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Home Classic Movies Groucho Marx: From Hit ‘A Night at the Opera’ to Bomb ‘The Story of Mankind’

Groucho Marx: From Hit ‘A Night at the Opera’ to Bomb ‘The Story of Mankind’

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Groucho Marx Movies Duck Soup
Groucho Marx in Leo McCarey’s Duck Soup.

Groucho Marx movies: ‘Duck Soup,’ ‘The Story of Mankind’ and romancing Margaret Dumont on TCM

Ramon Novarro Beyond Paradise

Groucho Marx – the bespectacled, cigar-chomping, (painted) mustached, (painted) thick-eyebrowed Marx brother – is Turner Classic Movies’ “Summer Under the Stars” star today, Aug. 14, ’15.

Marx Brothers fans will be delighted, as TCM is presenting no less than 11 of their comedies, in addition to a brotherly reunion in the 1957 all-star fantasy The Story of Mankind. Non-Marx Brothers fans should be delighted as well – as long as they’re fans of Kay Francis, Thelma Todd, Ann Miller, Lucille Ball, Eve Arden, Allan Jones, affectionate & long-tongued giraffes, and/or that great, scene-stealing dowager, Margaret Dumont.

The Marx Brothers’ Paramount movies

One of the TCM entries is Robert Florey and Joseph Santley’s The Cocoanuts (1929), an early talkie notable as the first movie featuring the four Marx Brothers: Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo.[1] Based on their hit Broadway comedy – written by George S. Kaufman; music by Irving Berlin – the Paramount release is also notable for marking the debut of another Broadway import, Kay Francis, who would go on to become a top Warner Bros. star in a series of melodramas (One Way Passage, Dr. Monica, Mandalay) until Bette Davis usurped her four-handkerchief throne in mid-decade.

Following The Cocoanuts is Animal Crackers (1930), featuring the tragic Lillian Roth – who, for a while, ended up as an alcoholic in Los Angeles’ Skid Row (Susan Hayward played her in I’ll Cry Tomorrow). And then comes Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feathers (1932), both featuring another tragic leading lady, Thelma Todd. Well known for her comedies with the likes of Patsy Kelly and ZaSu Pitts, Todd, at age 29, was found dead under mysterious circumstances in Dec. 1934. To this day, no one knows whether Todd’s death was the result of foul play, accident, or suicide.

‘Duck Soup’ tops?

Directed by Leo McCarey – future Oscar winner for The Awful Truth (1937) and Going My Way (1944) – Duck Soup (1933) is a political satire starring Groucho Marx as a con artist who becomes the dictator of the bankrupt state of Freedonia. Like every Great Political Hero worth their fiscal paradise bank accounts, his first gesture is to proclaim war on the neighboring kingdom of Sylvania, home of the wealthy Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont, as always, effortlessly stealing all of her scenes).

Whether or not because the prestigious Leo McCarey has his name attached to it, some consider Duck Soup the Marx Brothers’ best Paramount comedy. Perhaps, but that’s kinda like Swing Time being considered the best Ginger Rogers-Fred Astaire movie because, after all, it was directed by future two-time Best Director Oscar winner George Stevens (A Place in the Sun, 1951; Giant, 1956).

Groucho Marx Margaret Dumont At the Circus
Groucho Marx with Margaret Dumont in ‘At the Circus’: J. Cheever Loophole woos Mrs. Suzanna Dukesbury.

MGM double bill: ‘A Night at the Opera,’ ‘A Day at the Races’

This evening, TCM will show the two comedies the Marx Brothers – minus Zeppo Marx – did for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, both under the direction of Sam Wood: Best Picture Academy Award-nominated A Night at the Opera (1935) and A Day at the Races (1937).

The former remains the best-known Marx Brothers film; in my opinion deservedly so. Purists, however, have complained that the Marxist (Marxian?) comedy is diluted in A Night the Opera, as the MGM release features plenty of scenes and musical numbers with lovebirds Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones (instead of Ben-Hur star Ramon Novarro, who turned down MGM’s offer to return to the studio by asserting that Jones’ role was for a beginner – and he was no beginner).

