The Marx Brothers Collection - Animal Crackers/The Cocoanuts/Duck Soup/A Girl In Every Port/Horse Feathers/Love Happy/Monkey Business/Room Service (Box Set) (DVD)

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The Marx Brothers Collection - Animal Crackers/The Cocoanuts/Duck Soup/A Girl In Every Port/Horse Feathers/Love Happy/Monkey Business/Room Service (Box Set) (DVD)


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Review of "The Marx Brothers Collection - Animal Crackers/The Cocoanuts/Duck Soup/A Girl In Every Port/Horse Feathers/Love Happy/Monkey Business/Room Service (Box Set) (DVD)"

published 16/11/2011 | Jake_Speed
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Thelma Todd

Thelma Todd

The Marx Brothers Collection is the last of the three major box sets featuring "America's greatest surrealists" (as Salvador Dali once said) and serves as the last component piece of the Marx Brothers jigsaw. More sepia tinted wit and obstreperous lunacy that is infectious, timeless and sometimes magical. The most salient thing about this particular collection is that it contains some rare artefacts that are absent from the other box sets and sometimes hard to find. The Cocoanuts (their first ever feature length film), Room Service (their experimental picture for RKO in the late thirties) and Love Happy (the last film to ever feature Harpo, Chico and Groucho). You also get A Girl In Every Port, a forgettable 1952 comedy that only features Groucho. I'm not sure why A Girl In Every Port is in the collection to be honest. The rest of the films here (Animal Crackers Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, Duck Soup) are more familiar and ones that fans are likely to already own either on the excellent Paramount box set or individually. They are all superb and represent the very best of the Marx Brothers. Only parts of MGM's A Night At the Opera and A Day At the Races ever replicated the joy and irreverent wonder of these early Paramount films. 1929's The Cocoanuts was directed by Joseph Santley and Robert Florey. The film is based on a George S Kaufman Marx Brothers Broadway show and was adapted to the screen by Morrie Ryskind. This is by far the best of the more obscure pictures here and has Groucho as Mr Hammer, the proprietor of the Hotel de Cocoanut, with Zeppo as his assistant Jamison. The wonderful Margaret Dumont plays wealthy dowager Mrs Potter and (as usual) serves as Groucho's comic foil and endures all manner of insults that she never seems to understand in her tabula rasa grand dame fashion. Mrs Potter has the nefarious Harvey Yates (Cyril Ring) and Penelope (Kay Francis) surreptitiously on the trail of her sparkling diamond necklace and with the Hotel and Groucho in big financial trouble ("Three years ago I came to Florida without a nickel in my pocket. Now I've got a nickel in my pocket..."), Harpo and Chico enter the fray posing as investors but soon find themselves under threat of being framed by the villains. With these vague plot strands and a few romantic and musical interludes, the usual Marxian mayhem and obtuseness duly unfolds.

This is the 1920s and the Marx Brothers were new to cinema so The Cocoanuts unavoidably suffers from some plodding static camerawork and rather primitive sound (much as their second feature Animal Crackers would). The technical crudeness is very evident and the film has a constrictive and theatrical nature that never really opens up or adds a more cinematic feel to the play on which this is based. It's as if they were not completely sure how to make a proper feature film with the Marx Brothers so put the play on film as best they could, constrained by the rudimentary production values. Maps and papers used in the film by characters are actually soaking wet to avoid any undue scrunching noises defeating early sound equipment and actors voices. Another problem is that the musical interludes and romantic subplots send the film off course and make it sag at times and the supporting cast are rather wooden and theatrical. It's still great though anyway to have a visual record of a twenties Marx Brothers show to watch (even if some the energy is unavoidably lost in the transition) and many of the jokes, situations and verbal flourishes are highly enjoyable. When the Marx Brothers are onscreen The Cocoanuts is fun and when they aren't you sometimes find your attention drifting somewhat. As ever with the Marx Brothers, by far the best of the supporting cast is Margaret Dumont as the amusingly bewildered target for Groucho's insults and witticisms. "Why, it's the most exclusive residential district in Florida," says Groucho, trying to interest Mrs Potter in buying some very dubious property. "Nobody lives there." Groucho's more obtuse flights of fancy are excellent in The Cocoanuts, such as when he imagines a future for himself and Mrs Potter in "an empty bungalow" and he produces his usual comic romantic flattery/deflation which frequently changes tact with great verbal dexterity. "Just think, when the moon is sneaking around the clouds, I'll be sneaking around you. Did anyone ever tell you you look like the Prince of Wales? I don't mean the present Prince of Wales. One of the old Wales." When Groucho tells Dumont her eyes shine like the pants of a blue serge suit, he adds, "That's not a reflection on you - it's on the pants."

