A strong case can be made for Go West (1940) being the worst Marx Brothers film of all. So much about it is so wrong, right from the film’s very first frames with their apologetic title about how “stupid” the boys are. This gesture demonstrates such a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Marx Brothers characters are all about that it amounts to cinematic malpractice. After all, these are not the Ritz Brothers, nor are they the Three Stooges, nor Abbott and Costello nor even Laurel and Hardy. This is a film that could and should star any of those other teams. And you know what? It did. because EVERY COMEDIAN ON EARTH has made a western comedy, which is probably the best of all reasons why the Marx Brothers shouldn’t do it, being as they are unlike every other comedy team. Go West seems like their handlers were watching what all the other comedians were doing and imitating it. It was a distinct step down. Actually, about ten steps down.
Except for maybe about ten or 20 lines there’s not a moment in this film, or an aspect of this film I wouldn’t change 100%. People usually cite the opening scene, in which Chico swindles Groucho yet again as one of the movie’s halfway decent scenes. Hardly. Groucho needs to do the swindling. I’d love to see him as a successful con man or a medicine show impresario in the old west. Better yet, the inexplicable mayor or sheriff of the town. Best of all, BOTH a con man and sheriff simultaneously, as W.C. Fields got to be in My Little Chickadee. But, nah, in this film, once again he’s just some bottom feeder lawyer who gets thrown down the stairs. Clearly that’s the best way to make use of the greatest comedian of the twentieth century.
Shouldn’t Harpo play the harp in some Victorian parlor, instead of a loom on an Indian reservation, which is just weird without being funny? And you know what? The Marx Brothers had actually BEEN to the wild west, and their real life exploits are vastly better than anything in this movie. The teenage Groucho was stranded in Cripple Creek, Colorado by his drag queen vaudeville partner and forced to get a job driving a horse drawn milk wagon, even though he knew nothing about horses. The Marx Brothers are said to have become a comedy act when their audience abandoned their singing performance in Nagadoches, Texas in order to go outside on the street and look at a mule. Thus, I would rather READ A BOOK ABOUT THE MARX BROTHERS THAN WATCH THIS MOVIE! A little irony?
I have no idea what the plot is. Some crap about a deed. The film-makers spend a century on this plot (at the expense of thinking through the comedy) and I still can’t make myself listen to it or pay attention. Then at the end, they are racing somewhere on a fast-moving locomotive. I have no idea where they are going, but it looks like it is supposed to be urgent. There are a couple of genuinely funny gags in this sequence, hatched by Buster Keaton and Frank Tashlin. There is no reason the Marx Brothers need to be involved in these gags; they just happen to be the studio cogs who were hired to fill the costumes in this dreadful Hollywood “product”.
At times it may seem a tough call whether Go West is worst, or The Big Store or At the Circus, but remember this: those ones at least have Margaret Dumont as a saving grace. This one has neither a priceless foil, nor even a notable singing Zeppo stand-in like Kenny Baker or Tony Martin. The only continuity with past glories is a villain played by Walter Woolf King from A Night at the Opera, a detail I did not notice for DECADES. And Groucho plays his guitar in a film for the first time since Horse Feathers. The cowboy song he sings is one of the film’s highlights, though I didn’t really notice it was in there until around the fifth time I saw the movie.
Groucho and Chico do a drunk scene, but Arthur Housman does a better one. As for the rest of the cast: Joe Yule (Mickey Rooney’s father) is Bartender Joe. June MacCloy is the film’s excuse for a femme fatale in the Raquel Torres or Thelma Todd vein, though, again, less memorably. And Iris Adrian is also one of film’s minor cuties. Less memorable than either of them is Go West‘s female lead, Diana Lewis, William Powell’s wife, who had earlier appeared in comedies with W.C. Fields, Buster Keaton, and Eddie Cantor without leaving an impression.
Go West? Nah! Go ahead and stay East!
For more on comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etcTo find out about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.