WHERE'S ZEPPO? Your first reaction to the best title on this five-disc set (out May 4) is one of absence. The Marx brothers had finished a five-picture run at Paramount, where they enjoyed their early success with talkies based on their proven vaudeville shows. Incredibly, their 1933 Duck Soup, today considered their purest masterpiece (not included on this set), was a popular and critical flop. After two years of their idling in Hollywood without a studio, Zeppo retired. Enter MGM's Irving Thalberg, a bridge crony of Chico's, who signed the boys on the condition they add structure and story to their antics.
The result, 1935's A Night at the Opera, is a classic, yet also a collision between anarchy and propriety—which neatly encapsulates the dynamic of most Marx brothers movies. So here we have the slick MGM studio style and array of supporting players as a backdrop to Marxian zaniness. The opera sets are lavish and authentic; while on the ocean-liner crossing to New York, the steerage section breaks out in a song-and-dance frenzy that puts Titanic's Irish reels to shame. The juvenile-lead love story, usually Zeppo's province, is actually pretty credible—and cast with two young performers who can actually sing (Kitty Carlisle Hart and Allan Jones).
One of Thalberg's great ideas, we learn on the commentary by Leonard Maltin, was to road test the script with an abbreviated vaudeville show—which made a stop here in Seattle in 1934! Some may complain that Opera is, well, too heavy on the opera and music, but one should recall that the brothers started out as musicians and only became comedians later.
The brothers' next MGM title, A Day at the Races, isn't quite so good. Minimal extras on the set (which also includes Go West, The Big Store, Room Service, and A Night in Casablanca) will teach you a little something about each. Opera's 1948 rerelease had most of its references to Italy cut out—inexcusably not restored here.
OUT APRIL 27, the wrenchingly grim Afghan drama Osama still feels ripped from the headlines. The poignantly affecting 1979 Oscar-winning doc Best Boy revisits its mentally retarded subject today. The Warner Bros. and Hammer studios are both repackaging lots of great old horror movies. William H. Macy and Alec Baldwin are good in The Cooler. Less good are the Farrelly brothers' Stuck on You, Tim Burton's Big Fish, The Statement, and Love Actually.