As for A Day at the Races, it doesn’t do justice to its title – i.e., it’s not an equally prestigious or popular daylight/equine version of A Night at the Opera. Maureen O’Sullivan, Jane in the Tarzan movies of the 1930s, was cast as Allan Jones’ love interest, but to no avail. MGM’s love affair with the Marx Brothers came to a swift end.

‘The Story of Mankind’: Latter-day flop reunion

The remaining three Marx Brothers were reunited in The Story of Mankind (1957). That was their first movie together since David Miller’s flop burlesque Love Happy (1949), best remembered for featuring a Marilyn Monroe walk-on.

As for The Story of Mankind, it stars veteran Ronald Colman (in his final role) as the Spirit of Man and Vincent Price as The Devil, both fighting for the hearts and minds of humankind. An utterly pointless endeavor in case you believe that the overwhelming majority of human beings have neither.

Known as the producer of several disaster movies of the ’70s – The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, The Swarm – Irwin Allen directed this disastrous critical and box office bomb featuring an all-star cast that ranges from Groucho Marx as Peter Minuit (known as the man who – purportedly – engineered the purchase of Manhattan from the Lenape people) to early silent film star Francis X. Bushman (surely no hammier than Charlton Heston) as Moses.

Anyhow, if you think that casting Dennis Hopper as Napoleon Bonaparte sounds weird (though surely no weirder than Marlon Brando in Désirée), what about Peter Lorre as Nero, Hedy Lamarr as Joan of Arc, Reginald Gardiner as William Shakespeare, and Edward Everett Horton as Sir Walter Raleigh? The cast alone – including (however silly) in-jokes such as Don Ameche’s brother Jim Ameche as Alexander Graham Bell – makes The Story of Mankind a must-see.

‘Skidoo,’ Gummo Marx

Groucho Marx’s final film appearance was in Otto Preminger’s 1968 comedy Skidoo, in which – long before George Burns, Graham Chapman, Alanis Morrisette, Morgan Freeman, and Rob Zombie – he played God.

Groucho Marx died of pneumonia at age 86 on Aug. 19, 1977, in Los Angeles.

[1] A fifth brother, Gummo Marx, left the then vaudeville troupe back in the 1910s. He would be replaced by Zeppo.

Groucho Marx movies: TCM schedule (PT)

3:00 AM SUNDAY NIGHT AT THE TROCADERO (1937). Short featuring silent era star Reginald Denny introducing singing and dancing acts. Director: George Sidney. Cast: Peter Lind Hayes. George Hamilton. Lester Dorr. Dick Foran. John Howard. Margot Grahame. Chester Morris. Robert Benchley. Sally Blane. Norman Foster. Groucho Marx. Ruth Johnson. Frank Morgan. Bert Wheeler. Eric Blore. June Collyer. Stuart Erwin. Toby Wing. Russell Gleason. Cynthia Lindsay. Glenda Farrell. Frank McHugh. Benny Rubin. Marge Champion. Arthur Lake. Margaret Vale. Gaylord Carter. The Brian Sisters. Connee Boswell. Medina & Mimosa. Louis & Celeste. B&W. 20 mins.

3:30 AM DOUBLE DYNAMITE (1951). Director: Irving Cummings. Cast: Jane Russell. Groucho Marx. Frank Sinatra. B&W. 80 mins.

5:00 AM A GIRL IN EVERY PORT (1952). Director: Chester Erskine. Cast: Groucho Marx. Marie Wilson. William Bendix. B&W. 87 mins.

6:30 AM ROOM SERVICE (1938). Director: William A. Seiter. Cast: Groucho Marx. Chico Marx. Harpo Marx. Ann Miller. Lucille Ball. Frank Albertson. B&W. 79 mins.

