The Unknown Marx Brothers Review

Michael Brooke has reviewed the Region 0 DVD release of The Unknown Marx Brothers

Well, you can’t fault the title. Most of the running time of The Unknown Marx Brothers is made up of archive footage, the vast majority of which I’d never seen before – and since I’m a long-term fan who has also spent many happy years organising, promoting and indeed sitting through big-screen Marx Brothers seasons, this DVD was pretty much undiluted pleasure from beginning to end.

That said, I do have to sound a note of caution. The film-makers are so clearly determined to live up to their title that they’ve created a decidedly skewed portrait that all but ignores the Marxes’ cinema career. Over the course of an 85-minute documentary, the films are glossed over in less than ten, and even then there are hardly any clips, and constant digressions to cover their other activities over the same period (Harpo’s tour of the Soviet Union, for instance).

So if you watch this DVD knowing nothing about the Marx Brothers in advance, you’d be forgiven for assuming that their film career was such a disaster that the film-makers have decided to draw a discreet veil over it, only mentioning what’s absolutely necessary but otherwise keeping a wide berth – so despite my own personal enthusiasm I can’t recommend The Unknown Marx Brothers as a definitive one-size-fits-all portrait.

But as someone who’s seen all the films countless times, I found the constant avoid-the-obvious approach rather refreshing – not least because it gives them most of the running time to cram full of some spectacularly rare footage, much of which is apparently exclusive to this DVD.

There’s Harpo’s screen debut in the film Too Many Kisses, the only time he ever uttered a line on camera (though as it was in 1925, it was a silent film!). There’s the original opening of A Night at the Opera with the Marxes filling in for Leo the MGM lion. There’s footage from the unbroadcast pilot for The Deputy Seraph, a 1959 TV show that would have been the last time the three Marxes appeared together (it was cancelled because of Chico’s increasingly obvious – indeed, terminal – ill health). There’s a 1931 promotional film where they reprise a sketch from one of their 1920s vaudeville shows. There’s a wonderful 1950s TV clip of Harpo playing the clarinet instead of the harp. There are some decidedly weird TV commercials that Harpo did for Labatt’s lager in the 1950s. There’s colour home movie footage of the brothers in more domestic settings – and I’ve only scratched the surface.

The high points for me were the clips from Groucho’s legendary 1950s TV quiz show You Bet Your Life, which are copious and invariably hilarious (anyone who things Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer’s Shooting Stars is a masterpiece of groundbreaking originality should be forced to watch this DVD!) – and augmented by previously unbroadcast outtakes and even Groucho’s original screen test.

All this is intercut with numerous interview clips – I particularly relished a notorious encounter with Bill Cosby where an 83-year-old Groucho more than demonstrates that he’d lost none of his rapier wit (this is made even funnier by the fact that Cosby is obviously awestruck by Groucho’s presence, despite his guest being as rude to him as he could get away with), and there are a couple of “interviews” with Harpo as well (who manages to be as articulate as any more conventional chat show guest despite not uttering a single word – when the interviewer asks him which is his favourite story from his autobiography, Harpo helpfully tears out a couple of pages and hands them to him).

The clips are held together by Leslie Nielsen’s narration and a few talking heads (various Marx offspring plus former colleagues, particularly from the TV years), though these have thankfully been kept to a minimum. As a documentary, it’s no more than competent – but as a treasure trove of rare footage it’s superb, and if you’re a Marx Brothers fan, look no further.

For entirely understandable reasons, the DVD’s picture quality varies widely from acceptable to frankly dreadful. Some of the rarer clips were clearly sourced from umpteenth-generation video copies, while the You Bet Your Life extracts, though generally very sharp, are frequently marred by severe tramlining that often threatens to bisect Groucho down the middle. Still, given that their appeal is almost entirely verbal, that’s not a particularly big deal – and this is the kind of material where you’re grateful to have seen it at all! It is of course in 4:3 and non-anamorphic NTSC, which isn’t the least bit surprising for an American TV documentary made up of clips that would have had that aspect ratio in the first place.

The sound is similarly variable – the modern interviews and Leslie Nielsen’s narration are recorded to contemporary standards, but the clips are rather less polished, though never so bad that you can’t make out the dialogue (and I’ve seen prints of The Cocoanuts in the past that had that drawback!). There are just eight chapter stops, and I wasn’t overly impressed with the selection menu, which contains a fairly meaningless set of stills (in two cases featuring interviewees who pop up extensively throughout the whole documentary).

There are plenty of extras, albeit with the caveat that they’re not quite as extensive as they initially seem to be on first scanning the menu. “Production Notes” turns out to be a credits list for the documentary, which mentions its co-directors three times but the Marxes just once. The Marx Brothers filmography appears to be complete – though it would have been nice if they’d listed which brother was featured in their various solo efforts. The three-page biography concentrates on their early years, and doesn’t add anything to what’s rather better illustrated in the documentary itself.

But things improve considerably when we get to the “Outtakes” section, which consists of sixteen separately indexed clips, mostly outtakes from You Bet Your Life, though it concludes with a couple of Harpo items – another Labatt’s commercial and the full ‘Person to Person’ interview excerpted in the documentary.

The DVD makes much of its “ZoomLinks” feature, which is along the same lines as The Matrix’s “White Rabbit” links – a logo pops up from time to time when you’re watching the documentary, and pressing ‘Enter’ gets you a bonus clip – but since these clips are all taken from the “Outtakes” section, you’re probably going to get a distinct sensation of déjà vu somewhere along the line.

And finally, to make sure you were paying attention, there’s a multiple-choice trivia quiz – get the answer right, and you get a relevant clip (I was hoping you’d get some abuse from Groucho if you got it wrong, but sadly not). I played it through to the end to see if you got some bonus footage that you couldn’t find elsewhere on the disc… but you don’t. In fact, there are only four questions!

At the time of writing (June 2000), all the Paramount Marx Brothers films (The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, Duck Soup) are available on Region 1 on virtually identical DVDs that contain good transfers of the films themselves, but no extras. Since this disc is effectively nothing but extras it’s an ideal companion-piece – particularly as you should be able to get hold of it for less than a tenner.

Michael Brooke

Updated: Feb 27, 1999

Get involved
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum
The Unknown Marx Brothers Review | The Digital Fix