Harpo has his share of surreal and funny moments in The Cocoanuts as he chases guests around the hotel and takes to eating random items on Groucho's desk. He also has a harp solo and while some of the musical interludes (from people other than the Marx Brothers) in The Cocoanuts and Marx Brothers films I can sometimes take or leave, I always find it strangely entrancing and charming when Harpo's face becomes serious and he gently plucks away on his harp for a brief interlude. He genuinely seems to go into a world of his own and the magical and otherworldly sound of the harp expresses Harpo's character and personality perfectly. The pleasant but hardly unforgettable When My Dream Comes True from Irving Berlin plays frequently through the film with chorus girl bellhop capers and a performance of Monkey-Doodle-Doo by the ill fated Mary Eaton. Chico is as obtuse and dense as ever in The Cocoanuts and often to pleasant and amusing effect. "Now here is a little peninsula," says Groucho, studying a map. "And here is a viaduct leading over to the mainland." After much back and forth ("Why a duck, why-a no chicken?" asks Chico), Groucho, as he usually does with his brothers, admits defeat and joins in with the spirit of the circuitous and increasingly absurd discussion. The jokes come thick and fast and the strike rate is fairly high. The film is a tad farcical with much coming and going from the stagy set by largely unmemorable supporting characters but there is enough good stuff from the Marx Brothers to keep things lively and afloat and it's fun to see Groucho as a hotel manager, a role he returned to much later in their official cinematic swansong A Night In Casablanca. "Wages?" says Groucho to the bellhops. "Do you want to be wage slaves? Answer me that! No, of course not." It's no Duck Soup or Monkey Business but The Cocoanuts is a lot of fun.

Room Service was directed by William A Seiter and released in 1937. This is a most unusual Marx Brothers picture and something of an experiment that didn't really work. It's the most conventional film the Marxes ever made and the only one where they seem to be playing actual characters you could sort of imagine in the real world. Unfortunately, this makes the film rather dull at times and it never feels like a full fledged Marx Brothers outing. Room Service was a famous 1937 Broadway farce by John Murray and Allen Bontz and RKO paid a then record sum of $255,000 to secure the screen rights. Zeppo Marx (who had quit the act and become an agent) brokered a deal for Groucho, Harpo and Chico to appear in the film version for RKO while they were still under contract to MGM and it seemed like a reasonable idea on paper. They hired regular contributor Morrie Ryskind to adapt Room Service but both Ryskind and Groucho later admitted it had been a mistake for them to take on characters and situations that hadn't been written for the Marx Brothers. It was the first and last time they did this and one always gets a sense of both Ryskind and the Marx Brothers in shackles as they try to shape this material for themselves. Room Service concerns a penniless theatrical producer named Gordon Miller (Groucho) trying to put on a play and keep his cast together in a hotel despite frequent attempts to evict them. Frank Albertson is Leo Davis, the young author of the play (in a role Zeppo would have played if he hadn't given up acting), while Chico is Harry Binelli (he appears to be the director or something but they are a bit vague) and Harpo is Faker Englund. Harpo is a miner in the play we gather, principally because we see him wearing a miner's hat!

