Marx Madness Part 2: The Documentaries!

I bet you didn't see this coming as the second part of my Marx Brothers post!  I actually had the idea to do a post on Marx Bros. documentaries on DVD before Universal announced their new blu-ray set, so when I saw that included a new doc, too; I decided to sit on it and wait.  So now we've got one more for the pile, and in HD even.  Yes, today's post is for the serious fan.
Up first is The Unknown Marx Brothers, released on DVD in 2000 by Winstar Home Entertainment.  This is one of a series of Unknown documentaries, including The Unknown Jimmy Durante: The Great Schnozzola, The Unknown Peter Sellers and The Unknown Jonathan Winters: On the Loose, all of which you could buy separately or together in a box set.  The Marx Brothers one was made long before the other three, however, in 1993, and it's a pretty solid, well-put together documentary on the Brothers.  It gives us all the essential biographical details with lots of pictures, rare clips, and interviews with many of their family and peers.  One drawback is that it relies a little too heavily on the narrator to just tell us everything that happened, like a lecture, with the interviewees just popping in like soundbite interjections to confirm what the narrator told us.  It helps, though, that the narrator is Leslie Nielsen.  The other drawback is that the score seems to have been made with an old Casio keyboard in "trumpet" mode; it's really chintzy.
But The Unknown Marx Brothers definitely fills all your basic Marx Brothers documentary needs, telling us all the standard stuff, like where their names come from, their jump from Paramount to MGM, etc etc.  Considering we didn't have any available up 'till this, it was very welcome at the time, but still holds up well today.  And what sets this one apart is that it spends more time on their television work than their films.  Really long stretches are dedicated to You Bet Your Life, and we almost spend more time on Harpo's beer commercials and Chico's failed television pilots than their famous films.  I guess that's the "Unknown" angle of the film.

Not that the DVD is anything amazing in terms of quality.  It's fullscreen and interlaced, and has some weird stuff going on in the overscan area of the right-hand side.  But otherwise, for an old DVD, it's fine.  Picture quality dips and varies as they include clips from a variety of old sources, but their original footage looks fairly decent apart from the interlacing.
One thing you may've heard, if you're familiar with this film at all, is that the VHS is considerably longer than this DVD version.  Well, I've never owned the VHS to do a proper side-by-side comparison, but I'm pretty sure the difference is in this DVD's rather unique "Zoomlinks" gimmick.  Throughout the film, when they show clips from the brothers' films and shows, a Zoomlink graphic is appears on the bottom corner of the screen.  If you press enter on the remote, you're taken to a much longer clip of that scene than is seen in the documentary proper.  If you prefer, you can also watch the documentary straight through and then watch all the scenes separately under "Outtakes" in the DVD menu.  I would assume the VHS just leaves all the longer takes in the film since you can't do that sort of Zoomlink thing with VHS technology; and so I don't think you're actually missing out on anything with the DVD version.
The next documentary to hit DVD was Inside the Marx Brothers, which you could buy by itself or as part of a 5-disc(!) DVD set called The Marx Brothers Collection.  Not to be confused with The Marx Brothers Collection Warner Bros later put out (and which we'll come to), this set doesn't include any of their films; it's all just "extras."  The main feature is this documentary, which is disc 1, and which is also really for completists only.  It came out on Passport Video and I believe was made just for the label; it's pretty cheap. Basically, an uncredited narrator tells us all the biographical basics in between long stretches of clips from the footage and public domain television material.  The only real interview in this is Steve Stoliar, Groucho's secretary and archivist, who tells a lot of the famous stories.  There are also clips from Ann Miller (she was in Room Service and is this documentary's highlight) and Groucho's grandson; but I can't tell if they were shot for this documentary or were just pre-existing footage.  It isn't terrible, because the clips are still funny and the information's thorough enough for a passable film.  But if you own many of the other releases, Miss Miller may be the only part worth skipping to, and she only talks for a minute or two.
Another full-screen disc, another interlaced transfer.  A lot of the clips are from low quality sources, and it's all about what you'd expect from a low-quality cash grab.  But we've got to talk about the other four discs!  What the heck is on them?  Well, for one thing, about enough stuff to fill two DVDs.  I've never seen a DVD set spread so thin, with most discs running under an hour.  One has the pilot for You Bet Your Life, another has two failed pilots for Chico and Groucho shows, and one has a collection of trailers and odds and ends.  Disc 4 is just some of their radio shows.  It's under an hour of audio only!  There's no way this set needed to be five discs, but they were clearly trying to make an impressive looking box.  Worse still, all the discs (except, at least, the documentary itself) have an ugly watermark over all the footage!  The content itself isn't bad... I mean, it's only thanks to this box that I still have the trailers for the Paramount films since the new blu-ray set inexplicably decided to drop them, and the TV stuff is still cool to own if you're a superfan.  Just go in with tempered expectations, because we're definitely in the public domain budget zone here.
That's an actual, live parrot in his hands there
In 2004, Warner Bros put out a terrific box set, the other Marx Brothers Collection, which included all of their post Paramount films (except Love Happy, I guess, if you want to count that).  The first couple especially had a lot of great special features, like commentaries and vintage cartoons that would've played in theaters before these movies back in their day.  And the set includes two half-hour docs, which are practically one documentary split into two: Remarks On Marx and On Your Marx, Get Set, Go!  All the same people are interviewed on both, including Dom DeLuise, Carl Reiner, and some people who worked with the brothers in their day.  These are quite good, and the first one covers a lot of the Marx Brothers' basics, like their names and origins.  They also, however, focus a lot on the films they're packaged with: A Night At the Opera and A Day At the Races, respectively.  But they're quite good, and combined with the the new Paramount one, almost make a full, career-comprehensive doc.
I'm a little disappointed to note that these are interlaced, too.  2004, newly created and released by a major studio?  This should not be.  But I guess they're just extras, so less care was taken.  Again these are fullscreen apart from the interlacing, look fine for standard def.  If Warner Bros ever gets around to releasing the later Marx films in HD, I hope they fix these docs up, though, because they're pretty good and unique in the depth they go into on Night and Day.
Next we come to the rarest and best of the Marx Brothers documentaries, The Marx Brothers In a Nutshell.  This came out in 2004 courtesy of a label called Direct Cinema, and unfortunately they must've only printed a short run of these, because they almost immediately went out of print and started selling for triple digits used on Amazon and EBay.  It's a 1982 PBS television doc that I used to own on laserdisc, from Image.  The DVD runs about three minutes longer with a little cutting room floor bits re-instated.  Unlike Unknown and Inside, this doesn't put all its weight on the narrator, because it's chock full of great interviews with family members, friends and collaborators, plus celebrity fans like Woody Allen, Robert Klein and Dick Cavett.  It is a little overly clip heavy, which was more valuable when it was originally created, because fans weren't as likely to own or be able to directly stream all the films at will, like today.  Now, you kinda wish they'd spent more time with the interviews and rare footage than the long segments you've seen dozens of times before.  So it's the best made film, and has the most quality interviews, but it's not leaps and bounds better than Unknown.  We are still basically telling the same anecdotes and playing clips of the same famous lines over and over again across all these documentaries, after all.
This film's presented in a rather unusual ratio of 1.47:1, making it slightly letterboxed and no, it's not anamorphic.  I think it's actually horizontally stretched from regular full-screen.  The blacks are rather crushed and milky.  And yes, it is interlaced.  This is not a high quality release, especially when you think of the prices it commands.  It looks like somebody put in some effort to make this transfer look good, but that somebody didn't really know what they were doing.  It would be great to see this film restored properly for HD, possibly as an extra in a new boxed set of the MGM movies - hint, hint, Warner Archives.
And finally, of course, we have Hollywood's Kings of Chaos, the new documentary found in Universal's new blu-ray set of the brothers' five Paramount films.  It mostly interviews the critics who did the audio commentaries in that set, but also includes Harpo's son (who's in a lot of these) and Dick Cavett again.  It does a good if standard job covering their biography, and goes over their Paramount years, but then conspicuously jumps over their later films, coming back around to the end of their lives.  Like I started to say earlier, if you pair this with the two mini-Warner Bros docs, it adds up to a pretty thorough and rather full documentary, and you'll get all those when you buy the movies, as opposed to having to seek one of the other docs on their own.  You won't have the best, but it's probably enough for most viewers.
This one's in wide 1.78:1 (except for the film clips, for which it shifts to 1.35 fullscreen) and in HD on blu-ray.  So it has the distinct advantage of being the only really high quality presentation of a Marx Brothers doc, and the only one that'll look nice in your big, widescreen home theaters.  Heck, it's the only one without an interlacing problem.  Hopefully, however, it won't be the last.  But until them, this may be the only one AV enthusiasts are willing to even look at.
Honorable mentions also go to:

