The Producers (1967) Review

Director: Mel Brooks

Genre(s): Comedy, Musical

Runtime: 88 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

The 1967 version of The Producers was the directorial debut of popular comedy director Mel Brooks. It’s received a ton of praise over the years, which isn’t bad for his first film, but I’m less ecstatic about it. The plot is about Broadway musical producer Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) and his accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) attempting to put on the world’s worst, most offensive play as part of a money-making scam.

The ideas in this movie are hilarious on paper. The script that the main characters settle on for their intentionally horrible production is insane, and should’ve resulted in more laughs. Instead of laser-focused satire, the flick resorts to ultra-broad humor, typically oriented around people falling down, making silly faces at the camera, or screaming their dialogue. I adore senseless comedies like Airplane! (1980) and the The Naked Gun trilogy, but the high-jinks found in The Producers were frequently too easy and obvious, even for my preferences.

There are some decent jabs at the dark side of the American Dream here, but it’s not enough. The subject matter of the picture was once considered audacious, but, after decades of increasingly edgy and groundbreaking satire, it doesn’t quite have the same power that it did back in 1967. Some of the aghast faces of the audience members during the play’s first performance are still pretty funny, though.

This work only runs eighty-eight minutes, and it still feels too long. If you and I sat down and you explained this film’s premise to me, I’d probably think that it would be an out-of-the-parker for me. However, the execution just isn’t there. I’ll give The Producers some figurative points for its bizarre ideas, but it just can’t overcome the fact that too many of its sequences are about as funny as a funeral.

My rating is 5 outta 10.

Duck Soup (1933) Review

Director: Leo McCarey

Genre(s): Comedy, Musical, War

Runtime: 69 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

“The Marx Brothers go to war” could be seen as the hook to their 1933 film Duck Soup, which was the last movie to feature Zeppo Marx (who plays Bob Roland here). The other three Marxes would continue making motion pictures, but straight-man Zeppo had had enough of acting. Widely considered the Marx Brothers’ magnum opus, the flick in question is about the four siblings finding themselves in the middle of a brewing war between the fictional countries of Freedonia and Sylvania.

For those unaccustomed to the Marx Brothers’ style, the opening scenes of Duck Soup might seem a little creaky and odd, but the work soars when it finds its groove. The kooky and fast-paced comedy, whether it be oriented around bizarre slapstick or witty puns, doesn’t slow down once the movie starts to pick up speed. There are no piano or harp solos to stall the jokes, and the iconic mirror scene has occasionally been referenced in pop culture.

My three favorite types of humor – slapstick, surrealist, and satire – can all be found here, but I’d like to talk about the third one (satire) as it applies here. Some commentators have said the Marx Brothers here are tearing holes in the brand of totalitarianism that would lead to World War II. Despite the film in question being banned in Fascist Italy by that nation’s dictator, Benito Mussolini (who saw the picture as a personal insult), I actually think that Duck Soup is more likely to be lampooning the stuffy, old-timey monarchies from the World War I era. Nonetheless, Groucho Marx (who plays Rufus T. Firefly here) essentially shrugged off the claims that Duck Soup was a brilliant satire, saying “We were just four Jews trying to get a laugh.”

Regardless of what this comedy is parodying, it’s still one of the funnier movies out there, and probably the funniest film I’ve seen yet from the Pre-Code era (the time period from 1930 to 1934 prior to the enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code). Running only sixty-nine minutes, it barely wastes a second and never overstays its welcome. It wasn’t the first Marx Brothers flick, but, if you’re considering jumping into their movies but are skeptical of watching something stagey like The Cocoanuts (1929) first, Duck Soup might be a good entry point.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Horse Feathers (1932) Review

Director: Norman Z. McLeod

Genre(s): Comedy, Musical, Sport

Runtime: 68 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Many comedy acts sit at the intersection of stupid and intelligent humor, and the Marx Brothers are some of the most famous. At the time of its original release in 1932, Horse Feathers was the best thing that the Marxes had put out. You see, Quincy Adams Wagstaff (Grouch Marx) is made the new president of Huxley College, and his son Frank (Zeppo Marx) convinces him to focus his efforts on improving the school’s football team. So, Wagstaff hires two goons – Baravelli (Chico Marx) and Pinky (Harpo Marx) – to kidnap some football-players-for-hire at the local speakeasy.

