A good case can be made that The Big Store (1941) is the worst film the Marx Bros. were ever associated with. I maintain that it least returns their characters to an appropriate, contemporary setting, where they are able to wreak havoc on high society types, in this case against the backdrop of a ritzy New York department store. In that regard, it is at least a step up from the previous year’s Go West, which had placed the brothers in a totally unfamiliar and inappropriate Western setting. But the film still suffers from a dearth of good comedy sequences, protracted musical numbers, and commits the particularly unforgivable mistake of making the Marx Bros. co-stars with the leading man in their own film – in this case, crooner Tony Martin.
Unlike their previous two films for MGM, which had been directed by ex-vaudevillian Eddie Buzzell, The Big Store was helmed by experienced comic craftsman Charles F. Riesner, who had started with Chaplin’s company as an actor and associate director, before going on to direct comedians like Buster Keaton (with whom he worked on Steamboat Bill Jr. in 1928). While the film is well-crafted, it lacks the comic bite and surprise that marked their earlier efforts with men like Norman McLeod and Leo McCarey, who really knew how to keep the pace going. Given such sub-standard material to work with, it is hardly fair to blame Riesner for the film’s short-comings.
Setting the film inside a lavish New York department store was a step in the right direction after the choice of putting the brothers into a Western parody the year before. The problem is that, unlike an opera house, the department store is not a sufficiently pompous or portentous target for their chaos. That said there are some good gags to be had with Groucho as the floorwalker, insulting the customers (his innuendo toward an older couple in the bed department is particularly fun). One rather significant problem that the writers at MGM never quite seemed to solve was how to make the viewers really care about the plight of the romantic couple. It worked in A Night at the Opera, if only because Kitty Carlisle’s entire singing career was at stake. But starting with A Day at the Races, the dilemmas facing the romantic couple became increasingly irrelevant to the point where, by the time of The Big Store, one has to ask the question, “who cares?”
The film demonstrates a marked improvement over Go West in its casting. Margaret Dumont makes a much-welcome return in this, her final appearance with the Marx Bros., as Martha Phelps, owner of the department store. Douglass Dumbrille, so perfect as the heavy Morgan in A Day at the Races, here plays Mr. Grover, the crooked store manager who immediately becomes a target of Groucho’s barbs. While much credit has been given to Margaret Dumont over the years, it really is worth noting just how much supporting actors bring to these films by standing in for various pretentious “types” for the Marxes to skewer.
Unfortunately, The Big Store is also the most “music-heavy” film of the MGM period, with a wide range of numbers. Some, like “Sing While You Sell”, would have been more enjoyable had they been reduced in length; as it is, the number goes on entirely too long, even managing to find time for an interlude in which Virginia O’Brien delivers her deadpan, jazzy rendition of “Rock-a-bye Baby”. Others, such as “If It’s You”, crooned by Tony Martin to Virginia Grey, are pleasant enough. I am perhaps in the minority when I say that I enjoy and even look forward to the musical numbers in the Marx Bros. comedies – they were, after all, an integral part of their Broadway shows and musical comedy background. The difference is that, in these later MGM films, the songs are featured seemingly for the sole purpose of being plugged to sell sheet music, rather than contributing to the entertainment value of the show. Thankfully, Chico does get two chances to show off his unique piano skills (including a duet with Harpo), and Harpo has one of his best harp solos in any of their films, playing with his reflections in surrounding mirrors. The most outrageous music number has to be the infamous “Tenement Symphony”, a well-meaning if rather cloying piece preaching racial harmony among the diverse ethnicities in New York’s lower east side. As with every other aspect of these last three MGM films, the number suffers from being ludicrously over-produced, with Martin accompanied by an entire boys’ choir and symphony orchestra!
Which, when you get right down to it, sums up the problem with the final three films the Marx Bros. made for MGM. The studio seemed to be willing to spend exorbitant amounts of money on everything but quality comedy writers. The Big Store in particular feels like a second-rate (though still costly) MGM musical in which the Marx Bros. provide the comic relief.