Monday, December 27, 2004

I'm a Marxist

So please indulge me for a moment.

As previously mentioned, I received a handsome box set of all the Marx Brother’s Paramount pictures. Although I refrained from over eating during the holidays and I only hit the peanut brittle jar a few times, I was no match for the lure of this DVD collection. Within about 24 hours I had watched all the films and the bonus material.

I’d read complaints that there was not enough extra stuff on this new set. Each movie had the corresponding trailer and the standard language tracks on it, but not much else. The Bonus DVD had three interviews from the Today Show (which was about as stiff and lame in the 60’s as it is now.) totaling a mere 30 minutes. It would have been nice to have some commentary tracks and a bit more on the bonus disk, but I’m just thankful the movies were released at all. Plus, since just about everybody connected to the movies is long gone, I’m not sure who would’ve done the commentary. Duck Soup was the latest film on the collection and that was 1933. Also, some had complained that the prints used were the same as the LD released several years ago. While I agree that these movies deserve a big restoration effort, the prints used are very watchable. There’s one scene in Horsefeathers where the film skips around some, but the rest of the prints are in great condition. Ultimately, the films alone are reason enough to get the collection.

Cocoanuts is the film I was least familiar with since the sound had always been muffled, making it hard to watch. I’d forgotten how racy some of the scenes were. It was before the Hays codes and some of the outfits were pretty hot. I particularly enjoyed some of the Busby Berkley-esque numbers and the Irving Berlin score. The premise of the film, the developement of Florida, was still in its first wave at the time. Topical comedy.

I remember showing Animal Crackers to my friend, Phil, years ago, which turned out to be a mistake because I think the staginess of the movie cemented his distaste for the team. That distaste still persists to this day. However, watching it now, I’m impressed at how quickly the jokes fly. Here are the brothers going over routines that had been honed down to perfection on stage over the course of years. And since the film was made in New York, it now provides a glimpse at the stage designs at the time. I’m assuming that the New York film industry was largely interchangeable with Broadway.

Monkey Business and Horsefeathers mark a clear departure for the team. Not only were these the first films that were not performed on stage, but they moved the production out to Hollywood. Both films are ably directed by Norman McLeod and are about efficient as comedy films can be. I believe Monkey Business was the first Marx Bros film I ever saw, at the tender age of eleven or twelve, and I've been in love ever since. In hindsight, Monkey Business was the picture I should’ve forced on Phil. Perhaps then he would not have the comedy disorder he has now.

Duck Soup is simply the funniest movie ever made. And it transcends the film medim. Its title should stand next to Jonathan Swift and Candide and perhaps a few other pieces of high art as an ultimate expression of humor. Today, most comedians try to be hip and cool and spell out all of the little ironies of life. There are precious few clowns that want an audience to laugh at them. Back then, during the age of comedy teams, there was plenty of the latter. In Duck Soup, as in most of the Marx Brother's features, they achieve the pinnacle of satire and, at the same time, spend themselves as clowns, a win-win for the audience.

So, if you still have some holiday time to burn at home, I can't think of a better way to spend it than getting a six pack of beer, some diapers and renting the set for a marathon jaunt through pure comedy. You may be a little slap happy towards the end, but it's worth it.

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