Prolonged sickness has put me behind on my viewing and writing. These Marx Brothers films have been gestating for a while but am now just getting out.
The Cocoanuts (Robert Florey & Joseph Santley, 1929)/A Night at the Opera (Sam Wood, 1935)/A Day at the Races (Sam Wood, 1937) //
The only other Marx Brothers film I had seen up until these three was Duck Soup, the critical pinnacle of their film career but a film also notable for being a commercial flop. That film is almost straight front to back comic anarchy, with jokes and gags flying haphazardly all over. The three film being reviewed here all pale in comparison because there are too many elements present in them that take away that anarchistic spirit or take the brothers out of certain films completely. It may have been what audiences at the time would have wanted to see but it seen through these eyes, almost pointless in its misdirection.
The Cocoanuts is pretty much a complete mess with the exception of a couple of scenes involving Groucho and Chico. The film is just poorly structured with too many pointless, overlong musical numbers that have not much to do with the film's plot. Granted that plot has not a lot to do with any Marx Brothers film, but this one is even more frivolous than most. The transfer leaves a lot to be desired in spots but that's a bit of nitpicking. This one does deserve a pass because it was the brothers' first film.
After the commercial flop of Duck Soup, the brothers headed to MGM and made their two most commercially successful films, A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races. While the improvement in production values is certainly a plus, once again the ability of pointless musical numbers to suck the life out of the film at moments is no less present here. A Night at the Opera is a little bit better overall, mostly because it can have these musical moments a bit more plausible. Each film has its share of memorable scenes and gags but I feel that A Day at the Races is a bit better in terms of Groucho's one-liners and scenes that go closer to careening out of control. It would have been the better film except that it has an inexplicable, racially insensitive and stereotyping musical number with African-Americans that is wholly unnecessary.
All in all, you don't go to Marx Brothers films looking for classic cinema. What these films offer are moments of comic brilliance and that's all you can really ask out of comedy: to give you a laugh for that brief moment. The Marx brothers' film history is cemented not in the overall quality of their work but in moments of inspired comic anarchy.