The Unknown Marx Brothers, and a few more movies


The Unknown Marx Brothers (1993)

Streaming free on YouTube 

Hey, this is a blast. It's a feature-length documentary about the Marx Brothers, lightly covering the family tree they fell out, their lack of success as a singing act, their sudden and unintentional switch to comedy, successes on stage, and of course, their enduring fame as cinema stars, and their lives after the stardom faded. 

If you've ever wondered why Harpo didn't speak, how Chico and Groucho got their names, or whether they were really brothers ("As far as I know," says Chico), all these questions will be answered by Harpo's son and daughter, Chico's daughter, and others who knew the brothers.

Even if you already have the facts on Chico, Harpo, and Groucho, there are superb clips here that you've probably never seen. Instead of the expected highlights from their movies, the film offers many rare moments, including footage from their unsold pilot for a TV show in the late 1950s, and a scene re-staged from their first Broadway hit, I'll Say She Is, which never became a movie.

There are outtakes from You Bet Your Life that couldn't be aired on TV. "Oh, how that man could embarrass me," says George Fenneman, Groucho's announcer on that show, and it's said with touchingly sincere affection.

We see Harpo's appearance in a silent movie (in which he spoke a line!), his surreal commercials for Labatt's beer, his appearance on Milton Berle's show, and a moment from Harpo's only dramatic role (see A Silent Panic, below). 

Chico is delightful, in piano-playing and chat-show bits. Groucho's guest shot on The Jack Benny Program is so freakin' hilarious, I've re-watched it four times, and a fifth time just now (a few days after watching the movie twice) and it keeps making my eyes water from laughter.

If you like the Marx Brothers and/or like to laugh, you gotta see this film. It's narrated by Leslie Nielsen, who sounds oddly disinterested, but there's not a yawn to be had here, and a hundred smiles. 

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦   

High-Rise (2016)

Streaming at the usual sites for the usual price,
or free on DVD from the library 

High-Rise is based on a novel by J G Ballard. I haven't read the book, but I've read enough Ballard to know he was a better writer than I'll ever be. Let's hold him not guilty then, in the matter of this unpleasant and intentionally difficult movie.

An architect (Jeremy Irons) has designed a casually brutalist 40-story high-rise, and lives in the penthouse. He's the same bad guy Irons has played in every movie since Reversal of Fortune in 1990, so as soon as you see him you know everything about the architect, and nearly everything about the movie.

At the high-rise, the higher your floor, the higher your social strata. A hunky young power-doctor (Tom Hiddleston) moves in at a medium-high floor, and quickly starts boinking his upstairs neighbor (Sienna Miller) and mingling in cocktail parties on the middle floors. The parties tend to evolve into orgies with plenty of R-rated movie-style fake fucking, which grows tedious if you're a connoisseur of the finest genuine porn, as I am. 

When one-by-one the building's operational systems malfunction, the delicate balance of high-rise civilization breaks down as well. Soon, raiding parties from the lower floors are climbing upstairs to steal a loaf of bread or a scrap of meat, and residents are roasting their pets because there's nothing else to eat.

Which made me go, Hmmm. This is set in England, which is still there and seems to be doing all right. Dr Hiddleston commutes to his office daily, leaving and returning to the ruined skyscraper, so why couldn't someone make a run to Tesco and stock up on loaves and fishes?

Well, exposition isn't the movie's strength, so you'll excuse me if I lost my way. It's quite bleak and uninteresting, and the screaming and fist-fights and and shootings all happen under a soundtrack of melody-free noise.

This landed on my list because it was billed as making a political statement, and obviously it's an allegory — the people on top are crushing the people below. But things turn so savage so loudly and tediously, I was rooting for a quick ending where everyone kills everyone else.

Anyway, nobody lives in a building like this, or even knows anyone in a building like this, unless they're rich, so the only class divide would be between the millionaires and the multi-millionaires, and who the fuck cares?

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦    

A Silent Panic (1960)

Streaming free at Hagley Museum 

It's Christmas season, and a mime dressed as a wind-up mechanical man performs in a department store window, amusing a crowd gathered on the snow outside. Looking out the window, the mime notices that someone on the sidewalk has pulled a gun. No-one else sees it, so the mime tries to warn people, but he's a deaf-mute so he can't holler. He gestures, but everyone thinks it's part of his act, and then with a single gunshot, someone's dead. 

That opening is well-staged and genuinely scary. It's accompanied by frightful music, and the mime's mannerisms and makeup are unnerving, and when his makeup comes off he's revealed to be Harpo Marx, in the only dramatic role he ever played.

Harpo's deaf-mute mime is the only witness to murder, but he can't read or write, and never learned sign language, so how are the cops going to get a description of the perp from him? And also, the killers are coming to eliminate the witness, and Harpo is unable to scream.

It's a highly unlikely story and it ain't Hitchcock, but Harpo is soft enough to earn sympathy, and it works — quickly, too. It's less than half an hour, because it's from The DuPont Show, a weekly anthology series hosted by the awkwardly ever-smiling June Alyson.

