THE MARX BROTHERS COLLECTION (WARNER HOME VIDEO)
The wait is finally over. Thanks to the generosity of the Warner folks, all five M.G.M Marx Brothers films (A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, A DAY AT THE RACES, AT THE CIRCUS, GO WEST, THE BIG STORE) have been released on dvd in one glorious collection , which includes, as added bonuses, R.K.O's ROOM SERVICE, and, most surprisingly, A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA, which was originally released by United Artists.
A NIGHT AT THE OPERA is without question one of the greatest comedy films of all time, and undisputedly the crown jewel of this joyous collection, but the person who should take the greatest credit for this madcap triumph is certainly M.G.M. head of production Irving Thalberg, who, over Louis B. Mayer's vigorous protestations, single-handedly resurrected the Marxes from the cinematic banishment that had been caused by the stunning financial failure of their previous film, Paramount's DUCK SOUP, which is, ironically, probably the funniest of all the Marxian masterpieces. But Thalberg had the vision to add romantic sub-plots and songs (which to many of today's impatient viewers are the slowest sections of these films) and to surround the Marxes with those sumptuous Metro trappings of the sort that only Hollywood's number one studio could provide, and the result was that they were humanized somewhat, and given a patina of class that their previous films hadn't supplied. Make no mistake about it: A NIGHT AT THE OPERA is a true comic masterpiece, a rare gem that, like SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, remains just as funny the fiftieth time as it was on the first, and is certainly the one to show those poor unfortunates who've never been introduced to the particular brand of madcap genius that was Groucho, Chico, and Harpo.
A DAY AT THE RACES was also prepared and overseen by Thalberg, who, unfortunately, died during the early stages of production, and while it's overall not quite as pefect as OPERA, it comes darn close, and to my mind includes two or three of the Brothers' funniest routines. If OPERA never existed (what a horrible thought!) this would be the one to beat.
ROOM SERVICE found our boys on loan-out to R.K.O., as, despite the huge success of OPERA and RACES, Louis B. Mayer's lack of interest in them prevailed. ROOM SERVICE had been a monumentally successful (non-Marx) Broadway hit, and the attempt to shoehorn the Brothers into what could have been a reasonable diversion on its own resulted in a slipshod and forced affair that pleased no one, and is a poor representation of the Marx brilliance.
Marx fanatics have a tendency to turn up their noses at their last three M.G.M. films, but, in this grim world, each of these films offer ample pleasures to those benumbed by what passes for cinematic humor today. While AT THE CIRCUS clearly demonstrates Mayer's lack of interest, as is made abundantly clear by the reduced budgets and lower-case directors and supporting players, there is much to savor in this underrated film, and as I was watching their next project, GO WEST, I discovered, much to my surprise, I'd only seen bits and pieces of it before. Other than an overly frenetic and stuntman driven finale, I found myself laughing constantly and appreciatively at the admittedly ramshackle proceedings. While THE BIG STORE, their final and weakest M.G.M film, was clearly thrown together without much thought or enthusiasm, even it has instances, however sporadic, of Marx brilliance.
Chico's gambling debts forced the Marxes to come out of retirement four years later and the result was A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA, which, despite careless editing and direction, was a reasonable success and a decided improvement over their previous venture THE BIG STORE. While there are many truly funny routines, the most remarkable aspect of this CASABLANCA is the fact that this may be the only Marx Brothers film where a character actor, Sig Rumann, as the main Nazi villain, is allowed to be just as funny as the boys, so much so that he almost becomes a fourth Marx Brother. His scenes with Harpo, in particular, reach a high point of hilarity in this mostly rewarding comedy caper.
The full screen black-and-white transfers for these seven films are a mixed bag, the most surprisingly good of which is A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA, which has been shown for years in distinctly sub-par and ragged incarnations on television and cable. What a pleasant surprise it is to see this film, originally released by United Artists, in such good shape, with a confident grey scale and very little damage. Also on the plus side are the transfers of ROOM SERVICE, AT THE CIRCUS, GO WEST and THE BIG STORE, which are in reasonable, if unspectacular, shape. It is with considerable regret, however, that I report that easily the weakest transfers in the bunch are the also this collection's best films, OPERA and RACES. While the image quality of both OPERA and RACES are substantially sharper than those of the Criterion and M.G.M laser-discs respectively, the additional sharpness dramatically amplifies the considerable graininess and harshness of the two transfers. It would be easy to justify these flaws by assuming that the fact that both films have been revived so constantly has severely diminished and eroded the quality of the sources available, if it weren't for the inescapable fact that Turner Classic Movies has shown a very good transfer of RACES, with the water ballet production number in the original blue tinting of the initial engagements, while this dvd version of that scene is in black-and-white.
The above qualms, however, scarcely diminish the fact that this MARX BROTHERS COLLECTION is surely the supreme cinematic comedy dvd collection of the year. Let hilarity reign supreme!