When the Marx Brothers left Paramount after Duck Soup, they performed separately on stage and radio, and Groucho was so keen on the easier hours that he almost left the act. But Chico, who got the Marxes to Broadway on a miracle, rolled the dice again and got them a meeting with wunderkind MGM producer Irving Thalberg.
Thalberg told them he wanted to make Marx Brothers movies, but make them better. This initially raised Groucho's hackles, until Thalberg assured him that he wouldn't destroy the Marx Brothers formula, just soften it a little--so that even those female moviegoers who didn't like crazy comedy could be convinced to plunk down money for a Marx Brothers movie.
Thalberg and the Marxes hatched the idea of taking their movie "on the road"--testing scenes for laughs by performing them as a strung-together stage play before committing the work to film. Thalberg also made the romantic subplots downright palatable, with decent romantic leads and memorable songs. The formula proved a winner. A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races were hilarious hits.
Unfortunately, just as production on Races had begun, the frail Thalberg died at age 37. Forever after, Groucho had nothing but acid words for any movie executive who wasn't Irving Thalberg.
Yet even though Opera and Races are still fun, one can say how the Marx formula is starting to crack a little. It's not noticeable at first because of the first-class writing and great production values. But eventually, the high production and romantic subplots would overwhelm the Marxes' movies, until it seemed that the Marxes could barely slip their comedy in.
One wonders what might have happened to the Marxes had Thalberg lived. But the two movies he produced for the Marx Brothers are proof enough of his foresight, sincerity, and talent.
Click here to go to our site's review of:
A Night at the Opera (1935)
A Day at the Races (1937)
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