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The Marx Brothers from stage to screen, part 2

The Marx Brothers Later Movies
Turner Home Movie

(This is the second part of a two-part article. For part one, please see the links listed at the end)

After Duck Soup (1933), the Marx Brothers moved from Paramount to MGM to make A Night at the Opera, produced by Irving Thalberg. During the development of the script, all parties agreed to take the major comedy scenes out on the road to see how they would play in front of live audiences. The brothers themselves thought back to their days in vaudeville and on Broadway, when testing out new lines and gags each performance eventually resulted in surefire routines that would get laughs wherever they were performed. The most famous scene in A Night at the Opera, the one in which Groucho’s tiny stateroom on an ocean liner is increasingly invaded by an absurd amount of unwanted visitors (whom Groucho naturally invites in anyway, because he’s Groucho), was actually developed on the road as the brothers ad-libbed lines and the writers added business and dialog to one small moment in the stage script, eventually expanding it into one of the most admired comedy scenes of all time.

The Marx Brothers embarked upon another tour for their next film, A Day at the Races (1937). Groucho approached his work scientifically, substituting words each night on certain lines, testing out which word got the biggest reaction from the audience. According to author Joe Adamson, who wrote the classic film study Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo (Simon and Schuster, 1973), Groucho’s line “That’s the most nauseating proposition I ever had!”, uttered to Chico in the famous “Tutsi Fruitsi Ice Cream” scene, was the end result of many such word substitutions before settling on “nauseating”. Adamson also relates that during the Races tour, Groucho would often utter his one-liners without any physical business or excess emphasis, making sure it was the material getting the laughs and not his delivery.

During the tours for Opera and Races, laughs after each line and gag were clocked so that when it came time to edit the film, properly timed reaction shots after a gag could be inserted into the films, giving movie-goers audience a chance to laugh before the next gag.

After the untimely death of Irving Thalberg during the filming of A Day at the Races, the Marx Brothers were at odds as to what to do next. Brother Zeppo, who had left the team after Duck Soup, negotiated a lucrative deal for them to appear in RKO’s screen version of the smash Broadway hit Room Service. An excellent and fast-paced hotel farce which is still often revived today, Room Service may have seemed like a good fit for the brothers, but many fans find the film disappointing. The film, released in 1938, was the first time the brothers attempted to do material that was not specifically written for them, and it was an uneasy fit, made even more so by the lackluster direction by William A. Seiter. The film did feature a young Lucille Ball, who would work again with Harpo Marx in 1955 in a memorable episode of her television comedy “I Love Lucy”.

The brothers returned to MGM to make three more films but only Go West (1940) had a pre-filming tour. By this time in their career, however, the brothers were no longer getting top-notch scripts, and Go West, despite the tour, remains one of the least admired films the Marx Brothers ever appeared in. Ironically, the climactic ending train sequence, filled with all kinds of wild action, stunts and special effects that could not possibly have been tested on the road, is what most critics and fans remember about the film today.

The final time the team ventured out on the road to test their comedy scenes was for the independent comeback film A Night in Casablanca (1946). In a letter to his daughter Miriam, Groucho expressed his utter disappointment at the resulting film: “We had worked long and hard on this, and thought we had it so solid and tight, and then to see it emasculated by that fat idiot [director Archie Mayo], well, it was heart rending.” (Love, Groucho: Letters from Groucho Marx to His Daughter Miriam. Faber and Faber, 1993). Despite Groucho’s misgivings, many Marx Brothers fans consider A Night in Casablanca one of the better films they made after the death of Irving Thalberg.