A Day at the Races was one of the most dramatically satisfying Marx Brothers films to feature a financially strapped romantic couple. However, it was not the only one to get the storytelling formula right. Having discussed, in broad strokes, the nature of the recurring romantic subplot, and the fairly constant roles the brothers’ characters play in the fate of the concerned couple, I will now examine in detail the four films that, in addition to A Day at the Races, were successful at making the romantic leads likeable and interesting: The Cocoanuts, the first extant Marx Brothers film; A Night at the Opera, one of the best of the “couple” movies; The Big Store (1941), the finest of the late Marx Brothers films, and Love Happy, the film that comes closest to casting the Marx Brothers as actual supernatural beings.
In The Cocoanuts, the young lover characters include Bob Adams (Oscar Shaw), a clerk in Mr. Hammer’s “Hotel Cocoanut” with ambitions of becoming a self-supporting architect, and Polly Potter (Mary Eaton), heir to the Potter fortune. Naturally, Polly’s wish to marry a clerk, whatever his career ambitions, has scandalized her mother (Dumont), who believes that: “One who clerks, Polly, is a clerk, and that settles it.” Mrs. Potter would prefer that her daughter marry the well-born Mr. Yates, not knowing that Yates is bankrupt and hopes to marry into money to erase his debts. Despite Mrs. Potter’s reservations, Adams is, indeed, on the verge of achieving success as an architect. He has found a way to develop seemingly worthless land in Florida by designing a building that blends with its hilly surroundings. He plans to buy the land at Mr. Hammer’s (a.k.a. Groucho’s) real-estate auction, transform it, and resell it to millionaire investor John Berryman. Yates works to thwart Adams, first by bidding against Adams at the land auction and then by framing Adams for the theft of Mrs. Potter’s valuable necklace. However, Harpo unexpectedly foils both of Yates efforts to ruin Adams. Harpo comes to Adams’ rescue during the auction when, seemingly for no reason, he knocks Yates unconscious with a cocoanut just as Yates was about to win the bid for the land. Harpo also helps Chico break Adams out of prison and is ultimately responsible for clearing Adams’ name.
During the brief period when Adams is in jail, Mrs. Potter tries to force her daughter to marry Yates, and organizes an engagement party to celebrate. The Marx Brothers are outraged at this action (arguably the most destructive move one of Margaret Dumont’s characters makes in any of the films), and do what they can to disrupt the engagement party until Polly has time to gather the information she needs to publicly unmask her fraud fiancé. Since everything winds up working out for the good guys—Adams’ plans to win a contract with Berryman succeeds, and Mrs. Potter gives her blessing to their marriage—the ending is somewhat contrived. However, it is satisfying because the young lovers are likeable characters worthy of audience sympathy. Adams exudes integrity, is brave in the face of adversity, and finds the Marx Brothers as funny as the audience does. Polly, for her part, is willing to defy her mother’s wishes, believes in Adams even when he is damned by the evidence, and gets to sing some catchy Irving Berlin songs.
With the exception of Animal Crackers, the staple “young lover” characters are not featured in the remaining Paramount films, but appear again in the MGM production A Night at the Opera as characters played by Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones. In the film, rising Italian opera star Rosa Castaldi (Carlisle) is separated from her lover, the broke tenor Riccardo Baroni (Jones), when she signs a contract with the New York Opera Company and moves to America. Rosa hopes that the head of the company, Herman Gottlieb, will sign Baroni as well, especially since Baroni is more talented than Gottlieb’s current star tenor, Rodolfo Lassparri, who has secured $1,000 for each performance. Unfortunately, a marquee name matters more to Gottlieb than talent, so he will only consider offering Baroni a contract ”when he’s made his reputation.” So it appears as if all seems lost for our young lovers, until Chico gets involved.
A Night at the Opera is the first Marx Brothers film to introduce a new character-type for Chico—the old friend and loyal employee of the heroic male lead. The film establishes that Chico’s character went to the same music school as the handsome beau, explaining why he feels a kinship with the young man and why Chico is invested in helping him in his career and love life (an idea that would return later, in The Big Store). In A Night at the Opera, Chico plays Fiorello, a musician who opposes an unjust classical music scene in which elitist patrons of the arts and vain performers suck all of the true life and beauty out of ”the Arts,” thereby co-opting the idea of “Opera” as a status symbol while keeping true performers and music lovers such as Baroni out in the cold. So, when Fiorello fights to gain a contract for Baroni, he is not only helping rescue his friend from the poorhouse, but is working to save the arts from snobs. Emblematic of the problems with the upper-classes staking exclusive claim to the arts is Mrs. Claypool, a member of the nouveau riche who wishes to buy her way into society by investing $200,000 in the opera while showing little interest in music for its own sake. And, of course, there is Lassparri himself, the vainglorious star who refuses to sing for an adoring public unless he is being paid for it, and who is contemptible enough to have Rosa fired when she refuses to submit to his lustful advances.
