Many’s the time when The Big Store (1941) has been my candidate for “worst Marx Brothers film”. In fact I called it that just two weeks ago in this blogpost. Unlike Go West, however, I can think of a couple of half-hearted things to say in its favor, if only barely, so now Go West has that dubious slot.
One of the few potential selling points, more like a missed opportunity, is that Groucho’s character is named Wolf J. Flywheel, his name from the Marx Brothers short-lived radio show Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel (1932-1933). That show had dated from the Paramount era, and featured better comedy writing on the whole than their MGM films. If this had been some sort of film version of the radio show, that might have been OK. It wasn’t. But if you work hard to form a mental association, it can act as a partially redemptive factor.
The hugest mark against The Big Store in my eyes, is the quotidian environment. Where’s the glamour? This is MGM! They’ve failed on everything else and now they can’t even lend the Marx Brothers rich surroundings to play off of? Their previous haunts have been mansions, palaces, hotels, luxury liners and opera houses. A retail store? And when we meet them, they are even worse off than retail employees…Groucho and Harpo are a couple of starving detectives.
When we put the film in perspective, it’s easy to place why this was done. Mysteries were extremely popular in the early 40s. Consequently so were comedy mysteries. Like Go West , this was an example of the studio imitating what everyone else was doing. This is the kind of backdrop we find in a Columbia or Warner Brothers film or a B movie. It’s the sort of vehicle in which we are accustomed to seeing the Three Stooges, the Bowery Boys, or Abbott and Costello. Once again, the Marx Brothers are miscast. It’s like watching a bunch of cats get thrown into a swimming pool.
The plot concerns the hiring of the trio by Margaret Dumont as bodyguards for her nephew (Tony Martin), a young man who has inherited a department store but wants to start a music conservatory. THAT is the goal we (and the Marx Brothers) are supposed to care about. Virginia Grey is the ingenue. Meanwhile, store manager Douglas Dumbrille (who played a similar part in A Day at the Races) has a plot to KILL him. At last — someone in the film whose aims we can root for!
In this film, Groucho sings his worst song ever: “Sing While You Sell”, a number 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 completely tamed and are made to jump through the Man’s hoops. Most fans have the biggest problem with the lengthy irrelevancy “The Tenement Symphony”, which seems to take up about a quarter of the movie’s running time. However, much like the “darky” numbers in A Day at the Races and At the Circus, I don’t half hate it on its own merits as a piece of music to listen to. I just object to it being parked in THIS movie, where it has no business being. Similarly, a cute comic number by the funny Virginia O’Brien, whom MGM seemed to be promoting at the time. They clearly thought of the beautiful young O’Brien as an up and comer. The Marx Brothers, on the other hand, were apparently regarded as some sort of old fashioned embarrassment from the 1920s they were saddled with.
“Vaudeville” was getting to be a dirty word by the 1940s. It was corny; it was what old people liked. Yes! That was already the case by then, over 70 years ago. One of the more obvious aspects of this generational culture clash was the increasing lack of understanding of what to do with Chico. Increasingly, an effort will seem to be underfoot to try to justify him as a REAL ITALIAN. Consequently, they have him interact with other “Italians”. Now, in A Night at the Opera, this was OK. Most of the characters were theoretically Italian. Most of them didn’t bother with accents even though Chico had one for some reason. And the others (like the extras on the ship) are merry peasants in a production number. Here, however, Chico meets an Italian family in the department store, whom for some reason actually know Chico’s family back in Italy. The results are neither believable (the apparent goal) nor fortunate. Contrast it with this moment in Animal Crackers:
CHANDLER: How did you get to be an Italian?
CHICO: Never mind that, whose confession is this?
Chico is never meant to be a real Italian. He is a vaudeville comedian, who delivers dialect comedy routines. End of story.
A glimmer of something I almost like: at the climax, the three Marx Brothers go zipping around the store on roller skates for some reason. It is an appropriately dreamlike, surreal, cartoonish image. Though Chaplin had done the same thing in a department store about five years earlier in Modern Times, and in that film Chaplin had actually done the trick skating himself. Here, I’m guessing that the 50+ year old Marx Brothers, photographed from a distance, are replaced by stunt men. But the image seems vaguely appropriate, especially for Harpo, and that’s more than can be said for the rest of the movie.
The movie was so dispiriting for the Marx Brothers that they retired their original movie career in its wake (although they were to emerge from retirement numerous times in years to come). But take heart! The negative posts are behind us (for the most part).
Now then, it’s really saying something when you list Harpo’s harp solo as one of the high points of a Marx Brothers film. In The Big Store it is literally the case, so we attach it here:
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.