The Marx Brothers were no overnight sensation by the time they released their first film, The Cocoanuts, in 1929. Zeppo was 28, Groucho 39, and Harpo and Chico in their early 40s. Decades into their career, they were already vaudeville headliners and Broadway stars who would have increasingly mixed success in capturing their iconoclastic comedy for the screen.
The group’s film career began auspiciously with Paramount, for which they made five classic movies. These early comedies have the most quotable jokes, the most absurd situations, and the most indelible scenes. And, yes, Zeppo. And then they signed with the tonier studio, MGM. Here, they made two of their biggest box-office hits, but at what cost?
Critic James Agee once famously said that the Marx brothers’ worst “would be better worth seeing than most other things I can think of.” Their later films, mostly the MGMs, would compromise the brothers’ subversive, anti-Establishment comedy with icky love stories and elaborate production numbers. These movies put Agee’s maxim to the test.
The Marx Brothers at their best could be counted on to do and say the wrong thing at just the right time. They made a shambles of high society, laid waste to higher education, and made a mockery of war. But even their lesser films had moments that, however fleetingly, recaptured the rebellious spirit that made them a comedy institution, heroes to Vietnam War–era college students, and an influence on the likes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, George Carlin, Harold Ramis, and the team behind Bob’s Burgers.
But they didn’t think of themselves as satirists or comedy subversives. According to Steve Stoliar, author of Raised Eyebrows: My Years Inside Groucho’s House (soon to have its own movie adaptation), Groucho was alternately amused and annoyed by the pretentious analysis of the brothers’ comedy. The original William Hamilton New Yorker cartoon that made fun of film scholars trying to read meaning and significance into Marx Brothers films hung on Groucho’s hallway wall. Stoliar said that Groucho told him, “We were just trying to be funny.”
This week marks the 90th anniversary of Horse Feathers, one of the team’s four classic comedies ranked by the American Film Institute as among the 100 funniest of the 20th century (the others: Duck Soup, A Night at the Opera, and A Day at the Races). In its honor, we offer up this definitive order in which the Marxes’ 13 feature films should be watched. Not to be taken for a traditional best-to-worst ranking (though Love Happy is definitely their worst), this watchlist is based more on which movies have the Marxiest content. Which undermine the most sacred cows and highest authorities? Which most deftly remove the starch from the stuffiest shirts? Which have the best songs and instrumental performances? Which keep those intrusive love stories at bay and allow the Marx Brothers to run riot? Which would be the best gateway into the Marx-verse?
So without further ado: Readers of Vulture and Vulture readers, fans of the Marx Brothers and Marx Brothers fans (I guess that covers everything), here’s our list.
Horse Feathers (1932)
Horse Feathers, the Marxes’ fourth film at Paramount, is a Grade-A introduction to the team, with Groucho as Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff, the newly installed dean of Huxley College. His opening number, “I’m Against It,” is the Rosetta stone of the Marxist philosophy (“Your proposition may be good, but let’s get one thing understood / Whatever it is, I’m against it”). This one has the classic “Swordfish” routine with Chico denying Groucho entry into a speakeasy unless he can guess the password (“I’ll give you three guesses; it’s the name of a fish”) and a definitive surreal Harpo moment in which a bum asks Harpo to help him get a cup of coffee and he produces one from his pocket. It also features perhaps the best song in the Marx canon, “Everyone Says I Love You,” performed individually by all four brothers to Thelma Todd’s vampy college widow.
Duck Soup (1933)
Once you’ve graduated from Horse Feathers, you’re prepared for their masterpiece, ranked No. 5 on AFI’s “100 Years … 100 Laughs” list. Groucho stars as Rufus T. Firefly, new ruler of the financially strapped Fredonia, who takes the country to war with fresh fruit flying. Though a box-office disappointment at the time, Duck Soup took on cult status in the 1970s on college campuses with its cynical take on politics (“If you think this country’s bad off now, just wait till I get through with it”) and war (“We’ve got to go to war; I’ve already paid a month’s rent on the battlefield”). But Duck Soup may be best known for its most uncharacteristic Marx Brothers sequence, Groucho and Harpo’s silent mirror scene, which Harpo would later recreate on I Love Lucy. It’s fast and furious, with no dead spots and a supporting cast of peerless character actors, including Groucho’s favorite foil, Margaret Dumont (“We’re fighting for this woman’s honor, which is probably more than she ever did”). This was the film that gave Woody Allen’s suicidal character a new lease on life in Hannah and Her Sisters. As for the film’s title, Groucho once explained: “Take two turkeys, one goose, four cabbages, but no duck, and mix them together. After one taste, you’ll duck soup for the rest of your life.”
