Harpo Marx

The Cocoanuts (1929, Robert Florey and Joseph Santley)

The only stand-out sequence in The Cocoanuts comes at the end, when Chico is playing the piano. One of the directors–or both of them–finally had a good instinct and cut to a close-up of Chico’s hands playing. It overrides the first shot of the piano playing, which doesn’t show Chico’s hands at all and barely his expressions; the second shot has hand and expression, so it’s fine. But that close-up is a real surprise, given there’s nothing else impressive as far as the directing goes in The Cocoanuts.

Well, except maybe the emphasis on the dancers’ legs. Directors Florey and Santley can’t figure out depth of field for any other shots, but they sure can when there are dancers’ legs in frame. It’s a little gaudy and more than a little sensational, but it’s competently executed gaudy and sensational.

Otherwise, there’s no competent execution direction in the film. The Cocoanuts’ directors waver between middling and medicore.

The film’s able to coast on the Marx Brothers–and villains Cyril Ring and Kay Francis–into the third act. It gets really long at times (it doesn’t even show a pulse until Harpo and Chico show up twenty minutes in) and musical romantic leads Oscar Shaw and Mary Eaton have a distressing lack of chemistry, but it gets there. Even with Chico and Harpo stuck having to play off Basil Ruysdael’s stuffed shirt detective. Even with Groucho looking visibly bored during some of his monologues, which are usually poorly edited and directed without any energy. Even with Zeppo–top-billed of the Brothers–having four scenes and getting blocked out in most of the third act.

I mean, the back of an extra’s head blocking him out does mean he doesn’t have to look bored during the nonsensical wedding announcement party Margaret Dumont is throwing for daughter Eaton. It’s a gaucho-themed party, though some of the female guests are wearing gowns with crinolines (dome-shaped gowns). The party’s got to be a delight to dissect for costume and production designers.

Cocoanuts takes place in Florida, with Groucho a hotel manager and would-be land baron who can’t attract guests to his hotel (it’s unclear why there the opening establishing shots of the beach are packed with ostensible vactioneers) and can’t sell his properties. One of the scenes the directors screw up is Chico messing up Groucho’s land auction.

Ring is a scumbag blue blood who seems to have lost his money in the Crash, but Dumont’s still got hers and he wants to marry Eaton for it. But she’s in love with Shaw (apparently no one noticed Eaton singing the song Shaw writes for her to serenade Ring at one point makes Eaton even more disposably unlikable). So Francis schemes to help him get rich another–they’re going to steal Dumont’s jewels and frame Chico and Harpo. Their plan doesn’t play out, but still goes their way enough to cause some drama. Cocoanuts is heavy on character setup in the first act (pre-Chico and Harpo, whose introduction turns into a ten minute scene), then completely forgets about the characters. Francis and Ring are still pretty good. The scene where she tries to seduce Harpo is solid (it ought to be great, but for Florey and Santley).

And Ring is a sturdy scumbag.

Eaton’s bad. Shaw is bad with Eaton, but he actually plays really well with the Marx Brothers.

Ruysdael sucks the life out of the film every time he’s onscreen. The third act starts with him getting his own musical number (with a lot of assistance from people who can sing), which gets things off on rocky footing. As if the ornate hacienda, which is apparently part of Groucho’s failing hotel (Dumont and Eaton are his only paying guests), isn’t enough of a credulity pitfall. It actually starts with an excellent shot–kicking off a music number–but that one glimmer of technical hope doesn’t carry through.

Dumont and Groucho have some okay scenes together but nothing great. Her characterization is too thin. She can figure out Groucho (until his manly charms overpower her good sense), but she doesn’t notice Ring’s a scuz? It doesn’t play. And Eaton lets Dumont walk all over her in scenes, even though Dumont’s not trying to do so; Eaton visibly recedes opposite other actors.

Again, the directors.

The sets are good–the whole thing, exteriors included, are shot on interior sets–but the directors don’t really know how to use them. Or they know how to use them for half the frame. There will be a dance number on the bottom half of the screen and its audience ignoring its existence on the top half.