Time Marx Is On, a 2006 UK DVD of a 1997 television program about the Marx Brothers from Delta Home Entertainment.  It's not really a documentary; it's a single interview with Groucho talking about his life, taken from an older television appearance on The Dick Cavett Show, with clips of his work edited in.  Running under an hour, it's basically just a slight re-edit of that one Cavett episode made to look like a documentary.

An Affectionate Look At The Marx Brothers, a 2008 UK DVD from the grey-market label AG Plate of a 1960s Canadian television special where two comedians host clips from the brothers' films.  It also runs under an hour.

The Marx Brothers TV Collection, a 2014 3-DVD set from Shout Factory.  Unlike the other two this is actually a high quality release, and collects a massive ton of their rare television appearances.  It's like that 2003 Marx Brothers Collection, only a million times better.  The only reason I relegate it to an "Honorable Mention" is because it isn't a documentary at all, just a terrific collection of rare Marx Brothers stuff.  And for a limited time, if you bought it directly from Shout, it included a bonus fourth disc with even more.
If you're a real Marx lover, Nutshell is the one to track down.  More casual fans can content themselves with just the Warner Bros and Universal docs that come with the movies themselves, which again, when combined, tell their life stories pretty thoroughly, too.  You can get Unknown pretty cheap, though, and that's a good watch, with the supplemental bonus of including a lot of their off-beat TV stuff, too.  I wouldn't even bother with Inside the Marx Brothers, unless you're of a completist and going for the whole box set, where those old pilots and scraps are more compelling than the documentary itself.  But then definitely get Shout's TV Collection first.


  1. You'll be happy to know that "The Marx Brothers In a Nutshell" is finally back in print and readily available direct from my website for Whyaduck Productions: These DVDs come straight from the manufacturers, still in the shrink wrap. Hail Freedonia!

  2. The Unknown Marx Brothers is missing a half hour of the actual doc, not just Zoomlinks stuff. I've seen the original TV version and the DVD version omits chunks of important stuff. It's infuriating that not only did the DVD manufacturer delete 1/4 of the documentary but lied on the packaging about its running time.