Animal Crackers (1930)
Captain Spaulding, the African explorer, one of Groucho’s iconic characters, is the guest of honor at Mrs. Rittenhouse’s (Dumont) high-society weekend soiree. This is the closest approximation of what it must have been like to see the brothers on Broadway, where no two performances were the same. At one point Groucho breaks the fourth wall to apologize after a lame gagline: “Well, all the jokes can’t be good — you have to expect that once in a while.” The highlights are many: Groucho’s signature song, “Hello, I Must be Going”; his account of his trip to Africa (“One morning, I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don’t know”); Chico and Harpo’s bridge game with Mrs. Rittenhouse (“How do you want to play; honest?”); and Groucho dictating a letter to his lawyer at Hungadunga, Hungadunga, Hungadunga, and McCormick. Charming Lillian Roth is one of the more tolerable ingenues in all Marxdom (I dare you to fast-forward through “Why Am I So Romantic?”). Out of circulation for decades and re-released in the 1970s, Animal Crackers is one of the essentials that spurred the Marx Brothers revival. The “Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection” Blu-ray contains the original uncut version, with its racier dialogue restored. (“Do you want me to scratch Elsie?” “Well, if you enjoy that sort of thing, it’s quite alright with me”).
A Night at the Opera (1935)
Mel Brooks cites A Night at the Opera as his favorite Marx Brothers film. Gilbert Gottfried referred to it on his Amazing Colossal Podcast as “the beginning of the end.” It has a conflicted legacy, is my point. A Night at the Opera was the team’s first film without Zeppo (who tired of being the straight man) and its first for MGM, considered to be Hollywood’s gold-standard studio. MGM films, under the tenure of “Boy Wonder” producer Irving Thalberg, were known for their high production values, literate scripts, and having “More stars than there are in the heavens.” It was not known for the Marxes’ style of anarchic comedy. Thalberg’s idea was to let the Marxes be the Marxes, but in service to a love story that the brothers would help facilitate. The brothers may have been compromised, but for this one glorious film, the Thalberg way works. The script by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind is an embarrassment of riches; its now-classic scenes (like the “party of the first part” contract negotiation and the rapidly filling stateroom sequence) were road-tested before live audiences prior to filming, a Thalberg innovation. And darn it, we do want Alan Jones and Kitty Carlisle, as aspiring opera singers Riccardo and Rosa, to succeed and their conceited rival Laspparri (William Woolf King) to get his comeuppance.
Monkey Business (1931)
The Marx Brothers’ third film for Paramount was the first written specifically for the screen and not based on one of their Broadway plays. Monkey Business hits the ground running and rarely lets up. It contains the brothers’ grandest entrance together: as stowaways on an ocean liner. They pop out of four barrels to take their bows after a rousing chorus of “Sweet Adeline.” From then on, it’s every man for himself, with Groucho taking his umbrage directly to the captain (“I don’t care for the way you’re running this boat. Why don’t you get in the back seat for a while and let your wife drive?”), Chico and Harpo making waves on deck, and Zeppo falling for a gangster’s daughter. Classic scenes include Groucho going overboard for a rival gangster’s wife played by Thelma Todd, Harpo getting into the act at a children’s puppet show, and the brothers taking turns trying to pass for Maurice Chevalier to get off the boat. It peters out at the end, but for the first 70 minutes, Monkey Business is pure bananas.
The Cocoanuts (1929)
The brothers first film, based on their Broadway triumph, creaks, largely because of the primitive new-fangled sound technology, but also because a satire about the 1920s Florida land boom is somewhat past its shelf date. But the comedy is strong and the brothers make indelible first onscreen impressions. The best-known sequence is Groucho and Chico’s “Why a Duck” routine. Anticipating the more conventional MGM films, there is an intrusive love story and syrupy romantic songs by Irving Berlin, no less. Let’s just say that “When My Dreams Come True” is no “Always,” which Berlin wrote while working on The Cocoanuts, but playwright George S. Kaufman supposedly wasn’t enthused by it. That’s about as funny as anything in the movie.
A Day at the Races (1936)
With all due respect to Gilbert Gottfried, this is the beginning of the end. Irving Thalberg died during production, and the absence of his keen instincts and guiding hand are deeply felt. This film doubles down on the taming of the brothers and ever-elaborate production numbers (there’s no reason why you folks shouldn’t go into the kitchen during the Water Carnival sequence). The Chico of the Paramount films was a hustler and a fixer out for No. 1 (which was Chico), and would never utter a line such as, “You don’t have to pay me, but you can’t fire me,” spoken to Maureen O’Sullivan, who is in danger of losing her sanitarium to a shady banker. Enter Groucho as Hugo Z. Hackenbush, one of his professed favorite characters, a horse doctor fronting as a medical doctor to treat Margaret Dumont as the hypochondriacal Mrs. Upjohn (“I didn’t know there was a thing the matter with me until I met him.”). The comedy scenes — again road tested in front of an audience — are strong. The most famous is Chico acting like his old self fleecing Groucho at the racetrack under the guise of selling Tootsie Frootsie ice cream, but the one I have never seen fail to get applause the many times I’ve seen it with an audience is the charades scene in which Harpo tries to communicate to Chico that someone is trying to frame Hackenbush. This was the Marx Brothers’ highest-grossing film, followed by A Night at the Opera; no wonder Groucho claimed them as his favorites.
