At risk of stating the obvious, the Criterion Channel’s new “The Best of the Marx Brothers” program is a big deal because, well, it’s usually pretty difficult to stream Marx Brothers movies. Sure, you can rent or buy them digitally, and of course they’re freely available on disc (Universal’s wonderful “Silver Screen Collection” Blu-ray set is a must-have, though Warner Brothers has yet to upgrade their later films from DVD). But as far as subscription streaming services – which are, let’s face it, how most people are discovering movies nowadays – they’ve been MIA, for the same reason that so much of pre-1990 film history is: because Netflix, Hulu, and (to a lesser degree) Amazon Prime simply don’t see the return-on-investment of ponying up the licensing fees to stream what they deem to be dusty old relics. Better to spend that cash on a new movie or series that people will talk about for a weekend, if that.
Such thinking isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, but it’s especially baffling when it comes to the Marx Brothers, who have proven one of the more venerable acts of the classic Hollywood era. Beloved but by no means dominant in their heyday (they had their hits, but never generated the kind of blockbuster box office that, say, their Paramount colleague Mae West did), the Marxes – especially Groucho – experienced a second wave of popularity in the late 1960s and early 1970s; alongside such similarly anti-establishment figures as Humphrey Bogart and W.C. Fields, they were reappropriated as counter-culture figures, with their 1933 political satire Duck Soup proving a particularly popular selection among the campus anti-war crowd.
That second wave of popularity led to the splashy 1974 re-release of Animal Crackers, their 1930 sophomore feature, and the oldest film in the Criterion Marx collection. The exclusion of their debut, The Cocoanuts (1929), is a bit baffling, though the picture itself is a mixed bag – full of funny bits and well-executed routines, but suffering from that self-conscious airlessness of many early talking pictures. It amounts to a filmed performance, cameras pointed at the Marxes as they perform this script, as they had for nearly three years on Broadway and on tour.
They had similarly perfected Animal Crackers on the New York stage, but talking picture technology had come a long way in the year between the films’ productions, and director Victor Heerman mounts their second movie much more comfortably – the camera occasionally moves, the coverage and cutting are appropriate, and there’s a spark in the brothers’ performances that is somewhat absent in Cocoanuts. (Animal Crackers also had a much shorter run on Broadway, so they presumably weren’t as tired of the material.)
None of which is to say that its roots aren’t still readily apparent. Animal Crackers is full of the trappings of the stage musical, from the frequent musical numbers to the not-at-all-convincing single location of the Rittenhouse estate, where the widow Rittenhouse (the team’s great foil, Margaret Dumont) is hosting a fancy society weekend to welcome back the famous African explorer, Captain Jeffrey Spaulding (Groucho). He gets a big entrance song, for the first time – a trend that would continue in “Horse Feathers,” “Duck Soup,” and (though it was cut from the final film) “A Day at the Races” – and it’s a pip, the deservedly famous “Hurray for Captain Spaulding,” with an interlude of the equally deservedly famous “Hello, I Must Be Going.” (The snappy songs are by the great team of Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby.)
Zeppo, the crew’s straight man, is Spaulding’s personal secretary, Horatio Jamison; Chico is Signor Emanuel Raveli, hired to provide music for the weekend, and Harpo is his “partner,” known only as “The Professor.” The opening sequence efficiently encapsulates what each of the brothers did well: Groucho does puns and patter, Chico shows up and joins him for a clever verbal bit, and then mute Harpo arrives for some physical comedy. (Zeppo, uh, introduces Groucho.)
And this, really, was the genius of the Marx Brothers: comically speaking, they offered something for everyone. Groucho did fast-talking intellectual humor; Chico, speaking in malapropisms and broken English, did broad, dumb-guy comedy; Harpo was a throwback to the great silent clowns. It was an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach that went back to their early days in vaudeville, where they not only developed those characters, but Chico’s piano solos and Harpo’s harp numbers, the variety-show specialties that stayed a part of the act throughout their film careers.
Most of their films are also burdened by a “straight” romantic subplot that’s usually a real snooze, though Animal Crackers is lifted somewhat by leading lady Lillian Roth; she’s clearly having a good time mouthing inane dialogue like “Somebody swiped my scheme, eh,” and it’s infectious. And the feeling of watching the Marxes do a play isn’t entirely absent; in one sequence, what was apparently a spontaneous fumble of character names has been worked into the permanent script, seemingly to preserve Groucho’s ad-lib to the audience (“Could I look at a program for a minute?”), and other fourth-wall breaks are present as well (the most direct follows a particularly strained gag: “Well all the jokes can’t be good, you’ve got to expect that once in a while!”)
A tangle of rights questions led Animal Crackers to briefly disappear from circulation in the 1950s and 1960s, leaving it out of the rotation of TV airings and screenings that led to the Marx revival of the period, so a group of young fans (led by Steve Stollar, who later became Groucho’s personal archivist and wrote a wonderful book about the experience) gathered signatures and pressed Universal to restore and re-release the film. And it was rediscovered again a few years back, when a BFI print was discovered of the original 1930 release version; all existing prints and releases were of a 1936 recut, with a handful of jokes (a minute or so in total) excised to comply with the Hays Code. (Unfortunately, Criterion is streaming the post-Code version. You can’t win ‘em all.)
So what is it about this team that keeps them not only funny, but relevant? One scene in Animal Crackers may hold the key, in which Groucho finds himself trapped in a conversation with Roscoe W. Chandler (Louis Sorin), a fancy-pants art dealer with a comically overblown sense of his own importance. And our guy absolutely filets this stuffed-shirt, peppering him with leading questions and deflating his answers, then sharing his bemusement with his audience: “This fellow takes things seriously. It isn’t safe to ask him a simple question!”
That Chico and Harpo have already unmasked Chandler as a fraud, a former fish peddler putting on airs and masquerading as a member of high society, gives an extra level of satisfaction to the exchange. But that simple statement, that shared, winking acknowledgment from Groucho to viewer, is in many ways the Marx ethos encapsulated: anyone misguided enough to take anything seriously should not only be mocked, but mercilessly.
“Animal Crackers” is now streaming on The Criterion Channel.