The 4 Marx Brothers At Paramount 1929-1933 Review
The Marx Brothers are comedy icons. Even if you haven't seen any of their films you have probably seen at least one of their faces and have heard the comedy stylings of those they influenced. Groucho Marx with his greasepaint moustache and eyebrows, cigar and round spectacles is the most recognisable and the quickest wit in early talkies. Harpo is the silent clown, full of innocence and childlike mischief. Chico can mangle the English language like the best of them and Zeppo, well Zeppo is there too. Now we have a collection of their first films produced at Paramount Studios during the birth of sound cinema. These films are in chronological order, The Coconuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers and Duck Soup, brought to us by the people over at Arrow Academy. But one question persists, comedy is usually the genre of film that ages worse than others, so can these films from the late 1920s/early 1930s hold up today?
This collection contains the five films that all four Marx Brothers made for Paramount studios between 1929 and 1933. Even if this wasn't a collection of five films, I probably wouldn't go about summarising the plot as the Marx Brothers never really cared about it so neither should you. Whatever plot there is Groucho seeks to make fun of it, Chico wouldn't understand it, and Harpo well, he operates on a different plain of existence. The Brothers are anarchy incarnate, seeking to disrupt, mock and destroy anything that seems like a system or a structure that is trying to contain them.
To almost reflect that, I have similarly discarded my usual review structure of talking about the films, then the disc, then the extras in favour of a more flowing - some would say jumbled - approach. This is because I think this collection relies on its extras to make it a great collection. The films themselves are fine, though because of their status as early sound features, there is a strange style of cinematography that modern audiences might not appreciate. Like the development in sound recording technology over the years, there is an obvious progression in the quality and style of the Marx Brother’s comedies, steadily getting better from their stilted debut in The Coconuts to their frantic final offering Duck Soup.
However, even though the style of the movies improved over the years, I still found the films to be lacking. Whether that was a lack of understanding of the jokes, the delivery wasn't as fast as I had been told, or not fully comprehending what the Marx Brothers were in relation to the movie, I do not know, I just know that the films felt rushed, lazy, stilted and unfunny. The technical limitations did contribute to this feeling, so I am able to explain some of this reaction away as someone who has been taught a different style of film consumption and comedy culture watching something completely out of their own timeframe.
It wasn't until I watched the extras, the interviews with experts, documentaries and commentaries explaining the history of the Brothers, their films and most importantly their jokes, that I was able to understand and appreciate the films. I probably wouldn't watch the films again for a while, but now I can understand how a Marx Brother Movie was made, and why they are comedy legends. It was the likes of F. X. Feeney, Anthony Slide, Jeffery Vance, Robert S. Bader, David Cairnes and Leonard Maltin that explained the Marx’s unique attitude toward plot and the establishment; it was them that gave context to the Marx Brothers and it was they that explained the jokes (which still robbed them of the humour, you know how bad it is when someone explains a joke).
Each film has its own commentary, completed by most of the aforementioned critics. While these are certainly informative and give you an entirely new appreciation for the movies like it did me, having a different commentator each time means historical facts are repeated a lot. Which is probably a good thing because now I can recall the time in which the Brothers existed, their motivations and the origins of some of their most famous and artistic skits.
With the discussion of the films themselves and the extras, we can now move on to talk about the construction of the collection on a more technical level. For the most part, Arrow Academy has done a sound job with this collection, the visuals presented in 1080p with a 1.33:1 aspect ratio and the Mono 1.0 sound are crisp and clear. Furthermore, the disc menus are well laid out and easy to navigate, allowing you to find the films and extras you want. However, there are a few issues with the transfer of the film from its original film stock to a digital display. This consists mainly of warped audio that can be explained by the rudimentary recording technology that filmmakers had at the time and can be counteracted with subtitles. However, it is the wobbly image that looks as though the negative came loose in the digitising machine that is harder to compensate for and harder to deal with. This may have also stemmed from storage or general wear and tear and is ignorable if you have a tolerance for such things, which I assume you do if you are watching old movies.
The 4 Marx Brothers At Paramount 1929-1933 is a strange collection in my opinion, the extras certainly made me enjoy the films more. However, an extra has never completely changed my mind about a movie. It is a true testament to the work of Marx Brothers' historians and experts that enabled me, a complete novice, to appreciate if not enjoy some of the chaos that unfolds on screen. Similarly, despite occasional visual errors and audio muffling due to the transfer of damaged film stock, it is clear that Arrow Academy have taken great care in bringing some of the most iconic film comedies made by some of the most iconic film comedians to modern audiences. If you are a fan of film history, or the Marx Brothers themselves, this is a must purchase. For everyone else, give it a go, you might just like what you see.