Posted by David Kalat on March 9, 2013
Last week I talked about a low-grade Marx Brothers outing, A Night in Casablanca, and collectively we found more than a little love for the thing. This week I approach a quite impressive Marx Brothers comedy that is unlikely to find much if any appreciation here, simply for its sin of not, y’know, actually including Groucho, Chico, and Harpo, but rather a group of imitation Marxes.
There are instances where the real thing isn’t necessarily better than an imitation–I’d be much happier eating surimi imitation crab meat than tainted real crab, for example. But when it comes to movies, there is a whole psychological minefield around the idea of remakes, that interferes with any attempt to evaluate their merits.
A while back I wrote about various attempts to remake the likes of The Three Stooges and Laurel and Hardy, and had intended to write about Brain Donors at that time, but I never quite got around to it. When A Night in Casablanca came up last week, I figured now was the time to revisit that unfinished thought.
Since the number of people who have ever even seen Brain Donors could probably fit in a midsize van, I ought to start by saying what this even is:
Brain Donors is a 1992 Paramount (!) comedy written by Pat Proft and directed by Dennis Dugan. It stars John Turturro as the ambulance-chasing lawyer Roland T. Flakfizer, Bob Nelson as magical man-child Jacques, Mel Smith as smarmy hustler Rocco Meloncheck, and the great Nancy Marchand as society matron Lilian Oglethorpe. The film is more or less a remake of A Night at the Opera, but about a ballet company instead of an opera. It was a disastrous flop.
Now, while I am here to praise this film and recommend it to your attention, it is its failure that concerns us–and it is in grappling with its failure that we will understand where it succeeded. And so with that paradox to whet your appetite, let’s get started. There are two forms of failure on display here, and one is more interesting than the other. Let’s deal with the less interesting, prosaic failure first to get it out of the way.
This film was initiated as a production by Jerry and David Zucker. They, along with Pat Proft and Jim Abrams, were responsible for Airplane!, The Naked Gun, Top Secret!, and other top-grossing blockbuster comedies of the 1980s (Abrams has no part in the story of Brain Donors, but I mention him here because he was a part of these other beloved comedies). Paramount had put together an ad campaign promoting what was then called Lame Ducks as the next great comedy by these superstar producers, until the brothers Zucker became disillusioned with the endeavor for reasons that have not been well documented, and jumped ship. Without their superstar producers to hang their ad campaign on, Paramount panicked. The film was retitled Brain Donors, wasn’t promoted at all, wasn’t screened for critics, and was just dumped unceremoniously into the fewest number of threats the studio could get away with, where it was savaged by the press.
Simple as that: a straight-up marketing fail. Happens all the time.
As a transition to talking about the more interesting problems on display here,consider the title change.
Lame Ducks is recognizable as a Marxesque reference–in keeping with the animal themed titles of their 1930s works, most distinctly Duck Soup. And like those titles (Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horsefeathers), it doesn’t actually mean anything relevant to the films’ contents.
By contrast, Brain Donors is more recognizably a comedy movie title–but in a perverse way it has even less to do with the movie than Lame Ducks did. Like Airplane! and other Zucker-Abrams-Zucker works, this thing is a joke-a-second, gloriously absurd nonsense, but it is most certainly not stupid.
Now lets be clear what I mean by that. I am not suggesting there is some hidden depth to the comedy, some sophistication to the satire. Nope, this is just low comedy. That’s not the point. What matters is attitude.
A lot of comedians who did low comedy played fools–characters who got into comic mischief because they were terrible at thinking through the consequences of their actions. It isn’t (just) that the humor was dumb, but the characters performing it were. But the Marxes stood apart for their curious and distinctive attitude–they got into comic mischief because they had nothing but contempt for the ordinary world and genuinely didn’t care about the consequences of their actions. By way of an example–Curly derails a trial in the Three Stooges short Disorder in the Court because he can’t follow simple directions, but Groucho and Chico derail a trial in Duck Soup because, well, they had nothing better to do at the time.
This was the key to the popularity of the Marx Brothers in the 1960s–why my parents would go out in 1968 and spend good money on a soundtrack album of clips from movies made long before they we born. I’ve commented before that early screen comedians were the 1920s and 1930s equivalents of rock and rollers–if that’s true, then the Marx Brothers were punk rock, ready to burn the place down just to watch it burn.
And Brain Donors, nee Lame Ducks, captures that revolutionary vibe. These three faux-Marxes unleash havoc because they enjoy it–which is a distinctly different approach to the mayhem than what drives the Naked Gun movies, even though the individual jokes are very similar. The marketing campaign clearly didn’t understand the Marx Brothers movies being referenced here, but the makers did. Here comes chaos, for the sheer joy of it.
