Experience the hopes, dreams, triumphs and defeats of the brothers simply known as Groucho, Chico, and Harpo in a fascinating look back at the men who’s humor is still as influential today as it was when they made their movies.
Host Leslie Nielson leads a journey through rare home movies, insightful interviews with family members, never-before-seen outtakes and hilarious film clips to paint an intimate portrait of the men known as the Marx Brothers.
eyelights: the archival footage of the Marx Brothers’ later years.
eyesores: the sketchy overview of their career as a troupe.
‘The Unknown Marx Brothers’ is a low-budget 1993 television documentary feature on the Marx Brothers. Narrated by a seemingly bored Leslie Nielsen (then on top of the world with the ‘Naked Gun‘ films), with the participation of many of the Marxes’ offspring, and including clips that span the whole of their career, it provides insight on one of the world’s most popular and influential comedy troupes.
What’s interesting about this programme is that it breezes through the largest part of their career, starting with their youth, then their Vaudeville days and motion pictures, only to rest on their post-Marx Brothers days to a larger degree. I’m not sure if it was a rights issues (this was not produced by the major studios, who may have nixed requests for clips), but you’d think those years would stand out.
Instead, we get an overview of the Marx Brothers outside the context in which they are mostly familiar – which may explain the filmmakers’ choice of title. Thankfully, the documentary boasts a large amount of exclusive material, including interviews with the Marxes’ offspring and rare footage, such as an early promo film they did for Broadway or a pilot for a show called ‘The Deputy Seraph’ in 1959.
But the focus really is on their individual achievements – after the requisite back history. We find out that Chico was a gambler by the age of 12, that Harpo learned his instrument on the fly, and that they were all entered into Vaudeville so that their mom could keep an eye on all of them at once – since some of them were doing poorly in school. They did stage work for 25 years before landing on the silver screen.
We get to Harpo’s first motion picture appearance, in the 1925 silent film “Too Many kisses”, and we hear about their war efforts, but most of the focus is on their TV work after their movies ended. Naturally, the biggest chunk was on Groucho’s extremely successful ‘You Bet Your Life’, along with the unreleased TV audition and outtakes. And there’s Groucho’s caustic 1973 appearance on ‘The New Bill Cosby Show’.
There are a few TV appearances by Harpo, but Chico doesn’t return very much, part of the reason being his health, which deteriorated early on. My favourite of the brothers’ TV work is a handful of surrealistic Labatt Pilsener beer commercial that Harpo did; they make no sense whatsoever, and one wonders what the Labatt people were going for. I’d be very curious to know if that approach worked for them.
‘The Unknown Marx Brothers’ was an interesting watch, but it was not a wholly informative or insightful one; its intention is nebulous and its concluding statement on the Marxes is a risible one: “They were funny, pure and simple”. Well, thank you, Dr. Nielsen. It’s a low budget documentary (ex: that crap soundtrack) with an unusual angle on its subject matter, which is nice, but it leaves you longing for more.
Post scriptum: For viewers who do want more, it’s worth watching the programme well into the credits, as there are extra bits in there. As well, the DVD has a feature called “ZOOM links”, which allows you to watch bonus clips interspersed throughout. To round things off, there are a small number of extra clips in the Bonus Material section of the DVD. It’s not a treasure trove but, collectively, it adds up nicely.
Date of viewing: June 27, 2015