Fiorello instigates much of the action of the story, first by tricking Otis P. Driftwood (Groucho) into representing Baroni and then by helping the tenor stow away on a steamship to the United States. Initially resentful of taking on the excess baggage of Baroni’s problems, Driftwood eventually grows fond of both Baroni and Castaldi, and the disgust he feels for Gottleib and Lassparri only cements his loyalty to them. The final segment of the film is essentially a comic replay of The Phantom of the Opera, with the Marx Brothers collectively playing the role of the Phantom to Castaldi’s Christine Daae, spoiling a lavish production of Verdi’s II Trovatore until Gottleib relents and grants the truly gifted singers—Baroni and Castaldi—the lead roles.
Both A Night at the Opera, and the following film, A Day at the Races, firmly establish the “Marx Brothers helping young couples in jeopardy” formula, but this formula is successful in each of the four early films that employ it, including The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers. Not only are these films funny, well-plotted, and well-directed, but the possibly distracting presence of the young lovers winds up not being distracting at all, largely because of the charisma of the young actors, especially Allan Jones, Kitty Carlisle, and Maureen O’Sullivan. However, in the next three films—Room Service, At the Circus, and Go West—the young lovers aren’t half as interesting as they are in the earlier films, largely because these later movies are just plain bad. It is amazing that the brothers managed to follow up their three best films with their three worst, but that is exactly what happened. There are a number of plausible explanations for this, although I am inclined to agree with Groucho’s assessment that Thalberg’s death really hurt the quality of their output. However, it is also possible that, after wrapping production on seven movies, the studios had not only run out of original gags for the Marx Brothers but were fresh out of ideas for new wrinkles and permutations of the subplots reserved for the young characters.
That having been said, while A Day at the Races is clearly the last “great” film the Marx Brothers made, it was not the last “good” film they made. In fact, A Night in Casablanca is great fun, if deeply flawed, and one might argue that The Big Store is really quite solid, and thoroughly underrated, despite some dodgy editing and rampant ethnic stereotyping. Certainly, of all the late Marx Brothers films, The Big Store is the only one that features a troubled young couple worth investing in.
The Big Store opens with Ravelli (Chico), an instructor at the Gotham Conservatory of music who is teaching poor urban kids how to play the piano just like him (that is to say, just like him—they even “shoot the keys” like Chico). Ravelli himself grew up learning piano at the school and hopes to pass on all he has learned to a new generation of immigrant children, but the old place has fallen on hard times and creditors soon arrive to reclaim the instruments. Fortunately, Tommy Rogers, a famous singer, composer, and heir to the massive Phelps Department Store arrives on the scene, promising to pay off the school’s debts and build a new conservatory in its place, complete with stained glass windows and soundproof practice rooms.
As a fellow conservatory alumnus, Rogers shares Ravelli’s humble background and wants ”kids like these to have the same opportunities I had.” In fact, while Rogers was, at one time, the ”toughest kid in [the] neighborhood,” he has not forgotten his roots, and has even commemorated his East Side childhood by writing a “Tenement Symphony” that honors the urban poor—especially the Jewish, Italian, and Irish poor—and the cacophony of sounds they make in their apartment buildings, going about their daily lives, playing music from different cultures, and practicing their instruments. Tommy has no trouble continuing to date his childhood sweetheart, Peggy, who works in the music department of the store he owns, despite the potential raised eyebrows he might get for fraternizing with—as a villain’ scoffs—”one of the staff.” Indeed, the film takes great care in developing Tommy’s character, and in establishing a bond of affection between him and Ravelli (and, by extension, Ravelli’s brother, Wacky). In an interesting segment, Wacky (Harpo), hopes to take part in the debut of Tommy’s “Tenement Symphony,” but Ravelli says that Wacky’s clothes are too shabby and low-class for him to participate. This condemnation from Ravelli leads Wacky to daydream that he is as refined and as acceptable to ”the serious classical music scene” as Mozart, and he imagines himself dressed in 18th century Austrian finery, complete with powdered wig. In this surreal segment, Wacky clones himself into three different musicians, forming his own chamber music group, and plays a Mozart composition with appropriate jazz and hoedown flourishes to make it more accessibly “American” and ”proletarian.” When the dream sequence ends, Ravelli appears to reassure Wacky that Tommy has found a way to let him play with the serious orchestra, so he needn’t worry about looking shabby. Tommy doesn’t care how Wacky dresses, only how Wacky plays his instrument, and that is the key to his character. This attitude is consistent with Tommy’s quest to make classical music accessible to the masses, and to give kids from poor backgrounds a chance to tum to music as a career, or as a mode of self-expression, as an alternative to turning to crime (as Peggy’s brother felt forced to).
Unfortunately, criminals have their sights set on killing Tommy and claiming the fortune he has earmarked for charity. Detective Wolf J. Flywheel (Groucho) is hired to protect Tommy from danger, but he spends more time romancing Tommy’s rich aunt (Dumont again) than he does tracking down Tommy’s hidden adversaries. But the loyal Ravelli and Wacky keep Flywheel on task and the three expose and defeat all of Tommy’s enemies. Although some heavy editing in the final print of The Big Store cuts down to a bare minimum an important sequence when Tommy rescues Peggy from the villains, the film ultimately provides some of the most compelling material with the “standard” romantic couple, and offers one of the best motivations the Marx Brothers ever had in protecting the young lovers—a common cultural background and a shared love of music.
Published with the permission of Cambridge Scholars Publishing