The Marx Brothers – Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo – are the reigning kings of comedy and remain one of the most iconic comic teams of all time. From their early days on Vaudeville and Broadway through their wildly popular motion pictures, the Marx Brothers kept audiences of all ages laughing out loud with some of the most hilarious routines ever imagined. The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection Restored Edition captures the very best of the comedy team and includes the only five movies to feature all four brothers. Filled with unforgettable comedy sketches, musical numbers, witty dialogue and plenty of gags, this must-own collection includes The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers and their most popular film, Duck Soup.
"I want my shirt! I want my shirt! I can not be happy without my shirt! "
"He want's his shirt! He wants his shirt! He won't be happy without his shirt!"
How does one review or critique four legendary members of comedy? It's a herculean task under normal circumstances, but when you're talking about the Marx Brothers, nothing is normal. At a time when talking pictures were becoming all the rage, the four Marx Brothers Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo had nearly thirty years of show business experience dominating the vaudeville circuit and taking Broadway by storm. Hollywood and motion pictures were merely the next step for the multi-talented brothers. With their penchant for quick-witted jokes and musical numbers, these early films of the Marx Brothers are virtually critic-proof as they are endlessly hilarious. Every time you re-watch one of their films, you're guaranteed to catch a joke you never heard before, or at the very least be spun into a fit of laughter by your favorite bits.
The Cocoanuts - 1929
Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo are stuck in the fledgling hotel industry in Florida hoping to make a buck or two off a land auction. Everything is thrown into turmoil when a valuable neckless is stolen!
Animal Crackers - 1930
Famed African explorer Captain Spalding's (Groucho) arrival is spoiled when a valuable painting goes missing. Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo will have to solve the mystery before their art-prodigy friend is hauled off to jail.
Monkey Business - 1931
Groucho, Chico, Zeppo, and Harpo are stowaways who get caught in the middle of a war between two feuding gangsters on an ocean liner. The brothers will have to foil a kidnapping plot if they hope to sneak into the country without getting noticed!
Horse Feathers - 1932
As the new president of Huxley College, Groucho will have to contend with his love-lorn son Zeppo falling for the college widow while recruiting Chico and Harpo as football players to carry the school team to gridiron glory!
Duck Soup - 1933
Hail! Hail! Freedonia! Only Groucho with the help of Zeppo, Chico, and Harp can save Freedonia from financial ruin and win the war with neighboring Sylvania and their shady ambassador.
As any fan of the Marx Brothers' early films will tell you, the plot isn't the main feature of the film. You're there to watch Groucho sling some fast one-liners, Chico blast off a couple of goofy puns and tickle the piano keys, Harpo honk his horn and mug before settling into a beautiful harp solo, and Zeppo playing the amiable leading love interest. Whether the brothers are trying to sell a piece of swamp land in Florida, provide quality college educations, or save a free nation from the interests of an invading power - you're not there for the plot. You're there to laugh your socks off - if you have any socks on at the time that is.
What makes the Marx Brothers such a dynamic and hilarious comedic quartet was their incredible sense of timing. When you're not laughing too hard, just watch the actors who had to play off them - especially their frequent foil Margaret Dumont. For Dumont's part, there have been a lot of stories that she was dim or just didn't get the jokes that were being slung her way. I counter that by saying anyone who thinks that should just watch her face - she absolutely gets the jokes and she knows how to take the jabs. Granted, she may not have known what Groucho or any of the other brothers were going to say or do at the moment, but she plays a good sport and rolls with the punches. It's even better when one of them grabs onto or interacts with an unassuming background player and watching that person try to contain their laughter is a real hoot.
Throughout all of these films, the Marx Brothers were impeccable showmen. Each film is like a little stage show complete with comedy, romance, and a few musical numbers to keep the audience invested. These movies easily could live for years on the stage. While Groucho, Chico, and Harpo were the undeniable stars of the films, Zeppo was often left out. This wasn't because he wasn't as funny or skilled as his siblings, but because of the dynamics, there wasn't much left for him to do but stand there and react. His greatest moments happen to be his last on-screen appearance where 'Duck Soup' dissolves into total and complete absurdity when the brothers single-handedly win the war for Freedonia while changing into a different costume with every cut in the action.