The Marx Brothers are all in their familiar costumes and the opening scene of Groucho adopting a splendid loping walk across the hotel lobby leads one to anticipate a traditional Marx Brothers film. It soon becomes apparent though that this is quite unlike any film the Marx Brothers made. Remarkably straight and low key for them, worlds away from the surreal mayhem of their other films. The whole of Room Service more or less takes place in a couple of hotel rooms and literally feels like watching a play that has been filmed (we rarely see the other guests or the actors in this strangely deserted hotel). It's very restrictive and this applies to the Marxes too who seemed diminished by lines and characters that were not originally written for them. The fast-talking and resourceful Gordon Miller seems a decent fit for Groucho on the face of it but (oddly considering the money they spent acquiring the rights) he never has enough good lines and seems to lack energy and his usual obtuse and obstreperous personality. This was the first film they made since Irving Thalberg (the producer who took them to MGM from Paramount and made A Night At the Opera) died tragically young. Groucho was very close to Thalberg and he later said many times his heart went out of the film business after the producer's death and he was increasingly going through the motions thereafter. One can see almost disinterest, a sadness in Groucho here at times as if his mind is elsewhere. Only brief flashes of the old Groucho emerge. "No, that's too good for him," says Miller after promising to reduce the annoying manager to a bellhop. "I'll make him a guest." One obvious problem is that there is no Margaret Dumont or Sig Ruman for Groucho to banter with or take comic umbrage at.

It's somewhat strange to see Chico here having to actually take a part rather seriously at times (for him anyway) with dialogue that pertains to a plot. He isn't so much fun as usual but he does get some Chicoesque lines at least. "The rehearsal. She's a wonderful. Yes sir, it's a wonderful. I still think it's a terrible play but the rehearsal is wonderful." Harpo isn't given a lot to do but he does have some felicitous moments. Eating ravenously at dinner as he did in A Night At the Opera and deftly switching hats with Groucho when they take a bow. He doesn't get a harp scene though and Room Service eschews the musical interludes. It's welcome to see a later Marx Brothers film with no annoying musical guest stars but not so welcome that Chico and Haro don't get to perform. Room Service is one for Marx completists only I think. They will find it an interesting if hardly scintillating experience. More general viewers I suspect will find it rather dull. Love Happy was released in 1950 and directed by David Miller. It was devised by Harpo Marx as a solo Chaplinesque starring vehicle for himself but, kind hearted soul that he was, he decided to help out his forever cash strapped and gambling obsessed brother Chico by adding him to the cast. When funding for the film proved troublesome the most famous Marx Brother of all - Groucho - took on a minor role so that Love Happy could be billed as a Marx Brothers comeback of sorts. It has been suggested that Groucho was involved in Love Happy all along but I don't personally know what the true story is. Despite the presence of the three Marx Brothers though this is not really a Marx Brothers film but more of a showcase for Harpo. Love Happy is also of note for an early appearance by Marilyn Monroe. Groucho plays a private detective called Sam Grunion and Monroe has a bit as one of his clients. "Is there anything I can do for you?" asks Groucho before turning to the camera and adding "What a ridiculous statement..."

