by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
On Sunday night, looking for something that would keep me merry, I ran Charles and I the Marx Brothers’ last big-studio movie, The Big Store (1941). “It’s not Duck Soup,” Charles said afterwards — you can say that again, but it’s also nowhere near as dreadful as the press over the years on it has said. Leonard Maltin called it “the worst of their MGM films, and perhaps the worst film they ever made,” and Joe Adamson’s book Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo has a denunciation of it that’s pretty funny in and of itself — but it’s actually a nice, companionable film even though it’s hardly as funny as one would think from the pedigree of the talents that went into it.
The director, Charles Riesner, had worked as an assistant to Charlie Chaplin at First National in the early 1920’s (and his son Dean Riesner had played the bratty little kid in Chaplin’s last First National film, The Pilgrim — later Dean would grow up to be a screenwriter and his most famous credit would be Dirty Harry), and the basic story was by Nat Perrin, who’d worked with the Marxes before on some of their great Paramount films and had also developed the first Marxist foray into radio, a short-lived series called Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel that ran in 1932-33 and starred Groucho as a shyster lawyer named Wolfgang J. Flywheel and Chico as his general assistant, Ravelli — character names he would recycle for The Big Store even though in the movie it would be Harpo, saddled with the name “Wacky” (an example of the tendency throughout The Big Store for the writers — Sid Kuller, Hal Fimberg and Ray Golden, adapting Perrin’s original story — to come up with stupid ideas they thought would be funny and moderately amusing ones they thought would be hilarious), who would be Groucho’s valet and chauffeur for a charming and moderately funny scene in which, to impress potential client Martha Phelps (Margaret Dumont in her last of seven films with the Marxes), Harpo presses a series of buttons and the grungy office in which private investigator Wolf J. Flywheel (you know who) has his office into something that looks official enough to impress someone like the great dowager herself — which means that the hot plate and coffeepot with which Harpo was making Groucho’s breakfast has to pop into a file drawer and the toaster has to turn into a typewriter.
It’s the sort of gag scene Buster Keaton could have done worlds better 20 years earlier (and it’s possible Keaton, who was on retainer at MGM as an occasional gagman at the time, may have had a hand in it) but it’s still cute, especially when the coffeepot explodes and starts drooling coffee down Groucho’s leg just when he’s telling Dumont he’s not sure he can take her case because “I’m just dripping with offers!” Dumont’s character wants a private eye because she’s the sister of the late Hiram Phelps, who owned a big department store founded by his family in 1859, and she’s sure Phelps’ nephew and heir, Tommy Rogers (Tony Martin), is marked for death after he gets clonked in the elevator at the store. She’s right; the store’s manager, Grover (Douglass Dumbrille, playing the same sort of scheming scoundrel he did in the Marxes’ A Day at the Races), is in cahoots with accountant Fred Sutton (William Tannen) and vamp Peggy Arden (Marion Martin) to embezzle from the store. As long as Hiram Phelps was alive, Grover wasn’t worried about being discovered — but now that Tommy is poised to inherit and is likely to sell his half-interest in the store, and any likely buyers going through the books and doing due diligence are likely to see through the tricks by which Fred has rigged the books to conceal the embezzlement, Grover figures the only way to cover up his tracks is to have Tommy knocked off, then marry Martha Phelps and have her killed so he and his vamp girlfriend can own the store all to themselves. (Joe Adamson was especially scornful of the plot premise, which when you think about it really wouldn’t make much sense even as the basis for a crime film — as Adamson put it, Grover is so concerned about murdering all those people to cover up his being an embezzler “he never mentions how he plans to hide the fact that he’s killed a bunch of people” — much less as the premise of a film starring three of the funniest people who ever lived.)