I wasn't always a Marx Brothers fan. I was introduced to them in my 20s by my wife when we had just started dating. I'm glad she took the time to sit me down and make me watch 'Duck Soup.' To say I became a fan on the spot is a bit of an understatement. As soon as I finished one movie I immediately jumped into the next. While not all of their later films are winners, the Marx Brothers' first five from their days at Paramount starting with 'The Cocoanuts' and ending with 'Duck Soup' are arguably among their best. The films may be short, but the laughs are nonstop. It's a great thing when you have to take a break from doing anything strenuous because you've laughed so hard your stomach muscles hurt. That's the side effects one can expect from spending an evening with the Marx Brothers. Pick any film you want from 'The Marx Brothers: The Silver Screen Collection' and you're guaranteed a hilarious experience.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Marx Brothers: Silver Screen Collection' arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Universal. Pressed onto three Region Free BD50 discs, Disc One contains 'The Cocoanuts' and 'Animal Crackers.' Disc Two contains 'Monkey Business' and 'Horse Feathers.' Disc Three contains 'Duck Soup' along with bonus features. Discs One and Two open to a static image title selection menu allowing you to choose which film you want to see. From there, the film immediately starts up without its own separate main menu. Special features, commentaries, and chapter selection are accessible through the "pop-up menu" button. Disc Three loads directly to the film with the same "pop-up menu" functionality. All three discs are housed in a book-style package with identical slip cover. Also included is a wonderful booklet containing private photos of the brothers and the essay "The Marx Brothers: From Vaudeville to Hollywood" by Robert S. Bader from his upcoming book "Four of the Three Musketeers: The Marx Brothers on Stage."
While the artwork for 'The Marx Brothers: Silver Screen Collection' states "Restored Edition,' I feel it's important to put people's expectations in check. For starters, you must keep in mind that these films are over 80 years old now and especially in the case of 'The Cocoanuts,' they weren't treated well. To that point, I have little doubt barring the discovery of some immaculately preserved print in a vault someplace, these 1.33:1 1080p restoration transfers will be the best these films can possibly look. Comparing the 'The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection' to its DVD counterpart from 2013, these new restorations are a marked improvement.
Before we get into specifics I need to take a moment and single out 'The Cocoanuts.' If you've seen this film on home video over the years then you should be going in with a naturally guarded set of expectations. This was a terribly mistreated film as the print had countless instances of speckling, scratches, tears, dropped frames - you name it - this film was in rough shape, to say the least. Now, this new 2016 restoration effort has gone a very long way towards fixing these issues. I wish I could say that this film looks brand new, but it doesn't - and it never will. The best I can say is that it looks better than it ever has on home video. Unfortunately, no liner notes were provided to detail the restoration process but it would appear as if Universal tried every trick in the book. The amount of dirt, speckling and scratches have been greatly mitigated, that much is apparent from frame one. However, the image quality shifts from scene to scene depending on where that segment was sourced from. One shot could look immaculate offering up detail levels you've never seen before. The next shot could be softer and a little muddy at times. Now, I will say that some very judicial digital smoothing and some edge enhancement have been employed. Thankfully it would appear that they used these techniques on a scene-by-scene basis and not to the entire film. Film grain is readily apparent throughout, so if the film had been smoothed out, it wasn't overdone as to wipe out the entire grain field. That said, the heavily damaged pieces - specifically around the auction scenes - are very nearly beyond repair. These scenes have always looked terrible, here, the only plus I can say for this restoration is that there aren't any still frames as previous releases featured to "fill in" the damaged bits. I once saw a film print of this in a theater years ago before DCP was the norm and the print I saw was littered with Still Frame fillers during this scene, so the DVD was already an improvement in that department, and this Blu-ray restoration is just one notch better. The film never looked amazing on home video but this is a notable improvement in quality considering the condition of the elements available.
As for 'Animal Crackers,' ' Monkey Business,' ' Horse Feathers,' and 'Duck Soup,' I am very pleased to report that things only get better as you move from one movie to the next with 'Duck Soup' looking the best of the bunch. Again, it's incredibly apparent that a ton of work went into removing dirt, tears, scratches and other bits of damage. You can still see a faint scratch here and there, but the damage isn't nearly as severe as it once was and in many instances now looks practically flawless. While each film has its own instances of beautiful clarity and immaculate detail followed by some softer shots, they're nowhere near the level that 'The Cocoanuts' has endured. Grey scale is in great shape allowing for some nice blacks at times and some good shadow separation giving the image some notable depth - this is especially true during the ridiculous "To War" song and dance number in 'Duck Soup.' Even the stock footage sourced for the big "war" looks great! Contrast for all of the films looks like it has been tweaked from shot to shot. There are some scenes that can appear a bit too bright, including 'The Cocoanuts,' that now appear far more stable and not nearly so washed out. Granted a lot of the softness and brightness are baked in issues, but the bleached whites appear to have been dialed back a bit to a more pleasing neutral black and white presence.
The Cocoanuts: 3/5
Animal Crackers: 3.5/5
Monkey Business: 4/5
Horse Feathers: 4/5
Duck Soup: 4.5/5
Each of the films within 'The Marx Brothers: Silver Screen Collection' arrives with a very pleasing English DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono mix. Much like the image transfers, the audio quality hinges on the condition of the elements in their current state. As I mentioned in the video breakdown, 'The Cocoanuts' was in pretty tough shape and to some degree remains so. However, the audio for that film has been greatly improved as the amount of hiss has been greatly reduced. A few pops creep in, but they sound more like soft thuds rather than loud distracting snaps as they once did. Scratches and noise in the track also sound as if it's been filtered back a bit allowing the voices to be clearly heard. Like the video, the audio sounds like it underwent a scene-by-scene treatment. When the image looks its best, the audio is in tiptop shape. Where there is the most obvious damage, the audio suffers the most - especially during the shirt song. Again, this is still pretty fantastic mix as a number of jokes that I had never caught before finally stuck and gave me fresh rounds of stomach-aching laughter fits.