The plot of Love Happy has Harpo (also called Harpo in the film) as a loveable tramp helping out a struggling acting company. Harpo lives in a draughty hut in Central Park (albeit one with a chandelier!) and helps out the acting troupe by bringing them food which he steals in his usual inventive fashion by deploying his TARDIS style coat which seems to always contain far more than it looks capable of doing so. Harpo's main reason for helping out the actors, apart from the fact that he's nice sweet Harpo who always helps the underdog, is his secret love for the leading lady Maggie (Vera Ellen) who he cheers up by performing tricks and playing the harp. Harpo unknowingly comes into possession of some diamonds hidden in a can of sardines that he pilfers for the actors amongst other food. As the villainous Madam Egelichi (IIona Massey) and Groucho's private detective are on the trail of these gems this McGuffin drives what plot there is in the picture. Love Happy will probably disappoint those looking or hoping for a Marx Brothers film. Groucho only has a few bits at the beginning and end and some linking narration and Chico, while playing a bigger role than Groucho, doesn't have a huge amount to do either. Chico is "Faustino the Great" and wangles a job in the company with his usual obtuse sense of logic and dodgy Italian accent. "You're a-hiring people a-never heard of. Well, I'm the most unknown and unheard of actors who's never been on Broadway." Love Happy is really Harpo's film and although he must have been in his sixties by 1950 he still radiates a sense of youthful joy and provides some magical moments. He faces a memorable William Tell ordeal by the villains at one point who deprive him of food to make him reveal where the diamonds are. Amusingly, Harpo ends up grabbing a gun and then eats the apple that has been perched on top of his head. A scene with Chico where (the of course mute) Harpo conveys a message through charades and whistles of encouragement serves as a pleasant reminder of past glories and Harpo has an inventive and cartoonish visual joke with a mirror that is good fun. There is generally more pathos to Harpo here than there was in the old full-fledged Marx Brothers films.

Love Happy is not Chico's finest hour though and he seems a little shoehorned into the film (which of course he was to a degree) and not given enough good moments. He has a nice scene though where he attempts to stop the company's scenery and costumes being confiscated by their owner Mr Lyons (Leon Belasco) by playing the piano and engaging him in a musical duet to distact him from his task. Chico's best moments are are his interactions with Harpo - like a bit where he tries to read Harpo's mind over the telephone! Groucho sadly has far less to do than Chico and his presence is restricted to the start and final part of Love Happy and the narration he contributes. "For eleven years I trailed them," says Groucho of the diamonds. "Through the Khyber Pass, over the Pyrenees, round the Cape of Good Hope, and in the Gimbel's basement." Groucho - who has dispensed with his greasepaint mustache and frock coat in Love Happy - isn't given any tremendously memorable lines in his screen time but he has a few mildly amusing quips. "If this were a French picture I could do it," he cracks when asked to search Madam Egelichi for the diamonds. On the whole though this is merely an extended cameo by Groucho to (apparently) help out Harpo and give Love Happy a "Marx Brothers back together" angle to secure more funding. Love Happy has a modestly entertaining rooftop chase climax featuring Harpo that is near legendary for its shameless product placement. This chase over the neon signs of Times Square was devised to plug the funding problems the film had suffered from and various companies (Baby Ruth, General Electric, Fisk Tires, Bulova watches, Kool cigarettes, Wheaties and Mobil) paid to have their logo featured in the sequence. The chase is not a bad sequence though and Harpo certainly seems to be having fun, providing a few good visual jokes and one or two surreal flourishes. Marx Brothers completists will probably enjoy Love Happy to a degree but this is a so-so picture that never manages to give the cast the material they deserve. Groucho's appearance is truncated to say the least and Chico is ill-served. Only Harpo's keeps Love Happy afloat and his presence and sympathetic performance makes the film worth a look for anyone curious enough to seek it out.

