SB: The Big Store is a summing-up of all the perversities that a post-Irving Thalberg MGM inflicted upon the Marx Brothers. There are moments (albeit, most of them musical rather than comedic) that are as good as anything the Marxes ever did. Then there are moments where the movie takes the bad elements of At the Circus and Go West and expands upon them.
The story is that Tommy Rodgers (Tony Martin), an up-and-coming singer (of course), wants to sell his half of an inherited department store and use the money to beef up his music school. Unfortunately, Mr. Grover (Douglas Dumbrille), the owner of the store's other half, plans to marry Martha Phelps (Margaret Dumont), Tommy's rich aunt, and then have Tommy and Auntie slaughtered because they'll find out he cooked the books. He couldn't just buy them out, right?
Anyway, Tommy is knocked unconscious at one point (not for the whole movie, sadly), and Martha brings in Wolf J. Flywheel (Groucho) and his wacky assistant (Harpo) named, er, Wacky, to investigate the goings-on. The best comedy scene in the movie involves Groucho and Harpo trying to impress Mrs. Phelps that their fly-by-night operation is a top-notch detective agency. It seems strange that the same minds who decided to get Groucho and Harpo together (in a rare outing as partners) couldn't conjure up some decent gags for the rest of the movie.
The remainder is a musical in search of a comedy. Chico and Harpo are well-served musically, especially in another Marx rarity, their piano duet. And Harpo's harp solo is both lovely and a technical miracle, showing him playing along with mirror versions of himself. On the other hand, Groucho's number is this...thing called "Sing While You Sell," apparently the songwriters' attempt at a department-store version of "Whistle While You Work." Is it just me, or would anyone else think it strange to find counter clerks singing to you? (Check out the zombified look on the woman who tries to sing a hep version of "Rock-a-Bye Baby.")
Then there's Tony Martin who, let's face it, is just too darned smug to care about. His every number invites us to swoon over his handsomeness and inner warmth. Sorry, he put me off as soon as he got equal billing with the Marx Brothers.
Oh, and you'll love MGM's condescensions to minorities and the poor. When the store decides to hold an impromptu press conference, Tommy responds with an elaborate musical number called "The Tenement Symphony," in which he sings about how the Irish and Italian families living in flats inspire him to sing. Yeah, right, how about a donation, pal? (According to a Mel Brooks biographer, Brooks found this scene so bombastic, he initially intended to put a scene in Blazing Saddles where the black, Chinese, and Irish railroad laborers join hands and listen to Tony Martin sing the song to them.)
And the stereotypical blacks of A Day at the Races and At the Circus, as well as the stereotypical Indians of Go West, are here joined by stereotypical Italians and Chinese, who have nothing better to do than get lost in the bed department. (You gotta love Groucho's nonchalance at parents' losing most of their offspring. He'll knock himself out to get a detective job, but lost kids? You're on your own!)
Lastly, there's the frenetic climax, an obvious attempt to repeat the rousing ending of Go West. The trouble is that it's so obvious in its use of fake doubles, trick photography, and a frantic score, it makes you think of a lesser driver's-ed movie.
The few good things in The Big Store make you wonder why the movie's makers went to such elaborate trouble to create the bad things. Everyone in the movie uses every last ounce of energy to convince us that this monstrosity is worth watching. Didn't they read the script?
JB: A friend and I were recently talking about this one. My take on it was that by this time, the Thalberg theory had been turned on its head. MGM was now thinking, "Women love musicals with love stories, but let's add the Marx Brothers to bring in the guys."
Here is how I described "Sing While You Sell" to my friend: "Groucho being forced to sing the dumbest piece of crap ever written for him while parading his sorry carcass over three floors of the Phelps Department store."
Oh, and that woman you mention singing "Rock-A-Bye Baby" is Virginia O'Brien. Apparently, she was pretty popular back then and that sort of stone-faced singing was her schtick. What can I say? The world was at war, Hitler was storming through Europe, people needed amusement, she was a hit.
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