Marx Brothers Collection (DVD) (5-Pack)
When it comes to long-awaited treats like The Marx Brothers Collection, you can never get too much of a good thing. These seven comedies can’t compare to the sheer lunacy of the five classics (The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, and Duck Soup) that the Marx Bros. made for Paramount between 1929 and 1933 (available in The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection), but when uber-producer Irving Thalberg signed Groucho, Harpo, and Chico to an MGM contract in 1935 (by which time sibling costar Zeppo had become the team’s off-screen manager), he knew just how to cure their box-office blues. As a result, A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races were critical and commercial hits, lavishly produced according to the “Tiffany” studio’s golden-age formula of glamorous set pieces and musical numbers combined with sensible plots that smoothly integrated snappy, well-written Marxian antics. Opera is the jewel of this set, with timeless scenes (the Stateroom, the Groucho-Chico contract negotiation, etc.) that rank among the greatest bits of silver-screen comedy… not to mention Groucho’s flirtatious insults at Margaret Dumont’s upper-crust expense.
A Day at the Races deserves near-equal acclaim (“Get-a your tootsie-fruitsie ice cream!”), but Thalberg’s death in 1937 dealt a devastating blow, and the Marxes suffered from studio indifference, resulting in a succession of comedies that are timelessly enjoyable even as they fall prey to diminishing returns. By the time they made Go West and The Big Store, the Marxes were out of their element, and a few of the musical interludes indulge racial stereotypes that were common in the studio era. Despite this, these movies remain fresh and frantic, and Warner Bros. (holder of the RKO and MGM libraries) has done a marvelous job of packaging The Marx Brothers Collection to nostalgically approximate the filmgoing experience of the 1930s and ’40s, with vintage shorts (Our Gang, Robert Benchley comedies, MGM cartoons, etc.) from the time of each feature’s original release. Archival materials are slim but worthwhile (especially Groucho’s 1961 interview with TV talk-show host Hy Gardner), and while Glenn Mitchell’s commentary on Races is sparse and superficial, Leonard Maltin brings his usual superfan’s enthusiasm and encyclopedic knowledge to bear on a full-length Opera commentary track. The new documentaries are somewhat redundant, but essential viewing for Marx Bros. neophytes. With all seven films presented in pristine condition, this is definitely a Marx Brothers Collection worth having. –Jeff Shannon