Despite all its problems, The Cocoanuts is still manages to disappoint in the end. The finale is nowhere near effective enough–it doesn’t help Groucho and Chico both look exasperated sitting through a lot of it. Chico in particular seems like he wants to be anywhere else. Harpo at least gets a okay decent drunk scene. Next to them, Francis manages to hold it together though.

The directors sink the picture.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Florey and Joseph Santley; screenplay by Morrie Ryskind, based on the play by George S. Kaufman; director of photography, George J. Folsey; edited by Barney Rogan; music by Frank Tours; produced by Walter Wanger; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Zeppo Marx (Jamison), Groucho Marx (Hammer), Harpo Marx (Harpo), Chico Marx (Chico), Oscar Shaw (Bob), Mary Eaton (Polly), Cyril Ring (Yates), Kay Francis (Penelope), Margaret Dumont (Mrs. Potter), and Basil Ruysdael (Hennessy).

Horse Feathers (1932, Norman Z. McLeod)

Horse Feathers finally finds its funny sometime in the second half. The film plays like the main plot has been removed and just a subplot remains, so it’s impressive it ever does. And when it does, it’s depressing–director McLeod and (wow, four) writers Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, S.J. Perelman, and Will B. Johnstone know how to do good set pieces. They just haven’t been.

Comedically, Horse Feathers turns around when Harpo and Chico go to kidnap rival college’s ringer football players Nat Pendleton and James Pierce. It’s a long, solid sequence–not without some of the standard Horse problems–but it’s way too little, way too late. Until that point, Horse Feathers might have skirted by on some mediocrity. Revealing it could be better timed, the actors could be paired off better; like I said, depressing.

Horse Feathers opens with Groucho Marx taking over a college. It’s a loser college–they took Groucho’s son, after all. Zeppo plays the son. It’s the worst part in the movie. Uncredited Pendleton makes far more of an impression. Even with Zeppo singing and having a long interest (Thelma Todd). Except, of course, “dad” Groucho steals her away from him. Or tries to.

Todd’s working for the rival college; David Landau plays the evil rival dean. Or something. I’m not sure it’s ever determined exactly what he does for the other college, as no one ever finds out he’s working for the rival college. Not even when he’s hanging around Groucho’s football team’s dressing room.

The plot is all about the football team. Zeppo tells Groucho the team has to be better and he should hire some ringers (Pendleton and Pierce). Except Landau hires them first. So Groucho instead hires Chico and Harpo. Chico’s a ice salesman slash bootlegger, Harpo is the dog catcher. Their introductions are good but not great. Harpo’s has a fun, longer physical intro with some actual plotting. They set up jokes and come back to finish them. The rest of Feathers doesn’t take that much time. Not even when it’s funny.

McLeod’s strange direction mars quite a bit of that first Harpo scene (and the rest of the film). He’s got no patience for the script. He can barely wait for the actors to deliver their lines before moving on. And his composition is distant. The first scene–Groucho addressing the students and faculty–turns into an impromptu musical number. Complete with dancing on the stage. McLeod directs it fine, though the effectiveness of Groucho doing a boring musical number first off is a Feathers red flag. After that first scene, McLeod all of a sudden forgets how to set up shots. Or just doesn’t want to bother taking the time. Horse Feathers somehow feels too rushed to even be stagy.

Todd has a great time, being courted by everyone–except Zeppo, after their first couple scenes together, Zeppo loses the girl. Harpo plays the harp for her, Chico plays the piano for her, Groucho letches her. During the first half, the best part about some scenes is seeing Todd trying to keep a straight face. Or at least not busting up entirely.

Horse Feathers has a really small cast. Besides the four brothers, only Todd and Landau get credited. After Pendleton and Pierce, there’s pretty much no one distinct in the cast. Groucho starts as the lead, but ends up without any significant comic sequences. He gets a canoe ride with Todd; it’s slight and funny and narratively pointless. And too short. Because McLeod’s in a hurry.