This episode was directed by Arthur Hiller, who made a few pretty good movies, too: The Americanization of Emily, The In-Laws, The Man in the Glass Booth, Man of La Mancha, Outrageous Fortune, and Silver Streak.

Verdict: YES.


• Coming attractions •

American Revolution 2 (1969)

Freaked (1993)

Following (1998) 

Hit! (1973) 

The Invisible Man (1933) 

Merrily We Go to Hell (1932)

Naked (1993)

The Thing (1982) 

Turkish Star Wars (1982)

Within Our Gates (1920) 

(plus occasional schlock as needed)

    • And then •

The Cook (1918)

The Corporation (2003)

The Dark Crystal (1982)

Delicatessen (1991)

The Devil and Miss Jones (1941)

District 9 (2009)

Good Night, Nurse (1918)

Inherent Vice (2014)

Last Tango in Paris (1972)

My Life in Monsters (2015) 

Nichols (debut episode; 1971)

The Scarecrow (1920) 

They Live (1988)

Upstream Color (2013) 

We Steal Secrets (2013)

Who Killed Captain Alex (2010)   

There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twenty-plex, you're missing out.

To get beyond the ordinary, I recommend:

CultCinema Classics
Films for Action
Internet Archive
Kino Lorber
Korean Classic Film
Christopher R Mihm
National Film Board of Canada
New Yorker Screening Room
Damon Packard
Mark Pirro
Public Domain Movies
Scarecrow Video
Timeless Classic Movies
or your local library.

Some people even access films through shady methods, though of course, that would be wrong.

— — —
Illustration by Jeff Meyer. Reviews are spoiler-free, or at least spoiler-warned. Click any image to enlarge. Arguments & recommendations are welcome, but no talking once the lights dim, and only real butter on the popcorn, not that fake yellow stuff.
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  1. Just FYI : That "Unknown Mark Brothers" video is edited. I have seen it at least 5 times, and am watching it now. In the clip of Chico explaining the origin of their names, he talks about a "grouch bag." Here is the time stamp:


    After Chico says "piece of candy," he says, in the original, on VHS, that I saw multiple times, "A little marijuana."

    This is excised from this version.

    I am not insane, I remember it, because it shocked me for something from 1959. I watched that VHS very often when I worked at Video Wave.

    This irks me.

    1. Cap, thanks for the info. I've been a Marxist since my single digit years, and I'd heard the grouch bag story but never with marijuana. I would just point out, from the perspective of Aristotelian logic that the fact that you're frequently right doesn't eliminate the possibility that you're crazy.


    2. I mean... I am crazy. But I am also CORRECT. Chico says "piece of candy, little marijuana," and the audience erupts.

    3. Sadly, the video does not seem to exist in any other form than Doug's link. I don't know why this little tidbit pisses me off, but it does. Literally two words. "Little marijuana..." And a huge laugh.

    4. Well, I guess it's off to the Library of Congress. Also, there must also be a university that has a Marx collection. It's part of the American character.


    5. Well, this is annoying me too. Movies should be edited, and then released, and after they're released, no more editing.

      The film I watched is 1:25:07. I've spent twenty mins searching around, and found Walmart selling a DVD that's listed as 1:26, a few seconds longer (or a typo on the listing).

      (Ten minutes later) Here's what's probably the answer. You said you watched it on VHS; there are listings at Amazon for VHS copies with a run time of two hours, and this is the cover. At the top it says, "Over 2 hours playing time."

      VHS didn't have 'extras' so I'm guessing they created a longer, less edited version for VHS, and a shorter, "fit-the-time-slot and lose the marijuana reference" version for PBS.

      Which sucks, and now I desperately want to see the VHS version, but I don't even have a VHS player.

      But apparently, you are not crazy. At least, not about this.

    6. That's not the VHS I watched, but your answer makes sense. I didn't finish the movie yesterday, I got distracted by yelling about it. The VHS we had at Video Wave was a white box, and we got it, IIRC, upon release. We did a lot of documentaries.

      If I have the wherewithal, I'll watch the rest of your linked movie, and see if I catch anything else missing.

    7. Freakin' outrageous that they sold the short version of the film at all. If I'd paid I'd be pissed.

      Please let me know what else is missing, and if you ever find the full version...

    8. I can't say what else was missing, but it wasn't quite the same movie I remember. I mean, it was basically the same, but it's been damn near 20 years since I saw it. I only remember the "marijuana" thing because it surprised me, and got a huge laugh. FWIW, IMDB has it at 2 hours runtime.

    9. Half an hour more clips, jeez. I'd love to see the original 2-hour movie, but not quite enough to buy a VCR.

    10. I bet you could get one for 20 bucks, but would it play on a modern TV? Do you even have access to a TV? Or would you need an old CRT? I have an old video game cartridge worth (I'm not shitting you) like 400 bucks, but no TV to test it on to see if it works.

    11. Google says most modern TVs come with a VCR plug and will play, but no, no TV for me, and there's no TV in the public living room, and I'm not going into Dean's room to watch anything with him.

      It seriously pisses me off that the DVD they're ☆selling☆ has less on it than the VHS they used to sell.


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