Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo take over the asylum tonight on Turner Classic Movies during their Marx Brothers Marathon beginning at 8pm ET/5pm PT.
Hilarity ensues with MONKEY BUSINESS from 1931, the Marx Brothers’ first Hollywood film after two stage show adaptations filmed in New York. They play four stowaways discovered aboard a luxury liner and are chased for the entire voyage by Captain Corcoran and his crew. Amid they mayhem, the Marxes get mixed up with rival gangsters as their bodyguards. Thelma Todd co-stars as the object of Groucho’s flirtatious advances, a role she’d later repeat with great success. Watch for Harpo and Chico’s hilarious barber routine, trimming the Captain’s moustache by measuring the distance to the cabin walls. Directed by the bankable Norman Z. McLeod and co-written (with credit controversy following) by S.J. Perelman and Will B. Johnstone.
Next at 9:30pm ET/6:30pm PT buck the university system in HORSE FEATHERS from 1932. Groucho enjoys one of his best roles as Professor Wagstaff, president of the fictitious Huxley College who attempts to boost enrollment by fixing a big football game. Thelma Todd returns as the love interest of all the brothers and the villain too, allowing her comedic talents to shine in the surrounding insanity. This is one of the least structured of the Marxes’ films and a personal favorite of mine, stuffed full of classic Marx gags and one-liners. Politics fans should watch for Groucho singing “Whatever It Is, I’m Against It” as a timely anthem for recent headlines, along with Groucho crooning “Everyone Says I Love You” to Thelma Todd. A Marx Brothers classic!
Madness reigns in the brilliant geopolitical satire DUCK SOUP at 10:45pm ET/7:45pm PT. Fans cheerfully sing “Hail, hail, Freedonia” today but surprisingly this film was quite a critical and commercial flop for the Marxes upon its 1933 release. Lacking the Brothers’ typical harp and piano solos for Harpo and Chico nor a romantic thread for Zeppo, fans and pundits balked at the film’s break from formula. Yet anarchy truly rules the day as Rufus T. Firefly engages in a battle of wits with his mirror image (Harpo impersonating Groucho in a priceless, silent routine). Margaret Dumont returns as Groucho’s romantic foil and Louis Calhern plays the pompous political foe who gets thoroughly dismantled by the Marxes. Not to be missed!
A NIGHT AT THE OPERA begins at Midnight ET/9pm PT, which many fans consider one of the Marxes’ finest films in their career and likely the best they made at MGM under Irving Thalberg. Even the Brothers appreciated working with Thalberg who insisted on a serious production but otherwise got out of the Marxes way to create comedy. This 1935 send-up of the upper class opera set boasts many of their best routines including Groucho’s stateroom crowded with 15 people and two hardboiled eggs — make that three hardboiled eggs! Groucho and Chico negotiating Allen Jones’ opera contract is another wonder of verbal jousting, along with the Brothers’ posing as famous Russian aviators. Kitty Carlisle and Sig Rumann somehow survive the insanity. Another great!
Only the Standish Sanitarium could hold the Marx Brothers and friends in A DAY AT THE RACES, their 1937 winner. After numerous script rewrites (reportedly 18), the Marxes actually took the story on the road across the country, performing scenes and routines for live audiences and honing the comedy. By the end of their tour, the exact timing of nearly the entire story was perfected to the point that it could be replicated on movie sets. Director Sam Wood tracks the anarchy with aplomb as Dr. Hackenbush (Groucho) attempts to woo the heart and wallet away from Mrs. Upjohn (Margaret Dumont) to save Maureen O’ Sullivan’s sanitarium. Allen Jones returns as the golden-voiced romantic lead, keeping pace with the Marxes like a pro. Their MGM benefactor Irving Thalberg died just weeks after this film opened in theaters, marking a decline in the Marxes’ creative freedom at the studio. Still, this comedy offers plenty of giddyup and laughs.
TCM’s Marx Brothers Marathon wraps up in the wee hours with AT THE CIRCUS from 1939, their third MGM film and an example of the Marxes’ waning interest in filming an endless string of increasingly similar comedies. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy and written by solo scribe Irving Brecher (a first in Marx Brothers films), Groucho, Harpo and Chico team up to save a circus from bankrupcy. Groucho once again woos Margaret Dumont, the wealthy aunt of the circus owner, to save the day and skewer the stuffy aristocratic attitude of the upper crust. There’s plenty of social satire and three ring inanity, but this isn’t one of the Marxes’ best.
Dial up Turner Classic Movies for a night of Marx Brothers hilarity and fire up your Tivos to record the late shift for comedy tonight!