8:00 AM AT THE CIRCUS (1939). Director: Edward Buzzell. Cast: Groucho Marx. Chico Marx. Harpo Marx. Eve Arden. Margaret Dumont. B&W. 87 mins.

9:30 AM GO WEST (1940). Director: Edward Buzzell. Cast: Groucho Marx. Chico Marx. Harpo Marx. B&W. 80 mins.

11:00 AM THE BIG STORE (1941). Director: Charles Riesner. Cast: Groucho Marx. Chico Marx. Harpo Marx. Margaret Dumont. B&W. 83 mins.

12:30 PM THE DICK CAVETT SHOW: GROUCHO MARX (1969). Dick Cavett interviews Groucho Marx on June 13, 1969. Color. 51 mins.

1:30 PM THE COCOANUTS (1929). Director: Robert Florey. Joseph Santley. Cast: Groucho Marx. Harpo Marx. Chico Marx. Zeppo Marx. Oscar Shaw. Mary Eaton. Kay Francis. Margaret Dumont. Basil Ruysdael. Uncredited: Barton MacLane. B&W. 93 mins.

3:15 PM ANIMAL CRACKERS (1930). Director: Victor Heerman. Cast: Groucho Marx. Harpo Marx. Chico Marx. Lillian Roth. Margaret Dumont. B&W. 97 mins.

5:00 PM MONKEY BUSINESS (1931). Director: Norman McLeod. Cast: Groucho Marx. Harpo Marx. Chico Marx. Thelma Todd. B&W. 78 mins.

6:30 PM HORSE FEATHERS (1932). Director: Norman McLeod. Cast: Groucho Marx. Harpo Marx. Chico Marx. B&W. 67 mins.

7:45 PM DUCK SOUP (1933). Director: Leo McCarey. Cast: Groucho Marx. Harpo Marx. Chico Marx. Zeppo Marx. Margaret Dumont. Raquel Torres. Louis Calhern. Edmund Breese. Leonid Kinskey. Charles Middleton. Edgar Kennedy. Uncredited: Edward Arnold. Louise Closser Hale. Maude Turner Gordon. Edwin Maxwell. Dennis O’Keefe. B&W. 69 mins.

9:00 PM A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (1935). Director: Sam Wood. Cast: Groucho Marx. Chico Marx. Harpo Marx. Allan Jones. Kitty Carlisle. Margaret Dumont. B&W. 91 mins.

11:00 PM A DAY AT THE RACES (1937). Director: Sam Wood. Cast: Groucho Marx. Chico Marx. Harpo Marx. Allan Jones. Maureen O’Sullivan. Margaret Dumont. B&W. 109 mins.

1:00 AM THE STORY OF MANKIND (1957). Director: Irwin Allen. Cast: Ronald Colman. Hedy Lamarr. Groucho Marx. Harpo Marx. Chico Marx. Virginia Mayo. Agnes Moorehead. Vincent Price. Peter Lorre. Charles Coburn. Cedric Hardwicke. Cesar Romero. John Carradine. Dennis Hopper. Marie Wilson. Helmut Dantine. Edward Everett Horton. Reginald Gardiner. Marie Windsor. George E. Stone. Cathy O’Donnell. Franklin Pangborn. Melville Cooper. Henry Daniell. Francis X. Bushman. Anthony Dexter. David Bond. Nick Cravat. William Schallert. Bobby Watson. Reginald Sheffield. Bart Mattson. Austin Green. Dani Crayne. Jim Ameche. Color. 100 mins.

Grouch Marx movies’ schedule via the TCM website.

Groucho Marx Duck Soup image: Paramount, via Heeb Magazine.

Margaret Dumont and Groucho Marx At the Circus image: United Artists.

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Admin -

@Larry H

Thanks for the correction. The text has been amended.

Larry H -

The photo of Groucho and Margaret Dumont is from At The Circus, and not A Night At The Opera. Groucho was sans toupee in the former film.


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