The gags in Horse Feathers, both the verbal and the physical, are uproariously funny. It’s a lightweight work, but it has me laughing frequently throughout the runtime. Everybody on planet Earth incessantly describes the Marx Brothers’ sense of humor as “anarchic” and it’s a fitting word. While rock-solid jokes are littered throughout the movie, it’s the ludicrous football game at the end that seals the deal…and you thought that the football match in MASH (1970) was amusing!

Horse Feathers is not a long film, running only a little over an hour. Story structure is somewhat loose, but it does build up to an exciting climax that you can’t take your eyes off of (the aforementioned big game). Only the obligatory harp solo from Harpo Marx threatens to slow things down. The Marxes’ growing confidence in their abilities is apparent. All four of them get their chances to shine in different scenarios.

This is simply one of the funniest comedies of the Pre-Code era (the time period from 1930 to 1934, before the enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code). I won’t spoil any specific gags, but, trust me, this one has a little something for every comedy buff. Silly musical numbers? Check. A barrage of wise-guy cracks from some snarky bastard? Check. Outrageous slapstick? Check.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Monkey Business (1931) Review

Director: Norman Z. McLeod

Genre(s): Comedy, Crime, Musical

Runtime: 77 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

With this movie, you can really feel the Marx Brothers starting to hit their stride. Here, the four Marxes play stowaways on an ocean liner who raise Hell on the ship and get caught up in a brewing gang war. Being based on an original screenplay, rather than one of their Broadway shows (like The Cocoanuts [1929] and Animal Crackers [1930]), this film feels significantly less physically-constrained than its predecessors.

With the Marx Brothers constantly harassing the rich folks on a transatlantic cruise (probably to please Great Depression-era audiences), one can easily see why critics incessantly refer to their style of humor as “anarchic.” The slapstick comedy here is timeless and the verbal stuff isn’t bad either. As with The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, it’s Harpo Marx (playing a character imaginatively named “Harpo”) who has the best gag – this time it’s a zany puppet show.

Monkey Business could actually be one of the more underrated gangster flicks of the Pre-Code era (the time period before the Hollywood Production Code was enforced). Okay, it’s a goofy, anything-goes comedy first and foremost and there’s no shootouts, but organized crime still plays an important role in what could be described as the picture’s plot. One of the best parts of the feature isn’t really even that funny. It’s the somewhat-played-straight fist fight that Zeppo Marx (playing a character named – you guessed it – “Zeppo”) gets into with mobster “Alky” Briggs (Harry Woods) at the end.

Monkey Business was the best Marx Brothers movie (in my opinion) at the time of its original release. It has an appropriate runtime and ends on a climatic note. This serves the humor well. It feels less like a stage play adopted into a film and more like…well, a true film. This flick is quite a bit of fun, and is recommended for fans of comedies – especially older ones.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Animal Crackers (1930) Review

Director: Victor Heerman

Genre(s): Comedy, Musical

Runtime: 97 minutes

MPAA Rating: G

IMDb Page

The second-oldest surviving Marx Brothers movie, Animal Crackers, has the four actors getting more comfortable with being silver screen stars. I’m not sure if telling you the plot is even necessary, since this is a prime example of a comedy film where the jokes overshadow everything else to an extreme degree. Anyway, the story’s about a party being thrown in honor of returning explorer Captain Geoffrey T. Spaulding (Groucho Marx) and the “mystery” of a stolen painting that takes place at said shindig.

The gags here come fast and frequent (this is the picture where Groucho Marx has a one-liner about hunting elephants in his pajamas). Despite Groucho’s wordplay, the funniest bit might be the Professor (Harpo Marx) horsing around with some firearms (don’t try this at home, kiddos!). The musical numbers are also slightly better-integrated than the ones found in the previous flick to feature the Marxes – The Cocoanuts (1929).

I know that people typically don’t watch a Marx Brothers film for the plot, but the one in Animal Crackers feels especially weak. The tale of a swapped painting could’ve been interesting and added some excitement to the proceedings, but little is done with it. The “climax” of the work is impossibly limp. The resolution of the case of the stolen art seems to come out of nowhere and it holds little-to-no weight.

