The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection marks the first reappearance on DVD of the comedy quartet's original five movies for Paramount, released between 1929 and 1933, since the old Image Entertainment discs were discontinued in 2000. This is a handsome volume, not only in its packaging but its mastering and the overall treatment of the movies themselves. The original Image DVDs were straight conversions of the laserdisc versions of the five films, which varied greatly in quality. Of the five, The Cocoanuts, made in 1929, was the most improved on laserdisc, while Animal Crackers, made in 1930, which had been suppressed by legal complications for decades, was the poorest of the lot in condition -- none of those discs ever really challenged the limits of DVD resolution. That's all changed on this set.
The Cocoanuts has been improved in this edition, so that it looks rather newer than it did on television in the1960s and early '70s, but there is one sequence -- starting at approximately 49 minutes in -- that looks scratched and grainy, like a badly preserved 1929 movie; luckily, the audio is consistent throughout, including the performance of "The Monkey Doodle-Do." The image improves dramatically at 61 minutes in and pretty much stays that way, with some beautiful clarity (within the context of this film) achieved in Basil Ruysdael's "Shirt Song" sequence at 80 minutes in, and Chico Marx's spot at the piano at just under 90 minutes in. The movie gets 18 chapters, which is reasonably generous, and is presented in full-screen apart from the window-boxed opening credits. Animal Crackers (1930) comes complete with an original trailer that runs about two and a half minutes and looks as dark and grainy as the movie used to. And then there's the actual movie, which now looks and sounds amazing -- purely, simply amazing. The opening credits are still letterboxed, but damn if you can't hear every instrument in the main title sequence's big band music and in the whole rest of the score as well, like it's coming off of an audiophile CD. As for the image, the art deco set design for Mrs. Rittenhouse's estate now glows, and George Folsey's photography has a luster that hasn't been seen in connection with this movie in at least 50 years. Most of the blemishes and flaws in the film elements that marred the laserdisc have been fixed, and as a result, this could easily be the first real chance that any of us have had to see Animal Crackers properly since the 1930s. The presentation isn't flawless -- there are some shifts in density and other minor defects, and some scratches in Chico Marx's piano segment, but this is still worlds beyond what MCA-Universal was able to offer us on this movie even as late as 1992. This title, like the others in the package, comes with English and Spanish audio tracks and English, Spanish, and French subtitles.
Monkey Business (1931) always looked pretty good, and here it looks very good all the way through, and it sounds even better. There are no bonus materials -- evidently, the trailer hasn't survived -- and the movie gets the same 18-chapter breakdown as the earlier titles in the package. There is an optional Spanish-language track and optional selection of English, French, and Spanish subtitles. Horse Feathers (1932) actually doesn't look quite as good, with a certain amount of graininess in some of the shots. Tthe picture is extremely consistent throughout, however, and there is a decent-looking (if slightly strangely encoded) trailer. Finally, there is Duck Soup (1933), the crown jewel of the comedy team's Paramount library. It actually looks grainy in spots, especially early in the movie, and has moments with very slight framing problems, especially in the opening half-hour of the movie; the second half looks distinctly better, and the sound is consistently loud and sharp throughout. There is also a trailer that has been preserved off of an old VHS video master, to judge from the logo that pops up, that is dark and grainy enough to remind us of what the movie used to look and sound like on television.
The sixth disc illustrates the distinctly different approach that Universal has taken to the Marx Brothers movies that it owns, as from Warner Bros.' approach to the Marx Brothers titles that it controls. Warner included bonus audio commentary tracks and documentary features, whereas Universal has piled its special features onto the last disc, in the form of three clips from The Today Show: Harpo Marx's very funny mimed appearance in 1961, Groucho Marx's appearance from 1963 (on which both of them just keep breaking up the coterie of hosts), and Harpo's son William Marx from 1985, discussing the family and showing their home movies, on the occasion of the reprint of the autobiography Harpo Speaks. The Duck Soup clip illustrates what passed for an adequate print in 1985, faded and grainy, and William Marx gives a delightful account of his father's private life (he was a huge fan of Time for Beany); his talk is worth the price of the extra disc, while Groucho, in the earlier clip, shows what a wonderfully spontaneous comedic personality he still was in 1963. ~ Bruce Eder, All Movie Guide