Marxes Out Of Metro
I’m to a point where it’s no longer the best work of great comedians I gravitate to. Fascination for me lies in their weaker (so-called) output, where specters of decline and submission make bittersweet laughs they’re yet trying to generate. What’s most interesting isn’t always "good." I’m more immersed in Keaton at MGM and Laurel and Hardy at Fox than ever I was with great ones they formerly made. What went through the minds of artists engaged in such unworthy factory commissions? You put yourself in the place of lesser talent imposed upon genius and wonder why they couldn’t step aside and let proven ability have its way. My own age and compromise that comes with it makes more poignant what advancing years did to comics I once loved best in their prime. Why else would I take down The Big Store this weekend instead of another go-round of Duck Soup? --- and yet something about The Marx Brothers in decline speaks of grandeur all my favorites shared, a willingness to clown past prime and make at least sips of lemonade from decided lemons. There’s fun to be had in The Big Store if you’re willing to define that in terms beyond gags and whether they work. I like watching the Marxes swirl in Metro pudding, and say, who invited Tony Martin to the party (and gave him co-star billing)? The deuce of it is I like his singing. Tony's welcome anytime to my meditation on what it took to keep a veteran comedy team in business during times that were a-changin’. To embrace The Tenement Symphony and ponder its inclusion in a Marx Brothers feature is to open rich veins of exploration into what seems in hindsight an irrational use of comics any of us might have served better had we been in creative charge. I see myself among harassed studio personnel told to whip something together for a team whose last three lost money. Were customers simply tired of The Marx Brothers by 1941? If so, the team wasn’t alone for being overly familiar. Laurel and Hardy seemed to many a tired act. Abbott and Costello would get everyone laughing aloud soon enough, but that was less for inspired clowning than the fact they were something new. Our stuff simply is going stale, said Groucho, so are we. This was April 1941, two months before The Big Store was released. How many comedians would go on such damning record with product still to (try and) sell? Metro bookers surely wished they could put a muzzle on Groucho: When I say we’re sick of the movies, I mean the people are about to get sick of us. By getting out now, we’re just anticipating public demand, and by a very short margin. The Big Store was the team’s first at Metro with negative costs under a million ($850,000), and thanks to that, it returned profits of $33,000, but domestic rentals of $789,000 (with foreign $525,000) were the lowest yet recorded for an MGM Marx Bros. comedy. The team’s announced "retirement" did indeed anticipate studio demand, if not the public’s. I wonder if Metro, or any company, would have consented to further (continuing) use of them in anything other than "B’s."
Groucho appears to have invested wit and barbed intellect in private correspondence and humorous writings, but for films he’d rely upon others. A shared credit (with Norman Krasna) for The King and the Chorus Girl was integral to publicity for Warner’s 1937 comedy, as this most verbal of Marx brothers implied by speed of delivery that at least half his best lines were ad-libbed. Did Groucho consider movies (specifically ones starring The Marx Bros.) unworthy of his creative bother? I wondered and still do why he didn’t write more of their stuff. Had he done so, would higher standards have been maintained? Maybe Groucho did contribute, without credit, and I’m just unaware of it. The Marx Bros. seemed to have risen (and fallen) on the backs of men who supplied words on Broadway and later in their best movies. When less inspired scriveners came aboard, the likes of The Big Store resulted. It seemed the brothers were unable (or disinclined) to turn familial hands toward generating comedic content for themselves. I’ve read of how they went through motions, cooperated little, and disappeared often to relieve boredom of work before cameras. Did the letdown of losing a nightly audience sap their energies? Like W.C. Fields, you have to assume their act was a hundred times on stage whatever it became in pictures, but Fields wrote his own best stuff, and guarded well against studio mediocrity. The Marxes seemed to have cared a good deal less provided employer’s checks cleared the bank. Maybe it was conviction that movies were beneath them. Groucho took a jaundiced view in letters referencing ones he’d completed. Toward the end, they were mostly dogs in his estimate. I watch Groucho play The Big Store at half his Paramount strength and wonder how much that was diminished from effort he put forth on Broadway. Still yet, there are sections when The Big Store lights up and though I know opinions differ (strongly) on said account, I think Metro’s accent on music actually helps here. Sing As You Sell appealed for me. It’s a production number to which Red Skelton might have been as efficiently applied, but energetic and reflective of the Brother’s maintained status as A-picture clowns (Fox would never have staged a highlight so grand for Laurel and Hardy). Studio confusion as to who the Marxes were and how they best functioned was reflected in another of those last refuge chases that derive of nothing other than resignation and commitment to formula. Knowing this and reflecting upon Marx and Metro’s exhaustion with one another made the finish oddly irresistible for me.
Consider this dream setting for a trip back forty years: You’re seated at one of those packed University showings of a Marx Bros. comedy … trouble is they’ve run all the good ones and now it’s down to MGM titles via Films Inc. 16mm rental. I’d love to have seen the reaction of counterculturalists to The Big Store. Films Inc’s catalog tried putting a happy face on Marx shows they distributed that few liked. Their page (shown here) nobly defends virtues of At The Circus and Go West (the pair of films credited to Buzzell may prove more satisfying in the long run just because they do seem more involved with the Marx Brothers themselves), but gives up short of endorsing The Big Store (If any one film might be said to be typical of what happened to the Marx Brothers under Louis Mayer’s paternal care, this one would be it). Text for the catalog (published 1970) was supplied by academics/historians William D. Routt and James Leahy, their descriptions of available features being a deft merging of cerebral film school-ery and straightforward salesmanship. I Googled both authors and they’re still active (Routt has a webpage). Fans (and scholars) had long known that moving to MGM was tantamount to a Marx surrender before Hollywood’s most dreaded Establishment, an act that seemed to militate against everything they stood for. Films Inc. cleverly rationalized decisions made thirty years before: The Marx Brothers’ comedy was always the comedy of revolt, and the slick productions of MGM brought out all the best in the team as they massed their forces to destroy, destroy, destroy. Honest appraisal of The Big Store gives the lie to that. The Brothers here compromise, compromise, and are constrained. As with previous MGM vehicles, they are less anarchists than compliant performing seals. They step aside not only for Tony Martin, but novelty singer Virginia O’Brien as well (hey, I like her too!). Henry Armetta plays bombastic foil, though his antics and those of obnoxious kids in tow reduce the Marx Brothers to near-invisible support for an overlong routine that expresses best how directionless MGM was in its handling of the team. I’m guessing The Big Store caused near-revolt among disappointed students coming to see their heroes mock convention. Confirmation, or correction, from Greenbriar readers who remember would be welcome. Just how were MGM Marx comedies generally received at colleges? My own experience was limited to a bootlegged print (but a nice one) of earlier Paramount Horse Feathers I hauled around campus from 1972-76 and played repeatedly to classmates who’d (generally) seen little of the Marx Bros. prior. The Big Store and other Metros didn’t appeal to me then like they do now. Could it be my own intervening submission to convention that enables such patience, if not affection, for these beleaguered shows?