Released in 1930, during the Pre-Code era of Hollywood (prior to the enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code), this movie still feels pretty creaky, even if it is somewhat technically superior to The Cocoanuts. Still, the humor hits the mark more than it misses. Overall, I’d say that the viewer should simply forget about the lame story and just focus on the rapid-fire jokes.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Cocoanuts (1929) Review

Directors: Robert Florey and Joseph Santley

Genre(s): Comedy, Musical

Runtime: 96 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Believe it or not, The Cocoanuts wasn’t actually the first Marx Brothers movie. There was an unreleased, silent film that they starred in, Humor Risk (1921), that is now considered lost. Anyway, back to The Cocoanuts. This anything-goes comedy is about Hammer (Groucho Marx) and Jamison (Zeppo Marx) running a Florida hotel that’s visited by con artist duo Harpo (Harpo Marx) and Chico (Chico Marx) and that is the sight of a plot to steal some valuable jewels.

Being the oldest surviving Marx Brothers picture, this one has some rough patches. Early on, there were a few moments that had me wondering if I was watching the wrong flick (these were scenes when the Marxes weren’t onscreen). The Cocoanuts sometimes feels like a weird variety show that somebody decided to film, with its semi-random musical and dance numbers and comedy “sketches.” Its stagey nature makes it very obvious that this was based on a play.

However, when this feature gets on a roll, it can be quite funny. Its sense of humor is audaciously corny, largely revolving around wordplay and slapstick. The Marxes even threw in a quick musical number about a side character’s briefly-stolen shirt, probably just for shits and giggles. However, it’s probably Harpo Marx who gets the biggest laugh (well, from me anyway) in his truly absurd scene with a telephone and an inkwell.

For being the first released Marx Brothers movie, this one is a surprising success. Yes, it’s older than dirt, being sent to theaters in 1929, but the sequences where the Marxes get to do their thing are a sight to see. Stick with it and you’ll be rewarded. While much of the comedy feels of its time, other moments of humor feel downright avant-garde.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Diplomaniacs (1933) Review

Director: William A. Seiter

Genre(s): Comedy, Musical

Runtime: 61 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Often compared to the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup (1933) of the same year, Diplomaniacs is a wild, anti-war satire with a few musical numbers thrown into the mix, because – well- why the Hell not? The story concerns itself with Willy Nilly (Bert Wheeler) and Hercules Grub (Robert Woolsey), two barbers on a Native American reservation who are assigned by the local natives to negotiate an end to all war at a peace conference in Geneva. It’s as crazy as it sounds, and, yes, there will be blackface. Oh, so much blackface.

The first thing that must be discussed when talking about Diplomaniacs is its dated racial humor. Just about every race gets mocked here (and they’re all played by Whites, as far as I could tell), but there is a blackface musical number that has stirred up some controversy in recent times. This makes the film in question difficult to recommend to everybody, but those with strong stomachs when it comes to racial insensitivity will find much to enjoy (other than the song that I was just talking about).

Diplomaniacs is a very funny movie, being one of those pictures that tries to make almost every single line a joke of some kind. It only lasts an hour, so there is a high gag density here. Of course, not every comedic beat lands, but the flick is so likeably silly and audacious in how stupid it will go for a laugh that it still puts a smile on my face. There is definitely some satire in Diplomaniacs, but much of its humor is straightforward goofiness.

Made during the Pre-Code era of Hollywood (before the enforcement of the Production Code), this irreverent movie reflects a cynical, Great Depression-era view of international diplomacy. To the filmmakers, it seems like all that politicians and business-people want is war, and everybody else is just too dumb to stop them. There are a lot of laughs to be found, as it never gets too dark, but the blackface sequence means that this one isn’t for everyone.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Spookley the Square Pumpkin (2004) Review

Director: Bernie Denk

Genre(s): Kids & Family, Musical

Runtime: 47 minutes

MPAA Rating: G

IMDb Page

This children’s computer-animated film plays out like a Halloween version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964). Based on the book The Legend of Spookley the Square Pumpkin by Joe Troiano, this movie follows a cube-shaped pumpkin (voiced by Sonja Ball) who is made fun of by the rest of the normal-shaped inhabitants of the pumpkin patch. Okay, this one might be easy to dog-pile on, but I’ll be merciful.

