In the early 1930s, Groucho and Chico Marx performed an NBC radio show called Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel, and fragments of those scripts found their way into a number of the Marx Brothers' subsequent films. 1941's disappointing The Big Store owes almost all of its good material to Episode 15 of Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel, written by the film's credited story-man Nat Perrin. In The Big Store, Groucho and Chico finally adopt on film their radio names of Flywheel (here Wolf J. instead of Waldorf T.) and Ravelli.
On radio, Flywheel was a lawyer, but in the film, he's a private detective and bodyguard attended by loyal mute Wacky (Harpo). Wacky's brother Ravelli calls in Flywheel to protect the new part-owner of the Phelps Department Store, singer Tommy Rogers (singer Tony Martin). Seems that one Mr. Grover (Douglass Dumbrille of A Day at the Races) would rather see Tommy dead than the store sold and his mismanagement revealed. Rogers, nice lug that he he is, plans to bequeath the proceeds from the store's sale to replace with a sparkling music conservatory the run-down suite where Ravelli teaches piano lessons. "Remember," Ravelli tells the kids, "No woogie-boogie!"; moments later, the boys endearingly emulate Chico's infamous piano-playing technique.
Thankfully, everyone's favorite dowager Margaret Dumont plays a significant role as the store's co-owner, but once she's finished hiring Flywheel and Wacky, the least coherent and convincing of the Marxist plots loses what energy it has sustained and gives way to a vast, unfunny midsection. The movie stops cold for the colorless Martin's "If It's You" (credited in part to Artie Shaw), but Chico and Harpo fill some of the expanse with their only piano duet on film. Later, an unusally elaborate harp sequence finds Harpo playing variations on Bach with his counterparts in two large mirrors (one playing cello, the other playing violin).
The Groucho number "Sing While You Sell" starts out jaunty but dies long before it comes to an end. The inadvisable fashion show in the middle at least allows Groucho the gem "This is a bright red dress, but Technicolor is sooo expensive." Late in the picture, Martin unleashes something called "Tenement Symphony," which may not be the worst song ever, but not for lack of trying (sadly, director Charles Reisner ropes Chico and Harpo into a brief assist).
Even at the Marxes' nadir, Harpo lends physical energy, Chico gets some funny malapropisms ("From now on, you and me is gonna be insufferable"), and Groucho is in fine fettle when he's allowed. The clumsily staged climax—a chase through the store overlaid with dopey sound effects—at least shows some effort, however misguided, on the part of Reisner. To stare blearily at these curious stunts, hardly any of which the Marx Brothers perform, is to pity how far the mighty have fallen from their comic heights, but comfort can be found in the Brothers' subsequent A Night in Casablanca, no classic but a significant improvement.
The Big Store—available exclusively in The Marx Brothers Collection on a double-feature disc with Go West—gets an adequate transfer accompanied by a three-minute theatrical trailer which, intriguingly, includes unique footage of Groucho, Chico, and Harpo selling the picture as a purported "farewell" film (indeed, the brothers needed five years to regroup after this flop). From the archives, Warner includes a nice melody which, as Marx expert Glenn Mitchell explains, was pre-recorded but left unused;, the Tony Martin cut "Where There's Music" makes an oddly maudlin ode to music and love.
The essentially lackluster "Flicker Memories" ("a Pete Smith Specialty" from 1941) is mostly of interest as a tongue-in-cheek precursor to Mystery Science Theatre 3000. Smith layers a mocking narration over a silent film manufactured from spare parts; though the real sources remain uncredited, Smith calls his end result "Passions of Horse-Pistol Pete." The eight-minute Technicolor Hanna-Barbera cartoon "Officer Pooch" finds a Chaplin-esque canine cop protecting kittens from puppies.
Though The Big Store is recommendable only to fans, the disc also includes the preferable Go West (and more extras) on the flip side. The price is nice on the five-disc The Marx Brothers Collection, so you can't go wrong.
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