The Marx Brothers were active for four decades, a time during which they charmed the pants off of audiences in vaudeville and Broadway theater. However, unless one was lucky enough to see them perform live in their heyday, the troupe’s revolutionary comedic skills have carried on because of motion pictures.
The Marx Brothers were lucky enough that their act became popular just as the movies were beginning to have sound—perhaps they wouldn’t be known at all if cinema had remained silent for longer—which meant they could be translated directly from stage to screen without losing any of the dialogue that made their comedies so groundbreaking.
Surprisingly though, the Marx Brothers only starred in 14 feature lengths, beginning with The Cocoanuts in 1929 (based on a 1925 Broadway musical) and ending with Love Happy, now being released on Blu-ray for the first time by Olive Films. As in all of their films, the plot is quite simple and possibly interchangeable with any of their other films.
In this one, a group of actors are trying to put together a musical revue by the name of “Love Happy”, all the while Harpo (Harpo Marx) keeps them well fed by stealing canned goods from a grocery store. One of the cans he steals—of sardines of all things—contains stolen Romanoff diamonds that sends the beautiful but wicked Madame Egilichi (Ilona Massey) and her henchmen (including Raymond Burr’s Alphonse Zoto) after them.
With insanity and chaos ensuing at a rapid pace in every scene, the reason why Love Happy remains in the cultural memory is because of all the drama that went behind the scenes. From its very inception, the film seemed doomed to be a failure. Originally thought of as a vehicle for Harpo (to be called Diamonds in the Sidewalk), investors backed out when they learned that the film would not star all three working Marx brothers (Zeppo had left the act years before to become an agent). The brothers then ended up agreeing to make the film, because they realized it would give them the money to help out Chico who was up to his neck in gambling debts.
It seems as if the film created a rift in the siblings’ relationship, as Groucho would pretty much go on to disown this film from existing within the canon of official Marx Brothers’ movies, going as far as to completely ignore it in his autobiography. It seems as if the only cause of pride he found in the film was his “accidental” discovery of an actress who would go on to become one of Hollywood’s brightest icons: Marilyn Monroe, who would be dead little over a decade after the film was made.
Love Happy is by no means a bad film—it has some of the funniest scenes in the Marx Brothers’ filmography. When watching the movie, however, its problematic production history is obvious. For example, there are no scenes featuring all three brothers together, despite director David Miller’s sly hints teasing the audience into believing this will occur at some point. (Miller would go on to direct camp classic Sudden Fear starring Joan Crawford). There is an epic scene towards the end that seems to promise us of the explosive encounter to come, which then never materializes.
By the time they made the film, the Brothers weren’t even performing together as an act. Perhaps Love Happy is nothing but a reminder of the power money has over artists. Perhaps it’s an interesting reminder of how Hollywood has time and time again made people who weren’t on the best terms work together to create something. Or, perhaps, it should simply be remembered or thought of, as the movie where Marilyn first took the world’s breath away, at least for a few seconds. (Her “official” debut would come the following year in All About Eve).
The truth is that perhaps Love Happy, most of all, should be enjoyed for what it is: a farce of the highest caliber in which three once infallible comedians do their best to not allow personal troubles get in the way of their professionalism. Love Happy may not be thought of with the same passion as films like
Duck Soup or A Night at the Opera—but, then again, even a so-so Marx Brothers film is better than no Marx Brothers film, right?
Love Happy beautifully sums up its troublesome, yet lovable essence in one of its funniest lines: “Hey, could you love a heel that’s been repaired?”.