1952's A Girl in Every Port is an eccentric inclusion in this collection as it only features Groucho and is rather tiresome. I'm not completely sure why they included this but they obviously had the rights and perhaps saw it as a nice bonus addition or something. It was one of Groucho's early solo outings but he was pretty old by now and his post Marx Brothers film career didn't amount to much. None of the films (even the couple he made with Bing Crosby) are really remembered by anyone these days. He was much better known in his later years for his fifties quiz show You Bet Your Life where his quick wit and quips delighted both audiences and contestants. Groucho only did A Girl in Every Port as a favour to producer Irwin Allen. Allen was of course the "master of disaster", famously producing The Poseiden Adventure and The Towering Inferno in addition to a slew of cult sci-fi television shows. If A Girl in Every Port in anything to go by though comedy was not his forte. The film (directed by Chester Erskine) was based on a short story named They Sell Sailors Elephants by Frederick Hazlitt Brennan and is about two sailors - Benjamin Franklin 'Benny' Linn (Groucho) and Timothy Aloysius 'Tim' Dunnovan (William Bendix) - who have spent most of their service in the brig for various Bilko style comic escapades. The plot has Dunnovan buying a racehorse with his modest inheritance but discovering the horse is lame. Groucho attempts to get the money back but finds out the stable has been broken up. However, it turns out that the lovely Jane Sweet (Marie Wilson) owns the twin of the racehorse and the twin is in tip top condition. Cue some horse switching and race rigging capers as our heroes attempt to turn their misfortune into some cash. This is a fairly tepid and dull film that you would watch for about fifteen minutes on a lazy Sunday afernoon before switching over. It's only really of interest for Groucho who manages to inject what energy there is in the picture and is decent value as his familiar shyster. "After all, what's money? Just about everything, that's all." Marie Wilson is appealing as the heroine and William Bendix is fine too but this isn't a film I can see myself returning to much if at all. It's only worth watching really for a few nice lines and songs by Groucho but the film as a whole isn't terribly interesting.

The rest of the films here are much more familar and superior. Animal Crackers (1930, directed by Victor Heerman) was only the second Marx Brothers feature and suffers from the same technical crudeness as The Cocoanuts but is still an awful lot of fun. Groucho is the famous (and highly dubious) African jungle explorer Captain Spaulding and guest of honour at Rittenhouse Manor where Mrs Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont) is hosting a party. Zeppo is Spaulding's assistant while Harpo and Chico enter the fray as Ravelli and The Professor. The theft of a Beaugard painting suplies what plot there is as the Marxes generally run riot in the grand house. Animal Crackers feels very stage bound and static but it overcomes these problems with a surfeit of good situations and jokes. One of my favourite pieces of nonsense occurs here when Chico and Harpo can't find the painting and are asked if they've considered looking in the house next door. There is no house next door so they decide they have to build one! Groucho has even more dialogue here than usual and his experimentation with and manipulation of language and general sense of the absurd is creative and funny in Animal Crackers with countless memorable Spaulding lines and witticisms scattered throughout the film. "I'm sick of these conventional marriages," muses the Captain. "One woman and one man was good enough for your grandmother, but who wants to marry your grandmother? Nobody, not even your grandfather." Harpo and Chico are rather rambunctious and wild here and it gives the film a strange surreal edge and energy. Dumont is as ever a great presence for Groucho to bounce jokes and insults off too. The important thing is that Dumont hardly ever gives the slightest inkling that she is aware she is being insulted by Groucho. It makes it much funnier. Look out for Groucho taking the **** out of playwright Eugene O'Neill too and Harpo dropping an unfeasible amount of cutlery out of his sleeve when he is caught pilfering. I love the way also that Animal Crackers fades out rather oddly like an eccentric dream, perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the film.

Monkey Business (1931, directed by Norman McLeod) is probably the fastest and most anarchic film the Marx Brothers made and hugely enjoyable. They are stowaways on a cruise liner and that's more or less it (their characters don't even have names). Groucho insults the Captain, they dodge around the ship avoiding the crew and detection, Harpo takes over the Punch & Judy Show, Zeppo has a vague romance, they all pretend to be Maurice Chevalier to get through passport control and the beautiful Thelma Todd is on hand for Groucho to banter with. "Madam, before I get through with you, you will have a clear case for divorce, and so will my wife. Now, the first thing to do is to arrange for a settlement. You take the children, your husband takes the house, Junior burns down the house, you take the insurance, and I take you." One of the joys of the film is that the static and constrictive nature of their first two pictures is gone and the Marxes have a ship to run around in with frequent changes of location. It seems to energise them even more. Love some of Groucho's dialoge and comic umbrage here. "I'm not in the habit of making threats but there'll be a letter in The Times tomorrow morning!" I think actually this is one of the few films where Groucho doesn't have some sort of position of authority. The film only threatens to sag with some gangster capers involving Harry Woods but it maintains its frantic and infectious spirit for much of the running time. There is a lavish party scene on dry land near the end that is decent fun too. I love Monkey Business and think it's a great film.