Which is what leads us to the crippling flaw of this movie–its very existence. The Marx Brothers represented anarchy–and it was their revolutionary, punk-rock defiance that made them powerful, more than any individual gag. This is why even the deracinated likes of A Night in Casablanca has its fans, because however cheaply made and derivative it was, the Marxes rampaged defiantly through it. Even when they weren’t at top form, their flippancy and lack of interest in what anyone else thought was undyingly cool.
But being cool is a precious thing, and to have someone come along and try to copy your coolness isn’t likely to win fans.
Critics savaged this film for its upstart temerity in even trying to remake the Marx Brothers. In the years hence, no Marx Brothers fans have rallied to its defense. Almost no one has ever heard of this film, fewer still have seen it, and a vanishingly small number like it. Weirdly, one of the few positive reviews I found online was wrong about what happens in it–but gushing with praise–which leads me to be very skeptical about that author’s opinion (how’d ya like it so much if you clearly didn’t watch it?–answer: that review was posted by the studio).
The general impression seems to be that the very idea of remaking the Marx Brothers constituted an act of betrayal to their memory.
Which is, if you’ll forgive me, utter BS.
For one thing, at least two of the Marxes’ stage shows have been revived theatrically in recent years, and I’ve seen several productions of the revived Animal Crackers that make the world a better place. I won’t let anyone take those from me–and if you get a chance to see Animal Crackers live, do it (I haven’t had a chance to see the revived Cocoanuts, but I assume it is similarly thrilling).
Here’s where that unaccountable psychological aversion to remakes kicks in: I’ve never heard anyone rankle that the existence of the Animal Crackers stage show is some kind of disrespect to the Marxes’ memory.
It’s not like the Marxes weren’t already predisposed to copying themselves. Back in the days when Animal Crackers was on its first round of performances, with the actual Marx Brothers in the cast, there were times when the brothers took advantage of their physical similarity and the disguising nature of their costumes and makeup to swap roles with each other. I told you these guys were iconoclasts–they couldn’t even be bothered to take their own shows seriously.
Harpo could become Groucho by smearing a greasepaint mustache on his face and adopting a crooked stance–Chico could become Harpo by donning a fright wig and gooning his face out. The “Marx Brothers” were characters, defined by outrageous costumes, their dialogue written by professional writers, and performed by talented actors. Why can’t someone else be Groucho?
Interestingly, the cast of Brain Donors doesn’t actually try to pull this trick. John Turturro isn’t playing Groucho–although the character is clearly written to be played by Groucho, and Turturro plays him in a Groucho-esque mode, it is not open mimicry. Similarly, Bob Nelson performs magical, effervescent physical comedy in Harpo-like way but (contrary to what some of the reviewers say–what movie were they watching?) he speaks. Mel Smith’s Chicovian dialect comedy relies on a ridiculously fake British accent.
Actually, this almost-but-not-quite Marxiness suffuses the whole enterprise. Every scene in the movie is recognizable as an homage to a famous Marx routine, but yet is also a distinctly new creation, not a direct clone. Pat Proft once claimed this script was his proudest achievement, and he has a lot here to be proud of. It is as comprehensive an act of Marxian fandom one can imagine–to write an entire movie full of material that could have been performed by the Marxes but wasn’t. In my selection of clips this week I singled out a few scenes that should be familiar to fans of A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races to demonstrate how Proft paid tribute to the original films while making something new out of the basic outline. The film is full of such echoes of other movies.
In other words, what we have in Brain Donors is actually a creative enterprise substantially more ambitious and daring than the Animal Crackers revival. Instead of relying on the proven, battle-tested quality of an extant Marx Brothers script and the mere mimicry of their original performances, here is a movie that attempts to do more in that same style–instead of an homage, this movie adds to the sum total of Marxian entertainment in the world.
And yet, even as I write these words I know I am wasting my effort. I know that Marx Brothers fans are never going to prefer this faux-Marx knock-off over even their crummiest, lousiest film (I nominate The Big Store). That’s ultimately why this movie bombed–there was no audience to market it to. The only people who would get the jokes didn’t want to.
But is that right? Since when is any aspect of the Marx Brothers subject to cultural approval and stamps of legitimacy? Who put the Margaret Dumonts of the world in charge of the Marx Brothers’ legacy?
Animal Crackers is about an art forger whose fake is considered superior to the original. A Night at the Opera is about an upstart singer who replaces the star the audience paid to see, and is hailed as superior to the man he usurped. Time and again the Marx Brothers championed fakes and forgers, poseurs and frauds. Isn’t it truer to their anarchic spirit to let a bunch of impostors run in and steal all their stuff?
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