Marx Madness Part 1: The Five Four Marx Brothers (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Universal just released the blu-ray debut of Paramount's five Marx Bros. movies - the only five to star the Four Marx Bros, as opposed to the Three - and it's a pretty exciting set.  Besides this being their first time in HD, we've got brand new transfers and all new extras.  And most impressively of all, their second film, Animal Crackers, has been restored to include censored footage not seen since 1936!  This is the new Silver Screen Collection!  ...Not to be confused with Paramount's old Silver Screen Collection of the same five films, which I've also got.  Odd choice to give both sets the same name, but there you go.  Let's see how these released have improved.
In fact, before we start going movie by movie, let me just break down the the multiple Paramount releases. To be clear, these aren't all the Marx Bros movies, but they're always packaged together because these are the five films the Brothers did with Paramount.  After that, they switched movie studios, Zeppo left, and the rest of the Marx Brothers films just feature Groucho, Harpo and Chico.  Those are with a different studio.  These first five films were originally released separately and in a 1999 boxed set by Paramount and Image, which quickly went out of print and used copies tended to sell for crazy amounts of money.  So in 2004, Paramount reissued these in a fancy, shiny silver media book - the first Silver Screen Collection - with slightly remastered transfers and a bonus disc of a few extras.  In 2011, they all each got solo releases, basically just the 2004 discs in single cases.  Then, in 2013, the 2004 Silver Screen Collection was reissued in less fancy packaging.  And now, in 2016, we have the new blu-ray release, the updated Silver Screen Collection, which has the same artwork as the 2013 set.  It's like they're deliberately trying to be confusing, though at least the 2106 set says "Restored Edition" across the top.
2004 Silver Screen DVD on top; 2016 Silver Screen blu-ray bottom.
We begin with 1929's The Cocoanuts.  Technically their second film as their first, a silent entry named Humor Risk, is lost to the world, The Cocoanuts is also the first of two Marx Brothers films directly adapting one of their Broadway hits, scripted by George S. Kaufman and with music by Irving Berlin.  In it, Groucho owns a bankrupt hotel, managed by Zeppo, and they're desperate to sell off some land.  Meanwhile, there's a love triangle going on between Mary Eaton, her good boyfriend, an architect with plans for some of the land, and her bad boyfriend, a high class jewel thief.  And of course we've also got a pair of not-so-high class thieves, Harpo and Chico.  Margaret Dumont's jewels get burgled, Groucho rigs an auction, and Mary teaches us all how to do "The Monkey Doodle Doo." The first two films do feel more stagey than the later films, but unless you're consciously looking for movement and more camera set-ups, it's not a problem.  It doesn't hurt the brothers' comedy, and it doesn't hurt the charming musical numbers.
We start out with a modest but still quite noticeable improvement.  The image is sharper and clearer, which you'll notice more clearly if you click and view the screenshots in full size; and the contrast is a little stronger on the new blu.  A bit of the damage and mess has been cleaned up, too.  A few moments (see the set of shots directly above) have been restored - not for this 2016 edition, but long ago - from a lower quality source and looks it.  Even there, the blu is a little better.  You'll notice the framing is slightly shifted, too; for example, in the second set of shots we see a little more on the left-hand side.  Nothing terribly significant, though.
Next we come to Animal Crackers, the second Broadway adaptation. It's slightly less stagey, but just barely.  You definitely get the feeling like you're seeing a lot of this material just as it was performed on stage, which isn't a criticism at all.  This time Groucho and Zeppo are a famous African explorer and his assistant.  A famous painting is being revealed at his gala return party, thrown by Margaret Dumont, but many complications arise.  Two of Dumont's jealous neighbors decide to replace the painting with a shoddy imitation as a prank.  And Dumont's daughter, played by Lillian Roth, also wants to replace the painting, so that her painter boyfriend can have the limelight.  And of course, two small-time crooks show up to get in the middle of everything.  It falls to Captain Spaulding to solve the case, Harpo goes on a shooting spree(!), and Groucho sings the most famous song of his career.  Things really start to get downright surreal here, and that's another reason why I love the Marx Bros.
A scene on the 2016 blu not shown on any previous home video version.
Now Animal Crackers is the truly restored film in this lot, with the lost footage restored.  I've searched and searched online and couldn't find exactly what was restored, with most reviews cited the same "I think I'll try and make her" example.  So I've broken down all of the differences in this fresh restoration.  There are a few examples (for instance, at 6:50 when Capt. Spaulding is first carried into the house), where only a frame or two has been restored to the ends of a scene.  Everything else, I'm listing below:

9:20 "I think I'll try and make her" line restore to the "Hurray for Captain Spalding" song.

36:20 Harpo biting the woman's top off has been restored[pictured above].

