The common line about the Marx brothers is that the Paramount years, during which they made their first five films—The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, and Duck Soup—were the purest, most gleefully anarchic period in their career. Once they left Paramount for the classier MGM—where they still managed a pair of near-classics (A Night At The Opera and A Day At The Races) before hitting a drastic dip in quality—the troupe was forever shackled by bland ingénues, conventional plotting, and other studio impositions. Yet The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection, a DVD box set devoted entirely to the Paramount years, calls that conventional wisdom into question: From the beginning, Paramount tried hard to do exactly what MGM would accomplish later, but with each successive film, Groucho, Harpo, and Chico (though never Zeppo) Marx kept wriggling to find more room in their straitjackets. Once they were finally liberated with Duck Soup, a masterpiece of controlled chaos, the public responded with a disappointing shrug, and the studio brass bought back the brothers' souls piece by piece.
Only about half of 1929's The Cocoanuts, an early sound-era comedy, was entrusted to the Marx brothers' vaudevillian antics; the rest was left to drippy Irving Berlin songs, kick-lines of bathing beauties, and a half-baked subplot about a stolen necklace. Yet the good scenes establish the Marx dynamic to hilarious effect: As manager of a vacant Florida resort, Groucho swiftly talks his employees out their paychecks ("You know what makes wage slaves? Wages!"). Meanwhile, the hyper-verbal Chico and the silent Harpo team up to stymie the first in a long line of stuffed shirts, and poor Zeppo sucks the oxygen out of the room. The Cocoanuts also introduces Groucho's greatest running foil in the oblivious matron Margaret Dumont, whose utter faith in Groucho's nobility and leadership is always answered by shocking insults and random declarations of love. "Why, I never!", the standard cry of the wealthy dowager, was perfected by Dumont.
Though The Cocoanuts was a hit, Paramount still didn't trust the Marxes without a few stock characters and incompetent directors, but 1930's Animal Crackers and 1931's Monkey Business were progressively unbound in their puns, non sequiturs, and physical shtick. They have negligible plots about a stolen painting and warring gangsters, respectively, but Animal Crackers leaves the song-and-dance to Groucho in the great "Hooray For Captain Spaulding," sends Harpo running after screaming blondes in the background, and breaks down the fourth wall for a wry Eugene O'Neill parody. In casting the brothers as stowaways on an ocean liner, Monkey Business gets laughs from broad Keystone Kops chase scenes, but extends the absurdity even further with bizarre one-liners (Groucho claims he "licked his weight in wild caterpillars") and a sequence in which all four brothers try to get off the boat by impersonating Maurice Chevalier.
Anarchy finally reigned supreme in 1932's classic Horse Feathers, which was the first Marx brothers comedy that smoothly integrated the story into the troupe's routine. Appearing in a professorial gown and mortarboard hat, Groucho gets appointed as head of an esteemed university, immediately thumbs his nose at the trustees (via the classic musical number "Whatever It Is, I'm Against It"), and sets about changing a school that has "neglected football for education." The pigskin finale irreverently sends up sports-movie clichés, with Groucho giving a pep talk to the wrong team and tackling from the sidelines, and Chico and Harpo scoring touchdowns by dropping banana peels as blocks and racing along in a horse-drawn chariot.
When the gang hooked up with a distinguished director, Leo McCarey (The Awful Truth), for the first and last time of their careers, their talents were perfectly channeled into 1933's Duck Soup, arguably the funniest movie ever made. The brothers claim that the film's story—about a leader (Groucho) who arbitrarily takes his country to war—was never intended as satire, but only Dr. Strangelove matches its audacity in sending up the follies of nationalism and conflict. The buildup to Groucho's fight with a neighboring country, triggered by an ambassador calling him an "upstart," leads to a joyous musical setpiece in which the prospect of war sends the nation into a state of perverse ecstasy.
The Paramount Five deserved a sterling treatment on DVD, something comparable to the features-loaded seven-disc set of the Marx brothers' MGM output. But Universal has responded with a slap in the face, a handsome package with precious little inside. The unrestored transfers are often muddy and riddled with jarring cuts (in Horse Feathers, especially), and the only special features are three short Today show interviews with Harpo, Groucho, and Harpo's son William. Fortunately, the movies themselves provide ample solace for a missed opportunity.