The Big Store: Laughs in store with Groucho, Harpo, and Chico Marx.
It’s a tradition in excellence that dates back to when I was 9-years-old and first introduced to the Marx Bros. The local ABC-TV affiliate in Chicago would devote their Saturday night late-to-pre-dawn slot to Paramount comedies from the ‘30s, most notably the Marxes, W.C. Fields, and Mae West. And every December 31, they’d laugh in the New Year with an annual back-to-back festival of Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and sometimes Zeppo. (For an occasional alternate, they’d dance in the New Year with Fred and Ginger.) Since then, I’ve christened each year with one of the above-mentioned comedies, and 2021 was no exception. If ever a year needed to trump hate with laughter it’s this, and my Marx of choice was The Big Store.
The Big Store (1941)
The last of five films made under contract at Metro, this is a far cry from the Brothers’ Paramount heyday, instead ranking somewhere in the middle of their MGM downslide, which began in 1935 when studio exec Irving Thalberg hired the boys after Paramount failed to renew their contract. Aside from producing Freaks and giving the Marx Bros. a job when they needed it, the genius of boy wonder Thalberg escapes me. Thalberg was a sickly soul whose early demise came three years prior to the release of this film. (Check out the trailer’s promise of, “Howl... And Farewell! Their Last Picture.” Three movies after Thalberg died, and Louis B. Mayer is already pitching “Their first final farewell” from pictures.) Thalberg’s health wasn’t the only frail thing about him. He was personally responsible for fewer on-screen Brothers in favor of more musical numbers and juvenile romantic subplots. As Marx biographer Joe Adamson observed, Thalberg preferred cutaways to the Marx Bros. as opposed to cutaways from them. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Thalberg should have stuck with Garbo and left Groucho alone. Further unmitigating circumstances: Thalberg is guilty of one of the most heinous acts ever committed against the art of motion pictures. After he was unsuccessful at taming the self-indulgent Erich Von Stroheim on Foolish Wives and The Merry-Go-Round, it was on his watch that Greed was whittled down to 140 minutes from its (admittedly unwieldy) original nine-hour premier. The Academy® also named a cheap giveaway award after him. Your honor, I rest my case.
Groucho plays Wolf J. Flywheel, a bottom-feeding gumshoe hot on the trail of low-hanging fruit. Flywheel rooms with Wacky, a mute harp player (Guess who?) who acts as his secretary, chauffeur, valet, and all around Man Friday. Wacky and Flywheel live together in a pasteboard shack and listen to “Sing While You Sell” all day on the radio. This is the only Marx Brothers movie that starts with Harpo paired opposite Groucho instead of Chico. Purists take heart: as it turns out, Wacky and Ravelli are brothers. And on a purely anal retentive note, for the first time, Grouch parts his hair down the side, not the middle. Anything but the flea-bitten rug he donned in Go West.
After sitting out a couple of pictures, Margaret Dumont — built like an armoire with arms, she was Groucho’s eternally oblique dame with a dowry — resurfaces as department store magnate Martha Phelps. One of store manager Grover’s (the inimitable Douglass Dumbrille) henchmen sandbags her nephew Tommy (a bland and greasy Tony Martin) during an elevator ride. Tommy is a reformed street punk-turned-bandleader who now makes it possible for downtrodden tykes to have the same opportunity in life that he had. And since the benevolent Tommy has recently inherited half the Phelps’ Department Store, Aunt Martha fears the time has come for protection. So the rich widow hires Flywheel to act as her nephew’s bodyguard.
Tommy is a neighborhood legend. Ravelli (Chico Marx) brags about him to the repo man as the latter begins to cart away the musical instruments from Tommy’s conservatory — where every child is taught Chico’s notorious shotgun style of piano playing. (I hope the kids don’t grow up to play the ponies or burn up phone lines espousing eternal love to the missus while in a hotel room, being serviced by a contract player.) Virginia Gray plays Tommy’s love interest. (Alas, there is always a love interest to throw sand on the tracks.) While she’s a far cry from At the Circus ingenue Florence Rice, Ms. Gray chose to continue acting as opposed to enjoying the luxurious lifestyle afforded indentured game show panelist Kitty Carlisle.