47:59 Restored dialogue between Dumont and Groucho, "oh, Captain, how thrilling!  And then what happened?"  "Oh, it was nothing at all.  I'd rather not discuss it." "Oh, but I can't wait to hear the finish; I must hear it!"  "Well, there I was.  There I was in the top of the tree with this rhinoceros pointing his gun straight at me." "A rhinoceros?"  "Yes."  "Oh Captain, what did you do?" "What could I do?  I had to marry his daughter." "What kind of story do you call that?"  "All right, you tell one."

1:09:10 The missing frames that make Chico's talk with the girl jump are fixed.

1:12:17 Restored lines to Groucho's letter for Zeppo: "Dear Elsie.  No, never mind Elsie." "Do you want me to scratch Elsie?" "Well, if you enjoy that sort of thing, it's quite all right with me. However, I'm not interested in your private affairs, Jamison. Begin this way. Let's start all over again."

1:14:17 More restored lines to the letter: "'Dear Elsie, scratch'." "That won't do, Jamison. That won't go through the mail, the way you got it. The way you've got the letter, you've got McCormick scratching Elsie. Now, you better turn that around and have Elsie scratch McCormick. And you better turn McCormick around, too, Jamison. And see what you can do for me."

1:18:48 Restored footage in the scene of Harpo being interrogated by the girl: "that still isn't what I want!" Harpo hits her with his papers and she points her finger, "you know what I want." Harpo looks bashful, and when she turns around, he smacks her behind with his paper.
Besides having all that lost footage restored, which is terrific, Animal Crackers is also by far the best restoration in terms of picture quality.  The framing is improved to give us additional picture on both sides, and more on the bottom as opposed to the top, which looks considerably better, as there's a lot of floating head space and things are tightly cropped along the bottom of the old DVD (for example, see Harpo's feet in the first set of shots).  Animal Crackers has always been the one interlaced transfer in all the previous Silver Screen Corrections.  The other four films didn't have this problem, but for whatever reason, it hadn't been fixed for this film until now.  Plus it's sharper and so much clearer, and has the stronger contrast that all the blus here have, making this a truly different viewing experience.

I'll also point out here that the subtitles have been considerably improved, too.  Where the DVD subs always short-handed some moments, dropping words and phrases (as in the "highly" and "magnificent" in the second set of shots), the blu is more complete.  The timing is also better, matching the delivery on-screen much more closely.  Somebody really cared in making these improvements.
Next we come to Monkey Trouble, the first film not taken from a Broadway show (though much of their bits through all the rest of these films borrow from their old stage acts).  The result is a faster pace, even wilder, less predictable story.  This time the four brothers are all stowaways on an ocean liner.  Zeppo meets the girl, who happens to be the daughter of a billionaire, who hires Chico and Harpo as bodyguards to protect him from some gangsters.  Meanwhile, the gangster hires Groucho and Zeppo to take out the billionaire.  But surprisingly little time is devoted to this fun story of cross purposes, which devotes more timer to Groucho romancing Thelma Todd, the gangster's moll, Harpo getting caught up in a children's puppet show, Chico paying one of his most memorable piano solos and everyone trying to pass themselves off as Maurice Chevalier.
Again, a stronger, cleaner image, you really notice it in motion.  This time we actually lose a smidgen on the sides, and trade some bottom for some top.  Animal Crackers is the only one where it matters much, though.  On all these others, it's a matter of slivers, and the blu-rays are basically just your standard jump of roughly the same transfer (though the framing tells us it's not exactly the same one) from SD to HD.
Film four is Horse Feathers, where Groucho is appointed head of his son's college.  Oh yeah, his son is Zeppo.  They get into a love triangle with the college widow, Thelma Todd again, and hire Harpo and Chico to help them rig the big game against the rival college.  Moving away from the Broadway musicals, the films get a little shorter and tighter.  The focus is more on the Marx Brothers than some arbitrary pair of ingénues, though Zeppo sometimes fills that role for a bit now, too.  The songs are almost all by the brothers and Horse Feathers features their greatest song of their career, "Everyone Says I Love You."  Woody Allen even named one of his films after it.
Look how muddy and bland the DVD looks compared to the blu-ray.  In the best shots, these new transfers really do make you feel closer to the cast in the 1930s than ever before.  Again, the framing's shifted a bit, but not so we get any additional picture, just so much as slivers on alternate sides.  There are some dropped frames, including little chunks worth that really make the scene jump and drop bits of dialogue.  It's all in the one scene with all the brothers running through Thelma's apartment, and they've always been missing on all the previous releases and... they unfortunately still are.  After Animal Crackers, I had my hopes up.  But what can you do if better elements don't exist?  Oh well, this is still the best the film has ever looked.
The last film is my favorite, not just of these five but all the Marx Brothers' films, Duck Soup.  It's the shortest and most insane.  Aside from a few running gags, it's impossible to guess what's going to happen from one scene to the next.  The country of Freedonia is bankrupt, again, and Marget Dumont refuses to lend them anymore of her fortune unless they make Groucho their new leader.  He of course appoints his brothers to key cabinet positions, and winds up causing and fighting a war.  Chico becomes a spy, Harpo terrorizes a lemonade stand, and Zeppo is almost cut entirely out of the picture.  The film is short, to the point where it doesn't even have time for Chico and Harpo's regular musical solos.  Tons of extras, big sets, bursting bombs and non-stop gags.  At one point Groucho even shoots his own men - why not? - and Chico and Harpo take on his trademark persona in a scene they'd later recreate on I Love Lucy.
2004 Silver Screen DVD on top; 2016 Silver Screen blu-ray bottom.
This might be the mildest improvement of the five.  Besides Animal Crackers, it's all sort of splitting hairs, but there's still a clear benefit in the jump from SD to HD on, say, Monkey Business.  Here, these shots are virtually indistinguishable.  If I mislabeled the screenshots, I'd have a hard time telling the DVD and blu-ray's apart.  The DVD's a bit paler, and I'm not saying there's no difference; but if this was all the set had to offer, I wouldn't have upgraded.

