Top Ten Lists: The Essential Marx Brothers Films.

Are the Marx brothers still relevant? Honestly I hope so. Their work is often held in high regard among critics and physical comedians still today, though I don’t know if the audiences of today would appreciate their antics like the audiences of yesteryear. I was exposed to them as a kid; and even I have to admit they are an acquired taste. Nevertheless, the Marx Brothers still hold a special place in cinema history having left us with a wonderful legacy of laughs.

It’s fair to say there’s enough hi-jinks to last a lifetime when we consider the movies the Marx Brothers left us. If you a want to see them at their ‘Vaudeville’ best you should definitely check out The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930).  It is the closest thing to their successful stage acts and Broadway shows of the 1920’s. For a more Hollywood scripted experience I would highly recommend for riotousri laughs Monkey Business (1931) and A Night at the Opera (1935).

For students of cinema, film buffs and readers in general, here below is what I believe are the ten essential films that say something about the Marx Brothers. I have deliberately stayed clear of the post-war years and I hope that you will agree with my choices, but as always I am happy for you to persuade me otherwise.

10. Room Service (1938) .

The Marx Brothers made thirteen films during their celebrated career. Room Service sneaks in at number ten in this series virtually by default only because the three films that missed out absolutely stink!

Everything about Room Service screams no, no, no! In hindsight it was arguably the wrong vehicle for the Marx Brothers. It was based on the 1937 Broadway play of the same name but unlike other Broadway productions like The Cocoanuts, which was specifically written with the brothers in mind, Room Service suffers from trying to be faithful to the play and not allowing the brothers to truly break out of character. Sure Room Services has some good qualities and funny gags but ultimately it doesn’t truly live up to being a quintessential Marx Brothers picture. Though I have faith that some of you will like it ahead of the three films that didn’t make it onto this list. The story itself holds enough interest which finds Groucho playing a strapped for cash Broadway producer trying to avoid getting evicted from his brother-in-law’s hotel, while at the same time trying to get a financial backer to commit to an upcoming play he is producing.

9. Go West (1940).

While Go West is often considered as one of their minor successes, it is still quite funny where anything goes! The hilarious Wild West train sequence at the end of the picture is vintage Marxian comedy. It’s definitely worth the wait as Groucho, Chico and Harpo literally tear up the passenger cars to fuel the train’s engine.

With the American Old West as the brothers palette for mayhem, the film begins with Groucho attempting to swindle money for train fare from two gold prospector played by Chico and Harpo. Instead, the brothers cheat him out of everything and head west to strike it rich. Later the brothers are caught up in another swindle that involves the deeds to a lucrative property that two villains steal from them. With lives and livelihoods at stake, the brothers resort to mayhem to get the deeds back.

8. At The Circus (1939).

Billed as a ‘wonderful show of mirth and melody’ the 1939 Marx Brothers At The Circus is surprisingly very funny despite the fact that it is at times regarded as a pale imitation of the sidesplitting fun and style of the brothers earliest pictures. Not always on everyones list of essential Marx brothers films, this is the zany picture where the brothers save a circus from bankruptcy. The highlight of At The Circus has to be Groucho singing his rendition of “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” but then again the sight of Harpo riding an Ostrich gets a lot of surprising laughs too.

7. The Cocoanuts (1929).

By the early 1920s, the Marx brothers began to realize that vaudeville was dying a slow death. People had grown tired of it as a form of entertainment. So in 1924 they moved their successful act to Broadway. It wasn’t long before they became the toast of New York. All that remained was now to conquer Hollywood and they did to some extent with their first outing, The Cocoanuts, a successful transfer of the Broadway stage act to the big screen. It fair to say, it may not have been their greatest foray into motion pictures; however it had all the chaotic madness we come to except from the Marx Brothers, where Groucho as a Florida resort manager tries to auction of swampland, while Chico and Harpo are up to mischief trying to fill their empty suitcase with stolen items from paying customers.

6. A Day At The Races (1937).

A Day at the Races underwent several versions that saw six or more treatments of the script until the Marx brothers were completely happy. In perfecting the script the brothers took some of their routines from the film on the road by testing it in front of an audience. While the title of the film alludes to the track and horse racing, much of the story revolves around saving a financially troubled sanitarium. But with the Marx brothers on hand and employing many of their old tricks, their hopes to get across the line a horse named Hi-Hat in the craziest steeplechase, arguably ever filmed, to save the sanitarium from foreclosure is comedy bliss.

Of interest, A Day at the Races has a unique place in film history, well at least for Groucho Marx. Groucho had always said that his all-time favourite onscreen role was playing Dr. Hackenbush, the eccentric veterinarian who poses as a doctor in the troubled sanitarium. He was apparently so taken up the name that he jokingly would sometimes sign his letters using it and even referred to himself as “Hackenbush” on occasions in public.

5. Monkey Business (1931).

The Marx brothers led by Groucho gave the writing team behind Monkey Business a tough time. He hated the first draft of the script, despite being keen on the idea of the Marx Brothers as stowaways on a luxury liner bound for New York. After some five months of reworking ideas and gags, a script to the liking of Groucho was finally ready. Interestingly, even with a script the Marx Brothers ran riot with their fondness for improv and ad lib humour. It’s safe to say, the brothers managed to annoy everyone with their antics in the film. It is also a film that Groucho, for better or worse, excelled in with his crude dialogue. That said, Groucho’s scenes with actress Thelma Todd are still amusingly enjoyable despite all the sexual innuendo.