There is a veritable bounty of musical entertainment on hand to thrill the masses and bore stiff the Marxists. Chico doesn’t get a solo number, but he and Harpo team for a spirited rendition of “Mamãe Eu Quero.” Harpo’s turns at Beethoven and Mozart make me regret that there was no such thing as a scan button when I was growing up. The one good thing to be said of Harpo’s various musical interludes is that he never took up the bagpipe. Tommy personally cuts a record for Dorothy Gale’s beloved auntie/jailer Clara Blandick. Only once did the Brothers work with a director worthy of their talent (Leo McCarey on Duck Soup). The rest merely photographed them. Charles Reisner punches the clock by keeping Tommy in sharp close-up while customers float through the soft gauzy background. The song in question, “If It’s You,” co-written by Artie Shaw, is the film’s most accomplished number. With Reisner’s zig-zag direction and lyrics like “Sell this weenie with Rossini, the allegedly show stopping “Sing While You Sell” is enough to make one cry uncle. The director (who obviously learned nothing from working alongside Buster Keaton on Steamboat Bill, Jr.), would rather move the set than the camera. And Groucho once referred to “Tommy Rogers’ Tenement Symphony in Four Flats” as “the most god-awful thing I’d ever heard.” In its most simplistic, puerile form, the number represents an all-white America idealized by Mayer’s kosher-style Dream Factory. The songs of the ghetto that inspire this allegretto were all originally yodeled by white voices. This sanitized slum rents to Cohens, Kelleys, and Vermicellis with nary a black, Asian, or Latino tenant in sight. People of color aren’t the only things absent in the musical number. How about some production values? The theater inside of Phelps’ Department Store resembles a high school auditorium from last year’s Mickey and Judy romp. (Note that Strike up the Band is the feature attraction on the Metro backlot’s Main Street movie house marquee.) For added dramatic effect, kids hold flashlights under their faces. I’ve adored this number from the first time I saw it. Now that I understand the song’s mixed underlying messages, I embrace it all the more.
The film is surprisingly shorn of verbal wit, but still I chuckle. Harpo’s noisy typewriter/toaster, the clothespin money clip, and Groucho’s molting beaver coat continue to reap big laughs. The one big comedic set piece, a scene that’s been compared to the stateroom sequence in A Night at the Opera and the Tootsie-Fruitsy ice cream exchange in A Day at the Races, takes place in the bed department. A stereotypical Italian couple, fresh off the boat and free from Il Duce’s grip, enters with a dozen kids. (Papa Henry Amretta’s right-leaning lope acts as a reminder of the Tower of Pisa.) Tired of mating in the same bed shared by at least four of their bambinos, the fertile pair is in desperate need of new bunks. To underscore their obvious ethnicity — and to save a few pennies by orchestrating a studio-owned song Metro didn’t have to pay royalties on — “Cosi Cosa” plays in the background. The ignorant peasants quickly lose track of six of their charge, leaving it up to the Brothers to find inadequate replacements. Judging by the size of Giuseppe’s wife, if you wait a few days she’s sure to pop out another half-dozen children. Suddenly the screen is filled with Aryans, Asians and Native Americans, all trying to pass. The flustered couple, not satisfied with ethnic clones, wants their original issue kids back. Joe Breen forbade America from seeing a married couple in bed together. but trafficking in children was okay to play for laughs.
As a child, I ran from Douglass Dumbrille. His menacing posturing in A Day at the Races and The Big Store struck my impressionable young mind as annoying distractions from the trio’s antics. Now I run to him. Thanks to the Marx Brothers, no matter what role he’s cast in, it’s difficult to watch Douglass Dumbrille, or Sig Ruman for that matter, without bursting into laughter. In almost all of his work, Mr. Dumbrille epitomizes the archetypal shitheel. The cutaway to a flummoxed Grover is funnier than anything Martha or Wolf have to say concerning Byron or Shelley. All attempts on Mr. Dumbrille’s part to appear calm and rational are funnier than any of his subsequent explosions. Even Dumbrillle’s love scenes are to be treasured. Grover enlists the aid of his sidepiece Peggy Arden (Marion Martin), a woman of questionable repute, to pose as a theater critic to interview Tommy. A drooling Grover makes time with her before plotting marriage to Martha and her future murder, (Peggy loses points with the audience after calling Harpo “stupid” and bullying an elderly clerk.)
The only somber moments spent watching The Big Store come after realizing that I’m applying the same critical stance I do to Shemp remakes. It’s not my desire to spend time laughing at the Marx Brothers. The biggest howls during the climactic chase through the store come at the expense of fast motion and obvious doubles. At least in this case, the Harpo stand-in is convincing from afar. (Unlike the hydrocephalic Groucho substitute, who only comes to life when applying the thermodynamic force of Groucho’s lope to a bicycle.) At this point in their careers, the Brothers were in their fifties and living comfortably. Groucho was content to swap the studio lights for a game show gig. Harpo married happily and loved puttering around the house, playing bridge and the harp. Both brothers came out of semi-retirement to help cover Chico’s gambling debts by making Love Happy.
Still, here is a film that is as much a part of me as my fingerprints. I’ve watched it well over 50 times and never tire of it, give or take a minuet. So much of what I find unqualified to pass as cinema is part and parcel of The Big Store, but so much I love about movies is right here.