Harpo comes out best, overall. He at least gets good sequences throughout. The finale is the madcap football game, full of Marx Brothers antics. McLeod’s setups are fine for the big action, bad for the small. Harpo’s got a banana peel gag, which should kill; it doesn’t. Thanks to McLeod.

Horse Feathers needs a lot of work on the script, but it definitely needs someone interested in directing it. McLeod even botches Harpo’s harp scene. Harpo harp scenes are hard to botch.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Norman Z. McLeod; written by Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, S.J. Perelman, and Will B. Johnstone; director of photography, Ray June; music by John Leipold; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Groucho Marx (Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff), Chico Marx (Baravelli), Harpo Marx (Pinky), Thelma Todd (Connie Bailey), Zeppo Marx (Frank Wagstaff), Nat Pendleton (MacHardie), James Pierce (Mullen), and David Landau (Jennings).


Duck Soup (1933, Leo McCarey)

Duck Soup is madness. It’s not divine madness or sublime madness. It’s comedic madness, which is fine, but it’s a tad frantic and a tad distracted. The film opens with Margaret Dumont’s wealthy widow getting Groucho Marx installed as a head of state. Turns out evil Louis Calhern–a neighboring country’s ambassador–wants to create unrest and he’s setting vixen Raquel Torres on Groucho to get it done.

Only Groucho isn’t interested and he never really gets interested. Oh, Zeppo’s his assistant. Zeppo has nothing to do in Duck Soup.

Groucho as President is funnier in concept than execution–director McCarey seems disinterested in Groucho’s storyline, instead focusing on Chico and Harpo’s battles with a lemonade stand owner, played by Edgar Kennedy. There are some musical numbers, which get a smile and are well-produced, but they’re filler. Duck Soup runs under seventy minutes. There shouldn’t be a lot of filler and there’s a whole bunch of it.

Chico and Harpo are spies for Calhern, but Chico also works for Groucho. It’s madness, after all, a series of non sequiturs run together, with the audience left out of most of the jokes. The finale has all four Marx Brothers in a variety of soldier outfits. It’s cute and not a bad setup, only the jokes never arrive. McCarey’s rushing to get the thing finished.

There are some great Harpo moments and a fantastic Harpo and Chico dress as Groucho sequence. Those moments simply don’t add up or make enough of a difference. Duck Soup doesn’t have much narrative logic–something McCarey could embrace and amp up the lunacy; he doesn’t. By the end of the second act musical number, everyone looks exhausted. The whole picture has become a metaphor for McCarey’s universal disinterest and Zeppo’s growing on.

Then comes the third act, which has the two countries at war. It’s mostly poorly cut sight gags–uncredited editor LeRoy Stone never does a great job, but in the third act, he completely gives up. Duck Soup is a surrender (no spoilers). The film doesn’t even come up with a good comeuppance for Calhern, who really, really, really deserves one.

The script–from Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby–and then also Arthur Sheekman and Nat Perrin contributing additional dialogue (perhaps the funnier stuff for Chico and Harpo)–is always problematic. McCarey’s direction is always problematic. The actors get away mostly unscathed, however. Even if Dumont gets almost nothing to do. She’s in the picture a lot–Zeppo’s got nothing to do, but he’s barely in Duck Soup; but the film breaks the cardinal rule–it’s a Marx Brothers movie and it wastes Margaret Dumont.

It’s a shame too, as the film’s probably only a rewrite or two away from greatness.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Leo McCarey; screenplay by Arthur Sheekman, Nat Perrin, Bert Kalmar, and Harry Ruby; director of photography, Henry Sharp; edited by LeRoy Stone; produced by Herman J. Mankiewicz; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Groucho Marx (Rufus T. Firefly), Harpo Marx (Pinky), Chico Marx (Chicolini), Zeppo Marx (Bob Roland), Margaret Dumont (Mrs. Gloria Teasdale), Raquel Torres (Vera Marcal), Louis Calhern (Ambassador Trentino), and Edgar Kennedy (Lemonade Vendor).


