Nearly a century on from their prime in both vaudeville theatre and the big-screen, comedy legends The Marx Brothers remain among the most loved and influential of comic teams. Alongside Laurel & Hardy, Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin and The Three Stooges, pretty much all contemporary fun has had their roots from there.
Arrow have now put together a three-disc Blu-Ray Special Edition release consisting of the quintet of films they did through Paramount at the outset of the talkies, The Cocoanuts (1929), Animal Crackers (1930), Monkey Business (1931), Horse Feathers (1932) and Duck Soup (1933).
If you are getting your first taste of their work, we would suggest starting with Duck Soup working back chronologically. Most of the older generation like this writer discovered them on early screenings on Channel 4 and via late-night tapings on BBC2 in the early 1980s and Duck Soup is the best place to start.
Effectively the films were cinematic extensions of their stage shows (indeed, their classic MGM film A Night At The Opera was road-showed on stage and the best of the gags found their way into the final product, notably this example's stateroom scene) and the height of the humour reached it's peak in this collection in the final two films, which eliminated much of the musical numbers in favour of the pure comedy for which the brothers were known for.
Viewed today, some of the gags might go over your head, particularly in the first three films, but even from The Cocoanuts, it is clear that the films truly come to life when Groucho, Harpo and Chico are on screen, The fourth brother, Zeppo, seemed to play second fiddle and was portrayed as the romantic interest in the likes of Horse Feathers. The first three films do represent a chemistry in progress as they made a transition from stage to screen.
Duck Soup remains the most consistently funny of the films, as topical as ever with it's satirical analysis of a new Government in the fictional country of Freedonia, with society widow Mrs Teasdale (straight and unfazed Margaret Dumont, who allegedly never could be made to laugh during the Marx mayhem) financing a crisis hit Cabinet, a backdrop to the various physical comedy moments.
Combining Groucho's mixture of daft and deft puns, with Chico and Harpo's overlapping interaction, it is also the most cinematic of their accomplishments over the four-year period, with one of the all-time physical comedy classic moments in the mirror scene.
On reflection, the comedy might feel a little jaded and stale today at times, given the context of the stories and films which are very much from the early twentieth century. However that does not diminish their overall contribution to film history. As watchable as always.
THE 4 MARX BROTHERS AT PARAMOUNT 1929 - 1933 / CERT: PG / DIRECTORS: ROBERT FLOREY, JOSEPH SAINTLEY, VICTOR HEERMAN, NORMAN Z. MCLEOD, LEO MCCAREY / SCREENPLAY: MORRIE RYSKIND, BERT KALMER, HARRY RUBY, GEORGE S. KAUFMAN, S. J. PERELMAN, WILL B. JOHNSTONE, ARTHUR SHEEKMAN, NAT PERRIN / STARRING: GROUCHO MARX, HARPO MARX, CHICO MARX, ZEPPO MARX / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW