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The Marx Brother – Chico, Zeppo, Groucho and Harpo – haven't made a movie since 1950, but their comedy still resonates. 

Mr. Movie: The Marx Brothers

A lot of younger (than me!) film fans are not familiar with the Marx Brothers. After all, their last film wrapped in 1950. Their unique brand of comedic chaos, gratuitous insults, sight gags and general merriment is still lots of fun. They used a script only as a starting point, much preferring to make it up as they went along. Their films were so popular they were allowed to get away with this (and lots more!). They always seemed to be having a ball. 


Groucho is the one with the funny walk, ridiculous big moustache, outrageous puns and insults. In the 1950s, Groucho had a half-hour TV show, You Bet Your Life. It had its funny moments and was nearly always pushing the censorship envelope.  


Harpo never speaks but blows his horn and carries around an entire junk shop in his coat. Chico translates for Harpo and mispronounces simple words to our delight. Zeppo is bland, boring and a prime example of sibling loyalty.


The problem with The Boys isn’t the funny parts of their films, it’s the rest of them. Most have the mandatory harp solo by Harpo, voice solo by the wretched Zeppo (who is absent after 1933) and piano solo by Chico. These set pieces do nothing at all for the movie except to grind it to a halt. So, a player with fast-forward is the perfect vehicle for a Marx Brothers movie. Zap the boring parts and you have about an hour of great comedy!


A good starting point for the uninitiated is The Marx Brothers in a Nuthshell (1990) which contains many of the great gags and little of the boring stuff. This film shows up on TV fairly often and many video sites usually have it. If you like, it you’re ready for the hard stuff.


For my money, the Marxs’ crowning achievement is Duck Soup (1933) with Groucho as the ruler of a mythical country, poking fun at diplomacy, patriotism and lots of other sacred cows. It may also ring a few bells about our current situation! 


A very close second is A Night At The Opera (1935) in which the boys invade the world of Grand Opera and leave it in a shambles.  


If you like either of those, you should also enjoy:

Monkey Business (1931) [the boys on a luxury liner].

A Day At The Races (1937) [Marxian havoc at a sanatorium].

Horse Feathers (1932) [Groucho as Dean of a college]. 


A step below these would be:

The Cocoanuts (1929).

Animal Crackers (1930).

Room Service (1938).

A Night In Casablanca (1946).


The remaining Marx Brothers films are for real Marx fanatics only. 


By the way, Monkey Business contains a famous scene in which about a hundred people are somehow wedged into a tiny stateroom. I have never figured out how they did that! No computer tricks in the ’30s!


All of the movies in this column are available on DVD. All are suitable for children 10 and up.