1935, US, directed by Sam Wood
The first of the Marx Brothers films at MGM ups the production values of their previous outings considerably, and throws in more in the way of non-Marxian distraction with the tale of youthful romance that structures much of the story. Those interludes are thankfully brief, and are better integrated with the overall action than is the case in their subsequent film, A Day at the Races. Indeed, the entire film has more of a cinematic sense rather than simply coming across as a series of filmed sketches: the sequence where Groucho rides around on his trunk on the way to his stateroom exemplifies that sense of opened-up action, just as the famed stateroom scene itself cannily employs the edges of the screen to create a sense of extreme and comic claustrophobia.
Contemporary cinematic references abound, whether it's Groucho murmuring that he "vants to be alone," or, later, an aside about the Tarzan movies that accompanies shots of Harpo swinging behind the scenes - and sowing chaos - of a production of Il Trovatore, shots that owe equally as much to the shipboard swashbucklers so popular in the 1930s. Although there are occasional longueurs when the stars are offscreen, and their anarchy was tempered somewhat at MGM, the film succeeds better than most of their outings in marrying the Marx Brothers' unique vaudeville-honed routines with the capabilities of the cinema medium. I'm not entirely sure what the source of this marriage is, since their next outing, also directed by Sam Wood, doesn't feel nearly as polished, whether it's the lazy insert shots of the Brothers during a dance number, or the static camera observing several of the routines.
This film was the second of a double-bill showing at Cambridge's Brattle Theatre. For several years now I've been vowing to attend the Brattle more frequently, particularly since they ran into financial trouble some time back. While that vow has been somewhat successful, my wife Sarah has ensured that we'll be particularly good supporters in 2010: she gave me a wonderful birthday gift, a Brattle subscription with tickets to numerous screenings. We extracted maximum value out of our first tickets, although I already have my eyes on a triple bill near the end of the month!