Tommy Rogers is a somewhat successful singer — enough that the store he now co-owns has just run out of their stock (two copies) of his hit record, “If It’s You” (by Ben Oakland, Artie Shaw and Milton Drake — I can’t recall if Shaw ever recorded this song himself but it certainly sounds like the sort of delicate ballad he would have played well), and in a genuinely charming scene he and his girlfriend, Joan Sutton (Virgina Grey), cut a custom version on a home-recording machine in stock in the store so an elderly lady won’t be sent home disappointed — and his only interest in the Phelps Department Store is to sell his half of it to the Hastings Brothers (Paul Stanton and Russell Hicks) so he can bail out a failing music conservatory run by an old man called “The Professor” (whom we never see except as an anonymous conductor) and his assistant, Ravelli (Chico Marx) — who, in another scene that isn’t all that funny but is charming (a word that seems to come up about The Big Store again and again), has taught his four child piano students to play exactly the way he does, wagging his finger at the keys, pointing at them and making shooting gestures. The various elements — music, crime and comedy — gel uncertainly but at least generate some clever and entertaining sequences, including a big production number at the store called “Sing While You Sell” (Groucho has some comic interjections — once again, chuckle-inducing lines the writers clearly thought were going to be knee-slappers — but the scene is stolen by the young Virginia O’Brien, doing “Rock-a-Bye Baby” first “straight” and then in swing style); a really lovely dream sequence in which Harpo inhabits a Versailles-themed display at the store (who on earth did they think were going to buy such clothes and furniture in 1941?) and plays a couple of classical pieces (a movement from Mozart’s piano sonata K. 545 and Beethoven’s minuet, WoO 10, No. 2) first “straight” on the harp and then, accompanied by mirror images of Harpo on violin and cello, swinging them out. It seems odd that a movie as otherwise cheesy as The Big Store would contain a scene this creative — the Marx Brothers’ second great mirror scene (after the one in Duck Soup). There’s also Groucho’s famous comeback to Margaret Dumont’s fear that once they’re married some pretty young woman will come along and he’ll forget all about her: “Don’t be silly — I’ll write you twice a week!”
The down side is that even the big slapstick set pieces — an elaborate department full of hideaway beds in which Italian immigrant Henry Armetta loses six of his 12 kids (and the Marxes try to palm him off with various kids of other nationalities that have also gone into the bed department) and a final chase in which the Marxes and Grover are fighting over a picture that will reveal Grover’s villainy (done in long-shots with the Marxes all too obviously being doubled through most of it, and the wire and harness that lifts Harpo — or his stunt double — into the air also being incredibly obvious and easy to spot) — seem mechanical, and in between them the plot comes to a dead stop when, at a party to celebrate the sale of the store, Tony Martin, the St. Luke’s Episcopal Church Choristers and a huge orchestra get to perform a thoroughly ridiculous would-be musical monument called “Tenement Symphony.” (Hal Borne, Fred Astaire’s rehearsal pianist and sometimes songwriting partner, wrote the music for this and two of the screenwriters, Sid Kuller and Hal Fimberg, wrote the words — and someone should have told Kuller and Fimberg that the name “Vermicelli” for an Italian family was more laugh-inducing than many of the lines they’d written that were intended to be funny.) Oddly, Martin redid this in a 1952 TV appearance — and one book I read on 1950’s culture cited this as a rare example of class-consciousness in 1950’s television; the author seemed totally unaware that the number was recycled from a movie Martin had been in a decade earlier!
The Big Store lumbers to a close — Grover gets arrested, Groucho and Dumont go away together (in an ancient car — the placard on its back says, “Welcome Home, Admiral Dewey, Hero of Manila” — that’s just being repossessed and towed away by the finance company), and presumably Tommy gets his conservatory, his girlfriend and a life happily ever after. Joe Adamson was particularly hard on Tony Martin — listing him as “Number One on the Nausea Rating” of singing male leads in Marx Brothers movies — which I think is unfair; though he was hardly at the level of Crosby or Sinatra he was a quite nice crooner in the style of the period and certainly a better singer and personality than Kenny Baker and John Carroll, who had been in the immediately preceding Marx Brothers movies At the Circus and Go West.
Oddly, the imdb.com “Trivia” section on this film told me something I hadn’t known: that the phrase “The Big Store” was common among 1930’s con artists as slang for an elaborate physical layout built to pull off a “Big Con” à la The Sting — which makes one wonder achingly how much better The Big Store would have been as a movie if that would have been what it was about, just as it’s interesting to imagine what the Marx Brothers “pre-make” of The Producers would have been like if that had been the first film they’d got to do under their MGM contract, as Groucho wanted, instead of A Night at the Opera (not to question the credentials of A Night at the Opera as a comedy classic, but still the fact that we don’t have a movie with Groucho as a high-class swindler bilking backers out of 1,000 percent of the budget of a bad opera in order to abscond with 900 percent of the budget as ill-gotten gains is something to sigh over).