Night at the Opera is the best movie they made, and among the best ever made. You’d have to be pretty cold to be put off by the sentiment. Watch for Chico and Harpo performing for the ship passengers in steerage. Look at the children’s faces, those are unprompted reactions. If you don’t react the same way then you have no soul.
My first exposure to the Marx Brothers was a quadruple feature. “The Cocoanuts”, “Horse Feathers”, “Animal Crackers”, and “Duck Soup”. IIRC, the first 3 had Zeppo, who later left the act. They were all funny, but dated.
I pretty much agree with the opinions stated upthread, but I’ll add one wrinkle: I don’t think of the Marx Brothers movies as separate works. I kind of think of them all as entities in the same unified *oeuvre *- you haven’t really experienced it until you’ve seen them all. So, by that theory, it doesn’t matter where you start, as long as you eventually consume the top seven or eight movies on the list.
You’re alone? Then why is this table set for four?
That’s nothing! My alarm clock is set for eight!
I sat down to see A Night At The Opera the other week with high expectations, my first Marx movie (I think), but I was thoroughly disappointed; in my humble opinion it was unbearable dated, as in “not funny” (when people fall, make funny faces, are mean to women, etc.) I wanted to like it and I generally like good black and white classics, and I still admire Groucho – but boy, I couldn’t watch this one through.
So did Duck Soup. He plays Groucho’s secretary, the memorable “Bob Roland.” The movie bombed and he got sick of playing nonentities with nothing to do. By the time MGM hired the other three brothers to make A Night at the Opera he’d had enough and left to take his revenge by screwing the studios as an agent, which he was quite successful at. Groucho always credited him as being the fastest wit of the brothers but he joined the act too late in their vaudeville life to develop a character of his own to translate that to the screen.
Isn’t all humor today still about people falling down, making funny faces, and being mean to women? That’s The Hangover. But I admit that constituted a real good reason not to see Hung Over Some More and Really Hung.
OTOH, you can get a basic appreciation just from watching 10 minutes of that 12-or-so-hour ouevre. The Marx Brothers were originally Vaudeville performers, and the short-skit format bled over into their movies – any bit-o’-business in a MB film is pretty much self-contained and appreciable on its own.
Duck Soup, then A Night at the Opera. It’s true that their movies are sequences of bits anyway and that there are some very funny parts in other movies, but if you’re picking one movie based on overall consistency or quality I think it’s a pretty easy choice. Duck Soup is hilarious and brilliant, it has fewer songs than any other movie they made, and the few songs they do have are hilarious instead of sappy.
And in Night at the Opera the plot-stopping musical numbers make more sense than in any other movie. I think that helps. Day at the Races has some very funny moments but then there’s the blackface stuff. That’s far more dated and uncomfortable than anything else in their catalog.
There’s always physical comedy in there, but the wordplay is always the funniest thing. And I don’t get the “mean to women” complaint. In their best movies they’re mean to everybody, and they’re much meaner to Trentino and Gottlieb and Chandler than they ever were to Margaret Dumont (and they all deserve it).
That was the way things were in those times, and it’s good reminder of that. Most accounts have the Marx Bros. including these performances as a way to give exposure to people who had few opportunities in Hollywood, and at the same time having to avoid offending any part of the viewing audience and the studio heads. As I watch these scenes I can feel for all the participants and various dilemmas they faced. However it was part of the Marx Bros. style, they did more than entertain, they did so with a subversive message, to give the common man the opportunity to see the high and mighty undone. I hope in this case it worked, but their message was sometimes lost.
As for being mean to women, that is absurd. They featured women in many different types of roles in all their movies. I don’t think you’d find Lucille Ball, Kitty Carlisle, Thelma Todd, Maureen O’Sullivan, Ann Miller, or Eve Arden complaining about their parts in the films, and those parts were significant in their careers. Though to be fair they often complained about the off set behavior of the guys, but everyone else did too.
Aside from their personal talent, the result in their movies was pure entertainment gold. In Night at the Opera they made sure to have Lasparri beat Tomasso over some trivial slight to depict him as a man worthy of their contempt and treatment right at the beginning of the movie. Many of the skits came from their onstage routines, and new ones created for the movie were tested before live audience. This shows the respect for the audience and the desire to deliver quality that was often missing from the movies then, as it still is today.