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THE BIG STORE, 1941
Directed by Charles Reisner
Starring: The Marx Brothers
Review by Steve Painter
A detective is hired to protect the life of a singer, who has recently inherited a department store, from the store’s crooked manager.
By 1941 the Marx Brothers had run their course. Their best work was behind them. Chico, the oldest, was 54 years old by that time. Groucho, the youngest of the brothers who were still performing, was 51 years old. After The Big Store (1941) was completed, the Marx Brothers decided it was time to retire. Their MGM contract was up and their many years of performing on the stage and screen had left them tired. Luckily this was not their last movie, because they deserved to go out better than what The Big Store turned out to be.
If a name is any judge of a movie then The Big Store certainly does not seem too original. It is not. There is only one good scene in the whole movie, and it is mostly funny today because of a similar line that Groucho would utter on his TV show.
Anyways, the story is about an heir who wants to sell his share in a department store so he can donate the money to a music conservatory. You see this man, Tommy Rogers, prefers to be a singer than the owner of his father’s store. The store’s manager, the evil Mr. Grover, has been stealing from Tommy’s father for a long time and does not want to see someone else take over the store. Tommy has a deal in place to sell the store, but something happens to him.
Grover hires a man to beat Tommy over the head when he enters an elevator. This makes Tommy’s aunt, Martha, who owns the other half of the store, a little afraid. Margaret Dumont makes her final appearance in a Marx Brothers movie here as Martha. Martha is engaged to Grover, so he has no worries about where her loyalties will lie if the police get involved once the store is sold and people find out he has been stealing.
Things change though when Martha hires a private detective, played by Groucho. Groucho, as he always does, tries to marry Margaret Dumont’s character. So now Grover has two people he has to try and get rid of. Chico is a friend of Tommy’s, which is how he fits into this. Ironically Chico’s character happens to be the brother of Harpo’s character, Wacky. Wacky is Groucho’s assistant.
We are introduced to Groucho and Harpo at the same time in this movie. It is rare that those two ever got a scene together. Unfortunately, this is not quite what it should have been. It is widely thought that Groucho and Harpo were the two funniest of the brothers. If the two funniest Marx Brothers are alone in a scene together then it should be dynamite, right? Not here. Instead, Harpo struggles to make coffee as Groucho talks on the phone about accepting the job to be Tommy’s bodyguard.
From here the story doesn’t really matter. It is a Marx Brothers movie so we know that in the end everything will turn out as they should. Grover is going to jail and Tommy will be able to sell his store and donate the money to all the needy kids at the conservatory.
The writers do deserve some credit with the setting. Letting the Marx Brothers loose in a big department store certainly has the potential for great comedy. It just is not present enough however. The best scene occurs when Groucho and his brothers try to catch some sleep on beds that are for sell.
A woman comes in and asks Groucho, who is lying on the bed, how much the bed costs. Groucho replies, “$8,000.” The woman says this can’t be, she can go and buy the same bed at another store for $25. Groucho says, “Yes, but not one with me in it.” And with that, we have the beginning of another classic Marx scene.
A man and wife with 12 children walk into the room. Groucho asks the man if he has any other hobbies. This line is great, but it has taken on even more meaning since Groucho’s TV show You Bet Your Life was on. Television lore says that during one episode a woman said she had 11 children. This amazed Groucho. The woman said, “I love my husband.” Groucho supposedly replied, “I love a good cigar too, but I take it out every once in a while.”
Getting back to the movie, after the scene with the beds that is compounded by customers, lost children and Chico, Harpo and Groucho causing chaos, there is s lull until the credits come up and the movie is over. The grand finale is a lengthy chase through the store that was supposed to recreate the finale in Go West, the previous Marx Brothers offering. Instead, it looks like cheap routines the Marx Brothers borrowed from Charlie Chaplin and the Keystone Cops. Or just Mack Sennett-like jokes to be more accurate.
What makes the Marx Brothers so great is their uniqueness. There never was a comedy team like them and there probably never will be. They have their own brand of comedy and when writers and studios force them into something that does not match their comedic skills the result is a disappointment. That happened in Room Service and in At the Circus and again here in The Big Store.
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