Animal Crackers (1930, Victor Heerman)

After initially teasing some kind of narrative, Animal Crackers gives it up and embraces not just being a stage adaptation (hope I don’t forget to talk about that aspect) but also a series of sketches. Not just comedy sketches, but also musical ones.

The film takes place over a day. It starts one morning, it ends the next morning. In that time, besides the Marx Brothers arrival at the swank, palatial home of Margaret Dumont (who’s particularly wonderful here), there’s a missing painting. That missing painting is as far as Crackers goes narrative. Groucho being an explorer who’s sort of courting Dumont? Not as important as a sketch with Chico or Zeppo.

For a while, when Crackers is finding its footing, the lack of narrative is annoying. There’s a bunch of great supporting performances–Dumont, of course, but also Lillian Roth as her daughter and Margaret Irving as her society nemesis–in these little moments. They have the most story without the Marx Brothers. Louis Sorin, as Groucho’s rival for Dumont, gets some good moments, but with the Brothers. It feels incredibly disjointed.

Director Heerman can never decide how to stage the action. For example, Groucho breaks the fourth wall to acknowledge the audience and loses Heerman. But, quite often, Heerman’s pragmatism serendipitously makes the awkward exquisite.

The last twenty minutes, as every plot absurdity gets integrated just because it’d be too much work to keep things sorted, gives Crackers a manic pace to the sublime finish. It ends gloriously.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Victor Heerman; screenplay by Pierre Collings and Morrie Ryskind, based on the play by George S. Kaufman, Ryskind, Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby; director of photography, George J. Folsey; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Groucho Marx (Captain Jeffrey Spaulding), Harpo Marx (The Professor), Chico Marx (Signor Emanuel Ravelli), Zeppo Marx (Horatio Jamison), Lillian Roth (Arabella Rittenhouse), Margaret Dumont (Mrs. Rittenhouse), Louis Sorin (Roscoe Chandler), Hal Thompson (John Parker), Margaret Irving (Mrs. Whitehead), Kathryn Reece (Grace Carpenter), Robert Greig (Hives) and Edward Metcalf (Hennessey).


A Day at the Races (1937, Sam Wood)

Until the halfway point or so, A Day at the Races moves quite well. Sure, it gets off to a slow start–introducing Chico as sidekick to Maureen O’Sullivan and setting up her problems (her sanitarium is going out of business), which isn’t funny stuff. I think Allan Jones even shows up as her nightclub singing beau before the other Marx Brothers make an appearance. But once they do, Races gets in gear.

There are a series of excellent sequences, all utilizing the Marx Brothers. Whether it’s Harpo doing physical comedy, Groucho and Chico doing a banter bit–with Harpo joining them in another one a few minutes later–Races uses them to wonderful effect. Director Wood even gets in a fine instrument playing number for Harpo and Chico.

And the supporting cast–O’Sullivan, Margaret Dumont, Leonard Ceeley, Douglass Dumbrille–is strong. Jones is an exception; his performance is broad, but he’s likable enough.

Until the second half, when the film should be giving him more to do acting-wise and doesn’t, instead giving him a long musical number. That long musical number, which leads to Harpo recruiting the nearby poor black workers into the number, kills Races’s pace. The previous musical interlude, with a lengthy (and gorgeous) ballet sequence, is about all it could handle. Maybe because there was great Marx Brothers comedy immediately following.

After the second musical sequence? Uninspired situation comedy. Races manages a satisfactory recovery in the finish, but it can’t make up the time.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Sam Wood; screenplay by Robert Pirosh, George Seaton and George Oppenheimer, based on a story by Pirosh and Seaton; director of photography, Joseph Ruttenberg; edited by Frank E. Hull; music by Franz Waxman; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Groucho Marx (Dr. Hackenbush), Chico Marx (Tony), Harpo Marx (Stuffy), Allan Jones (Gil), Maureen O’Sullivan (Judy), Margaret Dumont (Mrs. Upjohn), Leonard Ceeley (Whitmore), Douglass Dumbrille (Morgan), Esther Muir (‘Flo’), Robert Middlemass (Sheriff), Vivien Fay (Dancer), Ivie Anderson (Vocalist) and Sig Ruman (Dr. Steinberg).


