The five Marx Bros: Dicko, Flappo, Groucho, Bono and Beardo.
Continuing what may be a series looking at the non-Marx Bros elements in Marx Bros films. A project which may be on a par with the “definitive cinematic study of Gummo Marx” spoken of in Woody Allen’s STARDUST MEMORIES.
If ANIMAL CRACKERS shows some potentially strong collaborators not quite at their best (Lillian Roth at sea, Margaret Dumont slightly too amused), by the time of A DAY AT THE RACES everything is a lot more polished — maybe too polished. Thalberg threw quality trimmings at the Bros, as if to submerge them, and the results are somtimes jarring. Harpo and Chico (and formerly Zeppo) supplied their own musical interludes, which vary the pace more than I’d like already — the addition of big song and dance numbers not featuring any of the main characters (I refuse to consider Allan Jones a main character) has a serious drag effect.
Still, Margaret Dumont is by now in her pomp. In ANIMAL CRACKERS she was my age, and was starting to seem worryingly sexy to me. Here, she’s a bit older and again appears a genderless dowager cutout. She’s standing on her dignity more, when not swept off her feet, and more plausibly suggests Groucho’s characterisation of her an an innocent who didn’t understand his jokes. That’s the character, mind you — we have to accept by now that Groucho was greatly exaggerating. The woman had been in comedy for years.
Mrs. Upjohn is an essentially decent person, only a hypochondriac and apt to throw her weight around. Her most unsympathetic qualities are (a) she likes the water ballet and (b) she offers money to support Maureen O’Sullivan’s sanitorium but does not immediately dosh it out. This is one reason we dislike rich people, isn’t it? They COULD give us lots of money, but choose not to.
O’Sullivan scores points by sulking through the water ballet. Audience identification is complete.
As a cause to strive for, this sanitorium is a dim proposition, mind you. We never see any of the good work it presumably does, and O’Sullivan hires a horse doctor as chief of staff without checking his credentials. I think we’re supposed to care just because Maureen is so damned attractive, and also because she’s being bullied by businessman Douglas Dumbrille and her own business manager, Leonard Ceeley. Both actors are instantly hateful — did they ever play nice guys? Ceeley seems charmless even for a heavy, but comes into his own wonderfully when tormented by Groucho over the telephone. This man does apoplexy on an international level.
Who else? Ah, Sig Rrrrumann, rrrolling his rrrrs and eyes, pointing his beard with deadly pinpoint accuracy. With Dumont and Rumann sharing the screen, the movie packs more stoogepower than a Republican debate. If the MGM patina of moralism and sentiment deceives us into worrying about who’s in the right, we’d be forced to conclude that Rumann is the film’s hero, campaigning for medical standards like Will Smith in CONCUSSION. No such thing. He is a legitimate target for Groucho, since (a) he’s a stuffed shirt and (b) what his shirt is stuffed with is finest-grade Sig Rumann. I think it’s genetic.
A lot of outrage has been expended over the big musical number with the black folks, which is indeed somewhat patronizing, but only becomes downright insulting when the boys smear axle grease on their faces to merge with the crowd (apart from Harpo, who disguises himself as an inhabitant of Cheron, the Frank Gorshin planet in Star Trek). On a more positive note, the sequence features some great singing and dancing talent, and there’s a teenage Dorothy Dandridge as an extra, somewhere in the throng of happy ethnic stereotypes.
Wingnut Sam Wood directs, probably the most skilled filmmaker to get his hands on a Marx Bros film since Leo McCarey, and he produces much slicker results. It’s kind of startling to see Groucho look, and then get a cut to what he’s looking at. Unlike ANIMAL CRACKERS, where we peer into a proscenium arch throughout, here the action is photographed from the inside, as Hitchcock would say. Whether the Marxes need or even benefit from this cinematic value is questionable.
The most tiresome aspect of MGM’s high-gloss approach, apart from the diversionary set-pieces, is the need to tie the boys to some noble cause. Groucho has to enlist out of some kind of innate nobility, and his relations with O’Sullivan have to be portrayed as chivalrous. This is all wrong, terribly wrong. ANIMAL CRACKERS had the sense to keep Groucho from interacting with the sympathetic characters at all, because all he could do in character would be abuse them. By surrounding him with stuffed shirts and stooges, the Paramount films gave him free rein to be himself. Buster Keaton departed MGM telling Louis B. Mayer, “You warped my character.” Though the damage is less, the charge is true here also.