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Riot Act

The Silver Screen Collection is celebrating the 75th anniversary of the screen debut of the eminent theatrical team, the Marx Brothers: Chico (1887-1961), Harpo (1888-1964), Groucho (1890-1977) and Zeppo (1901-1979). Their first vehicle, The Cocoanuts (1929), was based on the George S. Kaufman play (adapted for the screen by Morrie Ryskind) in which the brothers had starred on the Broadway stage. Looking at The Cocoanuts today, one is struck by the static cinematography typical of the early talkies, with the camera parked in front of a set across which the characters walk on and off as they enter stage right and exit stage left, or vice versa. In their first two films, the Marx Brothers owed more to their writers than to their directors. Groucho himself remarked of the director and assistant director of The Cocoanuts : “One of them [French-born Robert Florey] didn’t understand English, and the other one [former dance director Joseph Santley] didn’t understand comedy.”

Yet even in this early phase of their movie career, the team projected a uniquely anarchic charisma that stood out among the pallidly conventional figures of boy-girl musical romance. There was no lasting romance for any of the team, unlike their often lyrically girl-seeking predecessors, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Harpo chased pretty girls with a gleam in his eye just for harmless fun. Groucho leered at them, but quickly lost interest. Chico was oblivious to them, and Zeppo, the “normal” one, was too drawn into the zany orbit of his brothers ever to settle down with a nice girl.

For their second film, the Marx Brothers chose another of their hit Broadway plays, Animal Crackers (1930), written by the same Kaufman-Ryskind team that gave us The Cocoanuts and directed by journeyman director Victor Heerman, who tried in vain to get Groucho to wash off his grease-paint mustache and wear a false one instead. “They never believed us anyway,” retorted Groucho as he refused the director’s request. In both The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers , Groucho was brilliantly assisted in making his brand of insult humor register with audiences by the exquisitely dignified self-abasement of Margaret Dumont, one of the greatest character comediennes in the history of the cinema.

The Marx Brothers finally left New York, where The Cocoanuts had been shot (at the old Paramount Astoria studios in Queens), for their third film, Monkey Business (1931). Shot entirely in Hollywood by a new director, Norman Z. McLeod, Monkey Business also had a new cadre of New York–ish and New Yorker writers: S.J. Perelman, Will B. Johnstone and Arthur Sheekman, and a new feminine foil for Groucho in Thelma Todd, a brassy-dame type with comic flair, and a big change from the matronly, high-society Dumont. Their fourth film, Horse Feathers (1932), included a partly new and partly old writing team-Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, S.J. Perelman and Will B. Johnstone-the same director, Norman Z. McLeod, and the same comic foil in Thelma Todd. Up to now, the Marx Brothers had been functioning in a pre–Production Code atmosphere that allowed semi-sluttish talent like Todd to get laughs with suggestive innuendoes.

It may thus be only a coincidence that Dumont returned to the Marxian fold in 1933 with Duck Soup , a flop in its time after four big hits that almost ruined Paramount and almost ended the Marx Brothers’ movie careers. Fortunately, they were rescued by Irving Thalberg at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where they made one of their biggest commercial and critical successes, Sam Wood’s A Night at the Opera (1935), which reunited them with their first comedy writers, George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind. In the meantime, Zeppo left the team and was replaced in spirit by M.G.M. tenor Allan Jones, whose operatic romance with Kitty Carlisle began the gradual displacement of the Marx Brothers for the sake of more conventional scenarios.

Ironically, many critics consider Leo McCarey’s Duck Soup to be the funniest and most magical film in their entire oeuvre , as well as their most chaotic. At the time when the world was in a stifling economic depression and Europe was turning to fascism, the sending-up of martial excesses in the nation of Freedonia may have been too unsettling for 1933 audiences. The Marx Brothers were reportedly delighted that the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini banned the film from Italy because he thought it was a direct attack on him. But was Groucho tempting fate when he discounted the film’s alleged significance? “What significance?” he asked rhetorically. “We were just four Jews trying to get a laugh.”

One may say that, overall, the individual parts of the Marx Brothers’ films were superior to the sum of their wholes-and what parts! The funniest highlights are spread throughout their oeuvre , but they’re mostly found in their Paramount period. For starters, there’s Groucho’s land auction in The Cocoanuts , Harpo and Chico’s bridge game in Animal Crackers , Harpo’s madness with the passports and the puppets in Monkey Business , Harpo and Groucho’s bunny-nightcap confrontation in the mischievous mirror of Duck Soup , and Harpo’s pushcart duel with Edgar Kennedy in Duck Soup .

Special features of value in this DVD package include a Harpo Marx “interview” in pantomime and Groucho Marx in a riotously funny mock interview on The Today Show -and, on a more serious note, Harpo’s son William, who provides home movies of his father and uncles along with his own childhood memories .

[The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection: The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, Duck Soup ; G, $59.90]

Love Story

Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset is a fantasy realized: a reunion with an old, briefly known lover, someone you think about warmly still, partly because you never knew them long enough to feel otherwise. Mr. Linklater is too smart to let things play out like straight fantasy, yet somehow the film maintains an undeniable, almost realistic, romantic glow.

Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) are the two lovers whose meeting on a train nine years before was chronicled in the movie Before Sunrise . They disembarked in Vienna and spent a wonderful, talk-filled evening together. They promised to meet again on a specific date, but one of them, we learn in this sequel, never showed up.

When they meet again in Before Sunset , it’s because Jesse has published a novel and is promoting it in Paris, where Celine lives. So they spend the day together engaged in the same clever banter as before. They stroll, express regrets and wishes, trade jokes. The most heart-wrenching scene takes place in a taxi, when Celine reveals the true consequences of getting older: She’s angry and, in a way that splits her sunny façade wide open, bloody and honest. But perhaps she’s not bitter-later, alone together in her apartment, Celine beguilingly sings Jesse a folk song she has written about him. It’s a rapturous moment in an already stunning film. The song captures the optimism of their first meeting; it’s also a time capsule of their youth. Right before it ends, Before Sunset finally feels like a beginning.

[ Before Sunset , 2004, 80 min., R, $27.95]

-Suzy Hansen