A Night at the Opera (1935, Sam Wood)

As good as the Marx Brothers are in A Night at the Opera–and George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind’s strong script is important too–director Wood really brings the whole thing together. The film has its obligatory musical subplot and romantic leads. Wood knows how to balance those elements with the comedy; during long music sequences, he brings in the Brothers for a quick gag. And Opera smartly establishes those romantic leads (played by Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones) in relation to their sympathies for Harpo and Chico.

Opera also benefits from having one wonderful heinous villain (Walter Woolf King as an obnoxious opera star) and two great doofus ones (Sig Ruman and Robert Emmett O’Connor). King has the biggest part in the film and the briefest comedic sequences. Ruman and O’Connor both have long, elaborate sequences.

But where Wood’s direction is most impressive is how he and Merritt B. Gerstad shoot the Marx Brothers. While there’s a great moment with Groucho admiring a long Harpo gag, my favorite is how Wood handles Chico and Harpo’s music scene. After a quick, finely staged song from Jones, Chico plays the piano, then Harpo plays the harp. Chico’s sequence is jovial and engaging. Harpo’s is jovial and emotive. It’s gorgeous and Wood gives it as much weight as any comedy sequence. It simultaneously breaks Opera’s reality and deepens the entire film.

The film’s perfectly timed, has some great exasperation from Margaret Dumont, and some wonderful sketches. It’s a marvelous Night.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Sam Wood; screenplay by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, based on a story by James Kevin McGuinness; director of photography, Merritt B. Gerstad; edited by William LeVanway; music by Herbert Stothart; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Groucho Marx (Otis B. Driftwood), Chico Marx (Fiorello), Harpo Marx (Tomasso), Kitty Carlisle (Rosa), Allan Jones (Ricardo), Walter Woolf King (Lassparri), Sig Ruman (Gottlieb), Margaret Dumont (Mrs. Claypool), Edward Keane (Captain) and Robert Emmett O’Connor (Henderson).


Monkey Business (1931, Norman Z. McLeod)

It takes about seventeen minutes for Monkey Business to start. The first seventeen minutes are the Brothers running around a cruise ship, on the run from the ship’s officers. In those seventeen minutes–about a fifth of the picture–they manage to get in a number of gags, including Zeppo discreetly laying the groundwork for his romance with Ruth Hall, and play some music for a minute. Director McLeod choreographs it all beautifully.

Then Harry Woods and Thelma Todd show up–as cruise ship passengers–and the “plot” starts. Woods is a two-bit gangster after a now retired, but successful, gangster’s empire. Rockliffe Fellowes plays the retired gangster (and Hall plays his daughter–see how it all comes together?).

For another twenty minutes or so, the Brothers interact with the gangsters in various combinations, while Chico and Harpo wreck their usual havoc on ship. Groucho is, of course, far more concerned with romancing Todd away from her husband.

All of a sudden, with a half hour left, Business changes gears once again. The cruise ship has docked and the passengers are disembarking. There are some great gags here with the Brothers trying to get through customs before the story returns to the gangster angle.

Business gets a little long towards the end, with Chico and Harpo’s musical interludes awkwardly inserted (even though they’re wondrous to see and hear), but the finale’s outstanding.

Monkey Business is great. Zeppo as the romantic lead makes up for a forgotten subplot or two.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Norman Z. McLeod; written by S.J. Perelman, Will B. Johnstone and Arthur Sheekman; director of photography, Arthur L. Todd; produced by Herman J. Mankiewicz; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Groucho Marx (Groucho), Harpo Marx (Harpo), Chico Marx (Chico), Zeppo Marx (Zeppo), Rockliffe Fellowes (J.J. ‘Big Joe’ Helton), Harry Woods (Alky Briggs), Thelma Todd (Lucille Briggs), Ruth Hall (Mary Helton), Tom Kennedy (First Mate Gibson), Cecil Cunningham (Madame Swempski) and Ben Taggart (Capt. Corcoran).


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