The first thing one notices about this picture is the dated animation quality. It’s not horrible, but time hasn’t been kind to this particular aspect. With all of the talking vegetables and moralizing, it feels like an early episode of VeggieTales (except with more bullying). The message of the movie is, of course, to not judge someone by their appearance.

To an adult, Spookley the Square Pumpkin could seem a bit slow and padded (even at forty-seven minutes), with some less-than-stellar jokes. The musical numbers are fine and the characters are easy to keep track of. The target audience (kids, obviously) will be far more forgiving and will hopefully take away the film’s message of tolerance with them. It’s rightfully rated G by the MPAA, featuring no swearing or real violence (although there is some peril).

This isn’t the most famous feature of all time, with, at the time of this review, IMDb listing its release date as 2005. However, this is apparently only for its Dutch-language release in Belgium. Wikipedia (never wrong, never wrong) says it came out in 2004. In case you were wondering, yes, there is a sequel, called Spookley and the Christmas Kittens (2019), but it’s so obscure that it doesn’t even have an IMDb page at the time of this review.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Grease (1978) Review

Director: Randal Kleiser

Genre(s): Comedy, Musical, Romance

Runtime: 110 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

The 1978 musical Grease is a nostalgic look back on teenage life in the 1950s as seen through the lens of the 1970s. You see, high school cool cat Danny (John Travolta) had a summer fling with an Australian girl, Sandy (Olivia Newton-John), and now doesn’t know that they’re attending the same school together. This one follows the standard rom-com formula pretty closely, so no points will be awarded for guessing how it ends.

The biggest draws of this film are its iconic musical numbers. Even people who’ve never seen the movie before can probably hum along with one or two of the songs featured here. My favorite ditty is “Grease,” performed by Frankie Valli, which plays over the animated main title sequence. It’s a disco tune, but doesn’t feel particularly out-of-place in the fifties setting.

The detractors of this picture point out things like that the high schoolers here look like forty-year-olds (perhaps it was all that underage smoking and drinking?). Another common criticism is the flick’s dubious sense of morality, where surrendering to peer pressure, unprotected sex, reckless driving, and chain-smoking are seen are ultimate cools. I can’t subscribe to what Grease says about right and wrong, but, if you’re getting your moral direction from this feature, you have deeper issues.

The film only has just enough conflict in it to sustain itself. Sure, the characters of Danny and Sandy go back and forth with each other, but most of the work is about teens partying, singing, and dancing. The story’s simple, but the lively music, heavy on the rock ‘n’ roll and pop, makes Grease worth watching. Joan Blondell shows up as Vi, a waitress at a diner frequented by the main characters.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Blinded by the Light (2019) Review

Director: Gurinder Chadha

Genre(s): Comedy, Drama, Musical

Runtime: 118 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Blinded by the Light is a film about the music of Bruce Springsteen, but this is no rock star biopic. Instead, it follows Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra), the son of Pakistani immigrants living in Great Britain in the 1980s, who discovers the music of “the Boss” to help him cope with his chaotic life. Based on a true story, this is a euphoric movie that wears its heart on its sleeve.

This dramedy covers more than just classic rock, of course. It’s a coming-of-age story that tackles the issues of intergenerational conflict, prejudice, hero worship, and the role of family. It’s refreshingly earnest and some are bound to find it cheesy in its emotional directness and lack of subtlety. I, however, found the flick’s child-like enthusiasm infectious and charming.

Almost needless to say, there’s plenty of Bruce Springseen music in this feature to rock out to. Most of the biggies are here, like “Born in the U.S.A.,” “Born to Run,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “Prove It All Night,” and, obviously, “Blinded by the Light.” I was surprised to hear “Because the Night,” a song originally written by Bruce for the Patti Smith Group (it’s the Springsteen version that plays here). Even if you’re not familiar with the works of the New Jersey rocker at its center, you’ll still probably enjoy the picture.

Blinded by the Light is the kind of positive movie that’s not reliant on sex or violence that many people lament aren’t being made anymore. It’s a feel-good flick for sure, but it still shows a few glimpses of the darker side of humanity that must be overcome by our unassuming hero. It’s a focused work of cinema that succeeds without leaning too much on the Springsteen music that inspired it. It’s just a good story.

My rating is 8 outta 10.