By: Donald Liebenson
The Marx Brothers are having a moment — again.
Some of the funniest films of the legendary comic family have been restored to their original glory in a new Universal Studios Blue-ray box set “The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection,” which is being released this month. It features the complete version of “Animal Crackers” — including racy scenes and suggestive dialogue that had been cut by censors — and four of the brothers’ great Paramount comedies from the 1920s and ’30s, “The Cocoanuts,” “Monkey Business,” “Horse Feathers” and “Duck Soup.”
“Animal Crackers” is the unearthed gem. A complete print of the film found in the archives of the British Film Institute yields bits of monkey business long thought lost, including this digression in the classic Groucho-Zeppo “Take a letter” exchange:
Groucho: Dear Elsie. No, never mind Elsie.
Zeppo: Do you want me to scratch Elsie?
Groucho: Well, if you enjoy that sort of thing, it’s quite alright with me.
“Horse Feathers” too has benefited from the aural and visual upgrade, though it still contains the jarring jump cuts in the frantic scene that takes place in the apartment of Thelma Todd’s college widow, who fends off the advances of Zeppo, Groucho and Chico (excised extended footage between her and Harpo is another Holy Grail for Marx Brothers fans).
In addition to the box set, a new book about the brothers, “Four of the Three Musketeers: The Marx Brothers on Stage” by Robert S. Bader, is coming out this week. A new benchmark in Marx scholarship, the book chronicles the more than two decades evolution of the brothers’ stage act before they became Broadway’s so-called overnight sensations.
Earlier this year there was a critically acclaimed Off-Broadway revival of the Marx Brothers’ first Broadway musical, “I’ll Say She Is,” and an accompanying book, “Gimme a Thrill: The Story of ‘I’ll Say She Is,’ the Lost Marx Brothers Musical and How It Was Found” by the revival’s archivist and star, Noah Diamond. Last August saw the publication of “That’s Me, Groucho: The Solo Career of Groucho Marx” by Matthew Coniam.
And there is more Marx in the offing. In development is a screen adaptation of Steve Stoliar’s memoir, “Raised Eyebrows,” which chronicles his stint as Groucho’s archivist in the tumultuous final years of the legendary comedian’s life. Rob Zombie (get over it; the director of “House of 1,000 Corpses” is a rabid Marx Brothers fan) is attached to direct.
Meanwhile, John Tefteller, who likewise worked for Groucho as a finder of rare Marx Brothers materials, is readying for release in 2017 a book/audio box set that will contain restored recordings of Groucho and Chico’s one-season radio series, “Shyster, Flywheel, and Shyster.”
What’s behind this sudden Marxist uprising? Bader figures that the amount of time that has transpired between today and the rediscovery of the Marx Brothers in the 1960s and ’70s is roughly equal to the time that passed since the original films were made and that first renaissance.
“But for me it never ended,” Bader said in a phone interview. “It was a golden period when everybody was crazy about them and all these books were coming out and their movies were being shown. When that dissipated, I might have felt there are other things I’m interested in, but I was always going to go back to the Marx Brothers.”
Stoliar, who along with Bader is featured in “The Marx Brothers: Hollywood’s Kings of Chaos,” a bonus feature-length documentary in the “Silver Screen” box set, was a teen-aged Marxist. He marked up his parents’ TV Guides to make sure he didn’t miss any late-night broadcasts of their films or Groucho’s talk-show appearances, checked out all the books about the brothers in libraries and frequented screenings of their films at revival houses and libraries.
He describes his story being adapted for the screen as a cross between “My Favorite Year” and “Gods and Monsters,” through which Groucho’s final years and his fraught relationship with his assistant, Erin Fleming, is seen through the eyes of an idolizing, naïve 19-year-old.
The Marx Brothers were once embraced by college students. What would today’s more politically correct generation make of their films? And what would Groucho and company think of so-called safe spaces? Whether it be high society, a college campus or the fields of war, the Marx Brothers proved time and again that nothing was safe from them.
Mark Caro, a Chicago-based entertainment journalist recently featured “Duck Soup” in his monthly film screening series, “Is It Still Funny?” Playing with such as “Animal House,” “Blazing Saddles” and “There’s Something About Mary,” it scored the highest audience rating at its sold out screening.
“It was a revelatory experience for a lot of people to see it in a theater with an audience,” noted Caro.
Stoliar doesn’t know what’s behind the current interest in the Marx Brothers, but he finds it heartening when someone young connects with them.
“When someone tells me their 6-year-old granddaughter came into the room when they were watching ‘Monkey Business’ and thought Harpo was funny, I think, ‘Aha, there’s hope.’ ”