Many have argued that Monkey Business is one of the Marx Brothers weakest films at Paramount Pictures. Personally, I’m not so certain that is the case. Sure, the plot is flimsy, but after all, in a film littered with gags, jokes, puns and one-liners, we will never be short of a laugh.

4. Horse Feathers (1932).

The plot of the Marx brothers fourth film Horse Feathers centres on the fortunes of a college football game and Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff’s (played by Groucho) attempt to recruit professional footballers to help the Huxley University team. All is definitely not well when Groucho mistakenly recruits Chico and Harpo, who go onto wreak terrible havoc across the university. In fact, one of my favourite scenes involves Chico and Harpo, as they attempt to kidnap the opposing team’s star players in the films big game and end up – in true Marx idiotic style – kidnapping themselves. 

3. Animal Crackers (1930).

Between 1929 and 1933, at Paramount Pictures, the four Marx Brothers made some of the wildest comedies of all time. Their earliest pictures, both The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, are two examples of the closest thing to their successful stage acts and Broadway shows of the late1920’s. A very loose plot interjected with the occasion musical number, see Animal Crackers focus on the theft of a valuable oil painting, where Groucho steers us through a silly mystery manhunt. That said, the Marx brothers run amok, indulging in a riotous amount of ad lib, probably for the benefit for the best amount of laughs. Personally I can’t complain, no one here is really focusing on the script including the Marx Brothers. Three of the films most memorable scenes worth mentioning are Groucho’s African safari lecture, the loony bridge game scene played out by Chico and Harpo and the closing act where Harpo as the Professor, is chastised by a police sergeant, and in an attempt to escape he sprays everyone with a ‘knockout substance’ from a flit can.

2. A Night At The Opera (1935).

In 1934, after moving to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, without Zeppo (who went on to become a successful agent, representing his older brothers, among many others talents), the repackaged Marx Brothers starred in a series of comedies, which included A Day at the Races(1937), At the Circus(1939) and Go West(1940) that were designed to be a lot more commercially acceptable. To achieve this the famous onscreen anarchy of the Marx Brothers previous pictures was toned down by studio head Irvin Thalberg (who also added a besuming element of romance to the subplot of their pictures).

The first film that sort to exploit this new formula was A Night at the Opera, widely regarded as one of their best films along side Duck Soup. In short, A Night at the Opera contains several of the Marx Brothers most iconic moments, notably the crowded stateroom scene, which piles a group of people and a trunk into the smallest cabin you have ever seen on a ship and the contract-tearing scene between Groucho and Chico. Interestingly, A Night at the Opera, for all the studios efforts to tone down the Marx lawless humour, still manages to allow them enough rope with the final opera mayhem scene, to conclude a truly satisfying funny picture.

1. Duck Soup (1933).

Right from the opening credits with four ducks swimming in a huge pot of water, you know something special is cooking! In short, the film successfully sends up the foolishness of dictatorship and of war, where an inexperienced leader plunges the imaginary country of Freedonia into war. I believe Benito Mussolini even banned the movie in Italy, citing the films political message a little to close to his own deep-seated insecurities. Groucho Marx, of course, would have us believe “We were just four Jews trying to get a laugh.” Nevertheless, Duck Soup was a film well ahead of its time, with its satire look at early 1930’s politics, its witty dialogue and physical gags. It is arguably their best film and one of the greatest comedies of all time.

Photo credit: The header image is a collage of film posters starring the Marx Brothers. Together with the movie still from Go West, The Cocoanuts, Monkey Business, Animal Crackers and Duck Soup they are used under the rationale of fair use. It also enables me to makes an important contribution to the readers understanding of the article, which could not practically be communicated by words alone.

6 comments on “Top Ten Lists: The Essential Marx Brothers Films.

  1. Steve Burstein

    The book ANNOTATED MARX BROTHERS by Matthew Coniam makes the valuable revelation that the Marx Brothers didn’t want ROOM SERVICE to be the usual Marx Bros movie. The were originally going to do it out of costume, with Groucho wearing a real(or real looking)mustache, but the got cold feet. They changed their minds about breaking character in subsequent films, but this may account in part for the flaccid quality of most of their post-RACES films.

  2. It’s so long ago that I honestly cannot remember which ones I’ve seen and which not.
    Does ‘Room Service’ contain the lovely scene/business with swapping rooms around? Which film has my favourite Harpo line, ‘You can’t fool me, there ain’t no Sanity Clause’?

    I wonder what my 14 yo self would say to my 14 yo son about the Marx Brothers.

    Thanks for the hazy memories, Robert!

  3. Great list and you’ve reminded me there are still a few (your #7-10) I haven’t got to yet. Seen your top 6. Hard to pick favorites but I’ll do so anyway 🙂 A Night At The Opera, Day at the Races , and Duck Soup.

    • Steve Burstein

      I’m glad someone still rates OPERA and RACES on top. Those two seem to have lost favor with some commentators over the years.

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