As for the rest of the films, it's pretty much the same course. Compared to the mixes provided for the previous DVD release, these films sound better than ever. In a few instances you can almost feel the tweaking and work that went into culling the hiss, pop, and scratches from the audio - but thankfully these mixes don't sound too overworked or processed. While hiss has been greatly reduced, there is still enough background and atmosphere presence to give the tracks a natural quality to them. With any Marx Brothers film, the best moments tend to be when Harpo and Chico sit down for their traditional piano and harp numbers. These moments are still wonderful reminders that the Marx Brothers were true showmen bringing the best aspects of their vaudevillian upbringing to the silver screen. If there is one complaint to be had is whenever someone sang, the higher register vibratos can sound a bit shrill. That's always been a baked in issue, but with the higher quality audio, that vibrato can really kick and you may feel the need to drop the volume a touch. Thankfully those moments are few and far between as the rest of the tracks sound very good considering their age and the condition they were in for previous releases.
The Cocoanuts: 3/5
Animal Crackers: 3.5/5
Monkey Business: 3.5/5
Horse Feathers: 3.5/5
Duck Soup: 4/5
'The Cocoanuts' Audio Commentary: Film scholar Anthony Slide provides a very informative commentary track for this film. Especially considering that "talkies" were still relatively new and the camera equipment had to be shot in a soundproof booths and restricted camera movement - which is difficult to do when you have comedians like the Marx Brothers on screen who can and will do just about anything whenever they feel like it.
'Animal Crackers' Audio Commentary: Film historian Jeffrey Vance offers a lot of great information about the production of the film, especially how this story was adapted from the stage and how the endings were changed at the order of the studio boss forcing them to come up with something new on the fly.
'Monkey Business' Audio Commentary: Author/Historian Robert Bader and Bill Marx (Harpo's Son) provide a great little commentary track full of anecdotes about the film and growing up around these guys.
'Horse Feathers' Audio Commentary: Film critic F.X. Feeney clearly knows his stuff. Before the credits even finish he's dropping a bunch of history about the comedians and this film especially. It's a very informative track.
'Duck Soup' Audio Commentary: Film critic/historian Leonard Maltin and Marx Brothers historian/author Robert S. Bader provide an engaging and entertaining commentary track. These two are clear fans of the Marx Brothers and they have a great back and forth banter covering their fascination with their performance abilities as well as covering a lot of historical details about the film itself.
The Marx Brothers Hollywoods Kings of Chaos: (HD 1:19:57) Featuring critics, historians, comedians, and surviving family members of the Marx Brothers, this is a fascinating history of the comedians, their history in vaudeville, how their comedy worked, and their films.
Inside the NBC Vault - The Today Show Interviews:
Harpo: (SD 7:15) For an interview that was supposed to promote Harpo's biography, yeah, you can guess they didn't get very far into plugging the book.
Groucho: (SD 4:51) Anytime you have Groucho on the air there are going to be some great jokes and amazing stories.
William Marx: (SD 4:38) Harpo's son William dropped by the studio for the reissue of Harpo's biography and shares some pretty great stories about his dad and what it was like growing up with such a strong musical and comedic talent. The home movies he brought are pretty great, Harpo strutting around a pool in a lady's swimsuit is something to see.
'The Marx Brothers: The Silver Screen Collection' is an essential piece of any comedy collection. Featuring five of the Marx Brothers best films, you have hours of entertainment on your hands. The films are nearly impossible to gauge in a standard means of criticism because they're each so good in their own ways. Each film offers up its own signature moment that will put you on the floor laughing - and leave you begging for more! Universal Home Video has clearly made every effort to restore these films to their best possible condition. While 'The Cocoanuts' still looks rather rough, it is a marked improvement over the previous DVD releases, and the other four films look great considering the last film, 'Duck Soup' was originally released 83 years ago! With the addition of some fresh new commentary tracks, the essay, and some new interview material, this is a heck of a great set. Whether or not this is worth the upgrade to Blu-ray is going to depend entirely on the type of Marx Brothers fan you are. If you're a diehard fan, it's going to be hard to turn this one off once you get started. If you're a casual fan, this set may not be entirely worth the upgrade. That said, I love these movies and I appreciate the work that went into restoring them to their best possible condition for Blu-ray. My hope is that this set sells well so we can get 'A Night At The Opera' and a couple of the other great Marx Brothers flicks on Blu-ray soon. 'The Marx Brothers: The Silver Screen Collection' is very highly recommended.