night At The Opera at #85. They also have five of the top 100 comedies of all time according to AFI--not too shabby.

If you were interested in getting into the Marx Brothers, I recommend beginning with A Night At The Opera.

Why Opera and not Duck Soup, or Animal Crackers, or A Day At the Races? Or [insert any Marx Brothers film here]?

A Night At The Opera was their first film with MGM after the contract with Paramount ended. What most fans enjoy about the Paramount films is the anarchic chaos and when the brothers went over to MGM, Zeppo left (he was usually the straight man), leaving Groucho, Chico, and Harpo. Gummo never appeared in the films and never really developed an onstage persona like the rest of his brothers. It's my opinion that A Night At The Opera serves as a great way to bridge the gap between the anarchic Paramount films and the slightly less anarchic MGM films.

MGM wanted more of a plot and a story where the brothers were clearly against a villain, or at least an antagonist.  In their earlier films, they were more ambiguously good and unpredictable.  A Night At The Opera maintains much of their anarchic behavior, but also casts them as good guys trying to right some wrong. Opera has the brothers fighting high society and attempting to bring two young lovers together, which then brings chaos to an ocean liner as well as a production of the opera Il Trovatore in New York City.

A warning though: if you're actually going to watch the Marx Brothers--pay attention!  You have to watch and listen to these films. The word play and the gags are almost non-stop and the results aren't always immediately apparent. If you look at the Three Stooges, they can be funny, but are more of a one-trick pony in that they rely mainly on slapstick (basically finding new ways to hurt each other), but the Marx Brothers have it all--slapstick, witty wordplay, and clever situations that allow for great gags (a packed stateroom aboard an ocean liner or a two bedroom apartment where they switch all the furniture right under the nose of a cop making him believe he's going mad).

Groucho's characters usually direct the chaos, but with sharp wit and occasionally breaking the 4th wall.  He begins most of the films having a position of some sort or a person of standing, even if it's been entirely fabricated or it's a sham.

Chico's (pronounced Chick-O) characters are often a partner or friend of Harpo's characters. Chico usually has a scheme of some sort.  Most of the films have a sequence where he plays the piano--he's very entertaining to watch play, as his fingers dance upon the keys in unusual ways--he'll make you laugh just watching him play.  Chico and Groucho often have a long exchange (over a contract for instance), but from what I've read, they ad-libbed  quite a bit during the routines one-upping each other.

Harpo's characters never speak (well, there was one time where he sang from inside a barrel, but it was brief), and he's the most unpredictable and chaotic of the three.  His coat is packed with an odd array of items and he's often relieving people of their possessions and toying with them. Like Chico with the piano, Harpo is usually given a sequence where he plays the harp. His playing is magical and engaging--he doesn't play the harp in a way to make you laugh like Chico with the piano, but it's enjoyable and easy on the ears.

Start with A Night At The Opera, and if you enjoy that one, try A Day At The Races.  If you're still curious and want more, I'd say go with Duck Soup.  At this point, you've been warmed up to the Marx Brothers and will enjoy Duck Soup--it's also the final Paramount film and last film in which Zeppo appeared. Many fans of the brothers cite Duck Soup as their favorite (it's my second favorite, after Opera, of course).

What makes the Marx Brothers so special is the variety and range they display--they could do it all. Music, singing, dancing, wordplay, physical comedy were all a result of their stage careers as vaudeville performers. I can't think of anyone today who could pull off what the Marx Brothers did so effortlessly, and at a time when talkies were new and special effects didn't drive films. Modern comedies simply cannot stand up to the Marx Brothers at their best (maybe even at their worst).

There are a few collections out there, a Paramount set as well as an MGM set.  Turner Classic Movies sells them as does Amazon and Barnes & Noble.  You may even be able to stream them (since I own all the films I haven't investigated that option).

Young Frankenstein

I think I enjoyed Mel Brooks movies more when I was a teen and in my twenties to be honest, but I still find most of them watchable and a few even still retain quite a few laugh out loud moments. He tends to run certain jokes into the ground over the course of a movie, but that's easily forgiven because fresh gags just keep coming and coming.

While I enjoy History of the World, High Anxiety, Spaceballs, Blazing Saddles, and all the rest, I have to say I find Young Frankenstein is my favorite. For those not in the know: Young Frankenstein tells the story of the grandson of the Doctor Frankenstein who created the original monster. Frederick Frankenstein is a well-known doctor who inherits his grandfather's castle and work.  The film was shot in black & white and is pure comedy.

The cast is outstanding and I can't imagine anyone other than Gene Wilder playing the title role. Marty Feldman plays Igor (perfect casting and he's a riot throughout) and a very young Teri Garr plays Wilder's assistant.  Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, and Peter Boyle round out the primary cast. Gene Hackman has a small, but memorable part as a blind man who has a funny and entertaining interaction with the monster played by Peter Boyle.

I think the movie holds up well considering it was made in the early 1970s. If you're put off by black & white, you should reconsider and give this a chance. Films in black & white have such depth, and for a movie like this, the decision makes complete sense.

If you liked Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka (the 1970s version, not the crazy Tim Burton version, of course), you'll like him in this as well: Sane one moment and completely off his rocker the next.

Moving Picture Monday: Writing Films

Writers have featured in so many films over the years,  but I have a few favorites I can watch over and over, and not all of them are critical or commercially successful.

Oh sure, we have Sunset Boulevard, The Lost Weekend, Finding Forrester, Misery, Capote, and Adaptation among others--they are all wonderful films that I've seen more than once.

Spoiler Alert - sort of.  These movies have all been out for awhile, even Midnight In Paris.

1. Throw Momma From The Train:  a comedy version of Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train starring Danny DeVito, Billy Crystal, and Anne Ramsay. And for you Star Trek fans out there, Captain Janeway makes an appearance as Billy Crystal's ex-wife. This movie tickles me for some reason--but there are some great moments about writing and plotting and procrastination.

2.  Midnight In Paris:  This is one of my all-time favorite movies. Owen Wilson plays a Hollywood screenwriter who wants to be a novelist and finds inspiration during his midnight walks in Paris. I won't go into the details, but he meets some fascinating people that many writers would love to meet and hobnob with. There is so much more to the movie than I'm writing here--a must see.

3.  Funny Farm:  no heavy lifting with this movie, but this is back when Chevy Chase was kind of funny, well on the way to being boring. You have to admit Fletch was pretty good (probably his last decent role). Anyway, Funny Farm is about a newspaper sports writer who quits and moves to the country to write a heist novel.

4.  Gentlemen Broncos:  brought to you by the director of Napolean Dynamite--but nowhere near as funny. It's strange, really strange, but enjoyable for all the writerly bits.  Basically, it's about a kid who writes a novel, submits it to a contest and a sort of washed-up writer he idolizes steals his idea.

 If you were going to watch just one of these, I'd say Midnight In Paris. Throw Momma From The Train would be a decent second choice. The other two you can skip, but they're fun background type movies for me.

My wife and I watch Midnight In Paris quite a bit and dream of being in Paris in the 1920s.

One more guilty pleasure:  Her Alibi --I'm a huge Tom Selleck fan, and while she can't act, looking at Paulina Porizkova for an hour and a half is pretty easy on the eyes.

What are your favorite movies about writing or have a writer as a protagonist?