The oddest element of the Marx Brothers' last three MGM movies--At the Circus, Go West, and The Big Store--is that they all have genuinely funny scenes or moments. And then they're surrounded by weird segments that play as though some nutbrain from Mars tried his hand at revising the scripts.
At least The Cocoanuts is awful from start to finish, and its awfulness can be excused--everyone was new at the talkie business and was trying to straighten out the kinks (which happened just one movie later, with Animal Crackers). If you watch one of these movies, most of the time you'll wince at the out-of-character moments and the apparent attempts by the filmmakers to turn the Marxes' characters into total nincompoops. Then for just a moment, the movie will light up and spark--as with Groucho's song "Lydia, the Tattooed Lady" from At the Circus, or the all-stops-out climax of Go West--and suddenly you'll get a ray of hope. Then the moment dies down, and you're back in the doldrums again.
Many reasons have been given for the poor quality of these movies, the most likely one being that MGM head Louis B. Mayer did not like the Marx Brothers, and once Irving Thalberg died, Mayer had no interest in doing anything extra (such as a road tour, though there was a brief one for Go West) to make the movies better. Groucho seems to have seen the handwriting on the wall sooner than anyone else, and in The Groucho Letters (a delightful book compiled of letters written by Groucho to friends and acquaintances), his missives take an ever-decreasing view of the tripe MGM was putting him in.
The Hollywood Powers That Be seem to have a bug up their behind when it comes to iconoclastic comics. Martin Short, the live wire from TV's "Second City TV" and "Saturday Night Live," once said that when the "SNL" and "SCTV" veterans got huge paychecks waved in front of them to make movies, Hollywood's attitude turned into, "Since you've proven you can do great comedy, now you're going to do it our way."
So watch the final MGM trio of movies, enjoy what you can from them, and then curse the fools who wouldn't let the Marx Brothers make their movies their way.
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At the Circus (1939)
Go West (1940)
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