Audio-wise, all the DVDs had Dolby 2.0 mono tracks, and the blus naturally bump them up to DTS-HD 2.0 mono.  All the sound has imperfections baked right into how they were originally record, so it's never amazing; but it's as good as you'd expect.  The blu-rays drop the Spanish dub, which was always amusing to check in on for a quick second but hardly an important loss. The DVDs also had the English HOH, plus French and Spanish subtitles, while the blu-rays have just the English and Spanish.
The bonus disc in the old Silver Screens DVD set was fairly paltry.  It had three Today Show interviews: one with Groucho, one with Harpo and one with Harpo's son, Bill Marx.  They're amusing and certainly worth watching for any fan.  But they total about five minutes each, for a grand total of just over fifteen; and there's no reason they needed a sixth disc for them, rather then just sticking them on with the movies, except to be able to say that their set now includes a "Bonus Disc."  The DVDs also included trailers for four of the movies (excluding The Cocoanuts), and a 38 page booklet with pictures and biographical details about the brothers.
The blu-ray set really steps the game up.  This time, each film has an audio commentary by a different film historian.  Duck Soup has two, including Leonard Maltin, and the critic on Monkey Business is joined by Harpo's son. They're all quite good, though the problem with having multiple people is they don't know what was already said on the other tracks and tend to each repeat many of the same anecdotes as if they were the first time we'd heard it.  After that, we get the same Today Show interviews, and an all new documentary called Hollywood's Kings of Chaos (in 1.78:1, HD), which is pretty good, but it does get quite redundant with the commentaries, featuring many of the same critics and Bill Marx, although they also add Dick Cavett, Groucho's grandson, and a couple TV writers.  They're also not too subtle about covering the first five films in depth and then jumping right to their post Hollywood careers.  Strangely, and disappointingly, they got rid of the trailers.  Minor, but a bit of a bummer all the same.  Oh, but they do include a nice booklet with excerpts from one of the critic's book on the brothers, which is an improvement on the old booklet.
So any blu-ray lover into the Marx Brothers will have to get this set; and they'll be pleased when they do.  But even more casual viewers who might ordinarily say, "eh, I'm happy with the DVDs" should consider replacing them for the restored Animal Crackers, plus the new special features.  Despite the repetition at times, the commentaries are great.  And really, getting Animal Crackers uncut for the first time ever is just one of those moments we still buy movies for in the first place.

6 comments:

  1. Thanks for the detailed look at this set.
    Answered any questions I had and sealed that I must purchase!

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  2. You remember Groucho toward the end when he used to work with Dick Cavett?

    "I remember working with Natalie Johnson, who was one of the great humorists of the day. Robert Bensley used to like to smoke cigars... and I also was a cigar smoker."

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  3. Any news if these'll be released as regular dvds?
    I'm not up to springing for a blu-ray player, but I'd sure like to hear those commentaries if at all possible.

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    1. I'm just guessing, but my thought is that since they're using the same cover as the 2013 DVD set, and they didn't release new DVDs at the same time, Universal is content to just let the 2013 be their DVD version of this. But maybe we'll see the 2016 versions hit DVD overseas? Again, just a guess, but I think that might be your best chance.

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    2. Okie doke! Thanks for your response!

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  4. I'm also looking for dvd's of the restored versions. Any update?

    ReplyDelete