A family comedy act that hit it big on the stage during the 1920s, the Marx Brothers' reliance on humorous wordplay as much as other visual vaudeville humour meant a move to the bigscreen was basically a nonstarter until the arrival of the 'talkies'. But as soon as that technology was established, Hollywood – in the form of Paramount Pictures – came calling for Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo.
Adapted from existing Broadway productions, their first two films – 1929's The Cocoanuts and 1930's Animal Crackers – are clearly hampered by both the technological limitations of the time and the studio's need for something resembling a plot. As creaky as they seem in places, both still bring plenty of laughs (Groucho and Chico's 'Why a duck?' routine from The Cocoanuts is still utterly hilarious) and show the Brothers learning how to work on film.
Much better are 1931's Monkey Business and 1932's Horse Feathers, which all but dispense with plot as anything more than the loosest construct on which to hang a series of hilarious (and increasingly surreal) gags as the Brothers run roughshod over everyone and everything around them. Horse Feathers is also notable for Zeppo's turn in the spotlight as the romantic lead – the first and last time he would have such a key presence.
Part political satire, part high- energy romp, the quartet's final film for Paramount (1933's Duck Soup) rattles off gags like bullets from a machine gun and remains one of the funniest films ever made.
All of which leaves us with just one question: how long are we going to have to wait for the eight remaining Marx Brothers movies to make their Blu-ray debuts?
Picture: All five films have been restored at 4K by NBCUniversal from the best available elements (none of the original nitrate negatives still exist). Given the inherent caveats regarding dirt and damage that come from dealing with films of this vintage, the overall quality is very good. That said, The Cocoanuts and Horse Feathers contain several sequences where image quality is much less consistent, looking several generations removed from the rest of the footage.
Picture rating: 4/5
Audio: The restored LPCM dual-mono soundtracks are understandably hampered by the quality of the source material but – as with the video presentation – are still improvements on previous releases (and considering how badly degraded the soundtracks were on some of those earlier releases – and how important dialogue is to the Marx Brothers' act – this is no small thing).
Audio rating: 3.5/5
Extras: In addition to the films, Arrow's three-disc set includes all of the extras from the earlier US Blu-rays (scholarly chat-tracks for all five movies, archival Today Show interviews and the 80-minute documentary The Marx Brothers: Hollywood's Kings of Chaos), plus two substantial new video essays by critic David Cairn: Sibling Revelry (20 minutes) and Monkeynutcrackerduckfeathers (27 minutes). The boxset also includes an exclusive 58-page book containing essays about the five films, including one by former HCC staffer Pamela Hutchinson.
Extras rating: 4/5
We say: Five films… four brothers… three discs… two new video essays… one wonderful Blu-ray boxset.
The 4 Marx Brothers at Paramount 1929-1933, Arrow Academy, Region B BD, £45
HCC VERDICT: 4/5
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