This post was originally published on the first day of Marxfest, in May 2014. I’ve since changed my position on a few of the films, and eliminated the four-way tie that used to hold the first slot, which many people thought was a cheat. It is hard to name your favorite Marx Brothers movie, but I gave it the old college try (and there’s your hint right there). Just click on the links below for much longer explications on the individual films. And go here for close to 100 articles by me on the Marx Brothers!
Horse Feathers (1932)
I think of Horse Feathers as the Marx Brothers’ most well-balanced picture overall, allowing all four brothers (even Zeppo) to shine, great witty songs by Kalmar and Ruby, a mix of surrealism to rival Animal Crackers, satire to match Duck Soup, and Thelma Todd from Monkey Business for pre-code sex comedy to rival Mae West. The film lacks their traditional foil Margaret Dumont, but substitutes about 50 stooges in beards, caps, and gowns and for me that’s ample consolation. For these and other reasons, for me Horse Feathers is the best of all possible worlds.
Animal Crackers (1930)
The Marx Brothers’ third Broadway show, and second film, it is in many ways the Marx Brothers’ UR-vehicle, the golden template on which their subsequent Paramount films were based, with some of Groucho’s zaniest and most memorable monologues and remarks, the great Dumont front and center, and plenty of madcap business and routines for Chico and Harpo. The Kaufman–Ryskind script is not just a great showcase for the Marx Brothers, but a nice example of the Broadway theatre of the ’20s.
Duck Soup (1933)
Once upon a time (indeed for most of my life) I would have immediately named Duck Soup as my favorite Marx Brothers film without question or hesitation, and that remains true of many people, I think, with justification. (Ha! Now I think on it, I may be the only person on earth who would ever choose Horse Feathers, but you have my reasons. As I say, this used to be a 4 way tie). Over the years, as you become steeped in their body of work, it becomes apparent that Duck Soup is a slightly atypical movie for the team, and one that is less original than it may seem upon first exposure. See here for more on that topic. Even so it feels painful and even traitorous to put it so low as third on this list!
Monkey Business (1931)
The team’s first Hollywood film (the first two having been made on a Long Island soundstage), Monkey Business‘s many virtues include a much bigger canvas for the comedians to play around in, and the distinctive voice of S.J. Perelman shining through. More on the film here.
A Night at the Opera (1935)
This might seem a heresy to some, to have this one so high (above Cocoanuts, say). To others, it might seem a heresy not to have it at the top of the list. In general I am a Paramount purist, but I think it has to be acknowledged that A Night at the Opera, their first film for MGM, is pretty exceptional. It still contains an enormous amount of their patented surreal comedy, it doesn’t tamper too much with their characters (yet), it has great music, and is quite beautiful to look at. It’s a magical picture and it hints at a promising direction the team might have gone in. As it happens, the promise was unfulfilled.
The Cocoanuts (1929)
NOW I place their first film for Paramount, an adaptation of their Broadway stage hit. The Cocoanuts was one of the very first American full length musical motion pictures. It is quite impressive in many regards, and an interesting record of the team as stage performers, but it also suffers for reasons due to it being such an early experiment. The list of problems is long: it’s visually static, strange choices had to be made to accommodate the microphones, and almost an hour has been cut out of the original film, so a good deal of the film makes even less sense than was intended. For these and other reasons (see here) we push it back on our list a little. But it’s still the Marx Brothers in full craziness, and with an entire troupe of Broadway chorus girls in fabulous costumes, an element we would never get in any subsequent Marx Brothers film. So while we don’t place this film at the top, we certainly wouldn’t put it any lower.
A Night in Casablanca (1946)
There are some who would take umbrage at this placement, but I stand by it. The film (like Shakespeare’s The Tempest, like the Beatles’ Abbey Road is the team’s valedictory statement, a kind of revisitation of elements that had worked for them before. I find it much funnier and more refreshing and just an all around better picture than any of their pictures following A Night at the Opera.
A Day at the Races (1937)
Many consider this picture a classic and among the best Marx Brothers pictures. At certain times, Groucho said it was his favorite, but I think that was because of the money it made. It certainly looks like their most lavish film. It was their second film for MGM, and an obvious attempt to do everything A Night at the Opera did but more. It is consequently bloated. It’s their longest movie, and at the same time it’s slow moving and not very funny, and begins the process of disrespecting their traditional characters, particularly Groucho’s. I enjoy perhaps a third of the picture. As for the rest, it portends the beginning of the end.
At the Circus (1939)
Love Happy (1950)
It is customary to regard this film, their “last” picture by some measures, as their worst, but I don’t see it that way. Initially conceived as a solo vehicle for Harpo, it takes a fresh approach, and seems more modern in many ways. It “looks” like I imagine future Marx Brothers pictures might have looked. Is it weird? Yes. Fewer jokes? Yes. But I don’t find it nearly as upsetting as the three films I place beneath it.
Room Service (1938)
I was sorely tempted to place this one last. It is undeniably terrible. Just painful. Placing the Marx Brothers in a pre-existing, ordinary play was a very bad idea: the play and the actors cancel each other out. What prevents me from putting it last is that the vehicle itself is not bad. With some other actors in the roles it might have made a passable farce, which is more than can be said of the last two films.
The Big Store (1940)
The Marx Brothers in these quotidian surroundings? Groucho actually sings a song designed to encourage the sales staff to more cheerfully move their merchandise! The Marx Brothers were made for burning department stores down! Here they have been tamed and are made to jump through the man’s hoops. They retired (for the first time) after this picture, they were so dispirited, and with good reason. This one used to be in last place on this list, but I eventually realized it has a couple of redeeming features though, which I mention here.
Go West (1939)
Unbearable torture redeemed only by some Buster Keaton and Frank Tashlin gags toward the end, but it’s hard even to enjoy those, since anyone could be performing them. For the most part this a comedy that seems written for a completely different comedy team, perhaps the Ritz Brothers. For the most part, I don’t think there’s even a single second of this movie that I enjoy, despite the fact that it stars my favorite comedy team. That’s how badly the team was used during this phase of their career.
Interested in other perspectives? On the very first episode of the Marx Brothers Council Podcast, the three hosts give their own rankings, all different from each other and all different from mine. I thought they all made good cases for their points of view, despite being hopeless wrong. Hear it here, or here it hear, or “Hear it? Here!” whichever engulfs you with the most treacle-like rivulets of warm feeling.