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Cinema Revisited: The Big Store (MGM, 1941)

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The final Marx Brothers movie for MGM


The Marx Brothers made 13 starring films, and only five or six are great. Their first two Paramount features -- "The Cocoanuts" (1929) and "Animal Crackers" (1930) -- are ok, but suffer from stagey production values in that they were both originally Broadway stage shows. However, their films "Monkey Business" (1931), "Horse Feathers" (1932), and "Duck Soup" (1933), perfectly capture the wonderful comic anarchy of The Marx Brothers.

The Marx Brothers moved over to MGM in 1935, producer Irving Thalberg adding heavier plots and lavish musical numbers to their films, watering down the anarchy and making them conventional comedies. "A Night at the Opera" (1935) and "A Day at the Races" (1937) are good, but by the time they made "The Big Store" (1941), their comedy had become quite ordinary. Oddly, "The Big Store" was successful and well liked by critics and moviegoers, much moreso than "Duck Soup," which is today considered the Marx Brothers' masterpiece.

"The Big Store" features singer Tony Martin as a young man whose life is in danger when it is discovered the people wanting to overtake his department store what him killed. The Marx Brothers are his bodyguard. And despite comic foils like Douglas Dumbrille and frequent co-star Margaret Dumont in the cast, the comedy is merely passable corn that fits neatly in its era, while the slapstick roller skating climax is done almost exclusively with stunt doubles. The Marx Brothers planned to make this their last movie, but did come back for two more efforts in 1946 and again in 1949.

"The Big Store" has some merit in that Groucho romancing a comely Dumont (for the final time) is always a lot of fun, while both Chico and Harpo get to turn in some fun musical interludes on the piano and harp respectively. A crazy bed switching sequence with Henry Armetta's comic histrionics is one of the film's highlights, and their is a certain energy to the much maligned "Sing While You Sell" number.

Theater owner reports in Box Office and Motion Picture Herald happily stated that "The Big Store" went over great with period audiences. "The Big Store" is not a terrible movie. It is amusing in spots, and fun to see, along with the aforementioned Dumbrille and Dumont, such familiar old timers as Henry Armetta and deadpan singer Virginia O'Brien. Some of the music is atrocious in "The Big Store." Martin's crooning of "Tenement Symphony" is absolutely deadly. Still, there is enough amusing conventional comedy to keep "The Big Store" from being a complete turkey. As Leonard Maltin once stated: "even diluted Marx Brothers is better than none."