Room Service (1938)
Some purists insist that this is not, in fact, a true Marx Brothers movie. The source material was a popular Marxless Broadway play that was retailored to fit the Marxes’ personas. Groucho is in his element as a producer desperately trying to raise money for his new play while attempting to avoid being kicked out of his brother-in-law’s hotel, where his theatrical troupe is running up the bill. “You can’t shake backers out of your sleeve,” Groucho complains. “Anyhow, I can’t.” Small pleasures include Harpo’s eating scene and the appearances of Lucille Ball and Ann Miller, albeit in mere ornamental roles. But if presented with a choice between this and any of the later MGM films, I’ll order Room Service.
A Night in Casablanca (1946)
The Marx Brothers emerged from retirement after a five-year hiatus for this hit-or-miss return-ish to form. It’s not, as one would hope, a parody of the Humphrey Bogart classic. The plot, which sees Groucho installed as the manager at a hotel where a Nazi has been killing off his predecessors while searching for a cache of gold, seems more suitable for Bob Hope. But Groucho’s bravado carries the day in two memorable scenes. In one, he banters with a femme fatale (“My name is Beatrice Rheiner, I stop at the hotel.” “My name’s Ronald Kornblow, I stop at nothing”). The other is with a snooty entitled guest. (“This lady is my wife; you should be ashamed.” “If this lady is your wife, you should be ashamed.”)
Go West (1940)
The things the MGM movies thought audiences would care about. Here, it’s whether John Carroll can resolve a family feud so he can marry Diane Lewis. But Go West starts promisingly with Groucho, Harpo, and Chico at a railway station trying to out-con each other for the price of a ticket west. The film’s conclusion, a mad train chase, gets this entry — wait for it — back on track after dispiriting scenes in which the brothers are objects of derision. “Riding the Range,” though, is a good song, and an improvement over “Two Blind Loves,” which you’ll find in …
At the Circus (1939)
A more insipid couple than Florence Rice and Kenny Baker you’ll never find, and unfortunately the Marx Brothers are expected to join forces and help them save Baker’s circus. But the real problem with “At the Circus” is that the best Marx Brothers movies unleash the siblings to run amuck where they do not belong. There is no comic tension in placing them in a circus. This film does give us one of Groucho’s iconic songs, “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” (a.k.a. Todd Alquist’s ringtone in Breaking Bad).
The Big Store (1941)
Go West, At the Circus, and The Big Store each have something to recommend them, and at this point are interchangeable. But The Big Store, every bit as generic as its title, earns this spot on the watchlist for its bombastic hate-watch production number, “Tenement Symphony,” the magnum opus of singer and composer Tommy Rogers (Tony Martin), who wants to sell his inherited interest in the eponymous store to build a music conservatory. That is, unless the store’s manager doesn’t bump him off first. Enter Margaret Dumont (yea!) who hires Groucho’s low-rent private eye Wolf J. Flywheel to be his bodyguard. Reunited and it feels so good: When she tells him she’s afraid that after they’re married a beautiful young girl will come along and he’ll forget all about her, Groucho replies, “Don’t be silly. I’ll write you twice a week.” A Harpo and Chico piano duet is a musical highlight. Joe Adamson, author of the essential Groucho, Harpo, Chico and sometimes Zeppo, says this was his first Marx Brothers movie, and his 11-year-old self loved it. “But after it was over,” he says, “the first words out of my father’s mouth were, ‘Aw, they made a LOT better pictures than THAT!’”
Love Happy (1949)
Remember James Agee’s quote about the Marx Brothers? To that, Love Happy says, “Hold my beer.” The brothers’ last film is even less of a Marx Brothers movie than Room Service. It was originally conceived as a solo vehicle for Harpo, but producer Lester Cowan went behind his back to finagle Chico and Groucho to appear. They are not in a single scene together. Harpo is the whole show as a vagabond who acts as a guardian angel to a struggling theatrical troupe. Groucho is private eye Sam Grunion, whose claim to fame is the solving of a uranium scandal (“I confessed”). He’s at his best when breaking the fourth wall, as when he is faced with the prospect of frisking the sultry villain who is in pursuit of a missing diamond necklace unwittingly possessed by Harpo. Looking at the camera, he says, “If this were a French movie, I could do it.” The film’s one claim to historical significance is that it marks one of the earliest screen appearances of Marilyn Monroe, who, apropos of nothing, slinks into Grunion’s office complaining that “Some men are following me,” “Really?” he leers. “I can’t understand why.” It’s a sad swan song, but not as cringe-worthy as the surviving Ritz Brothers in Blazing Stewardesses.