Horse Feathers (1932, directed by Norman McLeod) is another wonderful Paramount film. Groucho is Quincy Adams Wagstaff, the new president of Huxley college. He's soon insulting the faculty of bearded professors and interrupting classes in irreverent fashion. Chico and Harpo are bootlegger Baravelli and dog catcher Pinky, enrolled in the college by Groucho to aid the football team, with Zeppo as Quincy's student son Frank, and the lovely Thelma Todd as "college widow" Connie Bailey. The tone is set right at the start with a superb catchy musical number and Groucho addressing the college for the first time. "Members of the faculty, faculty members, students of Huxley and Huxley students - I guess that covers everything. Well, I thought my razor was dull until I heard this speech. And that reminds me of a story that's so dirty I'm ashamed to think of it myself. As I look over your eager faces, I can readily understand why this college is flat on its back. The last college I presided over, things were slightly different. I was flat on my back. Things kept going from bad to worse but we all put our shoulders to the wheel and it wasn't long before I was flat on my back again." I love the use of the song Everyone Says I Love You here and the sequence where Groucho and Thelma Todd float down the river in a canoe with Groucho strumming the song on his guitar. Harpo has many magical Harpoesque moments (lovely bit where he holds up traffic by eating flowers with his horse) an Chico is well deployed too and has a truly classic speakeasy scene with Groucho that culminates in one of my favourite Groucho moments and punchlines. This is the second Marx Brothers film I watched after Duck Soiup and one I've always loved.

Duck Soup (1933, directed by Leon McCarey) is generally regarded to be the best film the Marx Brothers made and probably their most important. It wasn't a great success at the time but was later 'rediscovered', especially by hippies and students in the sixties and seventies because it's a satire of war and government. Duck Soup is set in the mythical republic of Freedonia - a struggling state which has a fierce rivalry with the nearby country of Sylvania. Mrs Teasdale (Margaret Dumont), the richest woman in Freedonia, agrees to loan the country 20 million dollars but only on condition that Rufus T Firefly (Groucho) is appointed the new president. He's soon insulting her in his usual fashion. "I could dance with you 'till the cows come home. On second thought, I'd rather dance with the cows 'till you came home." Louis Calhern as the rather pompous Ambassador Trentino of rival Sylvania is a fine adversary for Groucho and Harpo and Chico have more than their fair share of good moments as spies. The famous "mirror sequence" is magical and the musical numbers and songs are great too. There are some lavish musical sequences and while you might expect them to become tiresome they never really do and remain enjoyable. Love the scenes of Groucho having cabinet meetings in obtuse Groucho style. "How about taking up the tax?" demands one of his ministers. "How about taking up the carpet?" replies Groucho. "Why a four-year-old child could understand this report," says Firefly, rifling through his papers. "Run out and find me a four-year-old child. I can't make head or tail out of it." There are so many great little Groucho moments in the film. Love the bit where he is eating crackers in bed and takes a telephone call. "If you remember," he instructs. "Bring some cheese." Duck Soup is an amazing film and probably the greatest of all Marx Brothers pictures.

Although Room Service, Love Happy and A Girl in Every Port are unlikely to win the Marx Brothers any new fans this is still a great collection with the Paramount years all present and fans will certainly enjoy adding the other films (especially The Cocoanuts) to their collection if they don't already have them. This 8 disc set (no extras by the way) comes in a attractive box laced with lithograph style photographs of the Marx Brothers and at the time of writing is available to buy for the very reasonable price of £16.

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Comments on this review

  • Deesrev published 17/04/2013
    You always bring out such fascinating information in your reviews, as an example, concerning Thalberg. Superb review as always xXx
  • siberian-queen published 04/04/2012
    That sounds good value for £16
  • MrsW2011 published 18/03/2012
    Great review. E.
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