Animal Crackers, which was the Marx Brothers' second real feature, is included in The Marx Brothers Silver Screen
Collection, a new boxed set of five films on DVD. These are wonderful movies, though I'm going to hold off on giving an enthusiastic
recommendation of this release until I actually receive my copy and run some of them. More than one Marx aficionado has informed me that Universal
did no restoration work on the films; that we get the same mediocre transfers we've endured for years on home video. I have not verified that for
myself but you may want to hold off ordering this one. If you don't, here's a link to purchase it from Amazon. I'm sure the copies are watchable
but they're apparently not, as some of us were hoping, upgrades from what we already have.
I single out Animal Crackers not because it's the best of the five in this set but because I can recall a time, not so long ago,
when you couldn't see this movie, let alone own a legal copy of it to show in our very own little living room.
In the seventies, there was a craze locally (and I imagine, in many cities) for Marx Brothers movies in theaters. They were on TV often
but it was better to see them in a theater with a big screen and an audience, and many local movie houses made that possible. While in college, I
dragged most of my dates, at one time or other, to see A Night at the Opera or Duck Soup or A Day at the Races or even —
testing one young lady's endurance — A Night in Casablanca. We saw all of them...except Animal Crackers.
Animal Crackers was unavailable due to some contractual problem that stemmed from its having started life as a Broadway play.
Apparently, the Paramount lawyers had acquired the rights for a finite period of time — forty years, someone told me — and could no longer exhibit
the film. Despite the fact that the other Marx movies were big rental items again, someone at Universal (which had acquired the Paramount Marx
Brothers films) didn't feel it was cost-efficient to go back to whoever controlled the rights and reacquire them.
By around 1972, some friends of mine and I had all the major, available Marx Brothers movies pretty well committed to memory so we were
dying to see the one, elusive specimen. That was when an acquaintance tipped me that a small theater in Westwood was going to flout the law, risk it
all for moviedom, and run a 16mm print of Animal Crackers the following Saturday night. The name of the movie, he told me, would not be
advertised. It would just say "Marx Brothers Film Festival." In fact, the title of the movie was not to be mentioned anywhere since the theater owner
was super-paranoid about Universal lawyers suing him into oblivion. The acquaintance said, "If you were to call him up and ask him if he's showing
Animal Crackers, he'd probably cancel the whole thing." Naturally, my buddies and I had to go.
I have never purchased illegal drugs but I'm guessing the experience is not unlike what we went through that evening. We arrived early,
knocked on the box office window and the first thing the man who answered asked us was, "Who sent you?" He was eventually satisfied with my answer
but all through it, his eyes darted about, checking the street, looking to see if any police were spying. His theater turned out to be a small
screening room in the back of a travel agency. There were less than 50 seats and the movie projector — which was one of those clunky jobs they used
to show us hygiene films in high school — was in the same room with us. The same guy who took our money threaded the projector and as he did,
someone asked which movie he was about to run. Even though everyone present knew, and even though we'd be seeing the main title in about three
minutes, he still replied, "Oh, one of their best. You'll see."
As it turned out, we didn't think it was one the Marx Brothers' best but we were still glad we saw it, if only so we could lord it over
friends who hadn't. Chatting with other Groucho-Harpo-Chico fans (we knew no Zeppo fans), we'd make a point of saying things like, "Yes, that was
very much like that scene in Animal Crackers...oh, sorry. I forgot you haven't seen it!" A few years later, when Universal finally
cleared the rights and re-released the movie, some of us lost an important point of status. And of course, nowadays, it's easy not just to see the
film but to own it.
I enjoy having all of them in my little library where I can watch one whenever I want to...but I must admit I don't enjoy them as much
on a home TV screen. Most comedy movies need an audience, of course, but some need it more than others. What the Marx Brothers movies need is not
just a crowd but the kind of crowds we had at a lot of those early-seventies screenings. They were full of people who loved the brothers, knew
something about their films...and were, in general, a hipper and happier crowd than most. It was great to sit there and laugh among such people. I
wouldn't mind if Universal Home Video didn't improve the image quality of their DVDs if they could just find a way to package one of those audiences
with the set.