The Big Store – A Marx Brothers Retrospective

The Big Store was supposed to be the final Marx Brothers movie but they would make a come back five years later in another film.

This was the final film of the five films that the Marx Brothers made for MGM. It was also one of the three films produced there after Irving Thalberg’s tragic death. Say what you will about Louis B. Mayer but he was no Thalberg. Thalberg had been one of their reasons for signing with the studio in the first place. As such, you couldn’t blame them for wanting to call it quits. If not for Chico’s gambling, this would have likely been it rather than come back for A Night in Casablanca in 1946. None of them were getting any younger. In fact, Groucho had resumed wearing a toupee in the films because of his receding hairline!

The Big Store takes us to a department store where Tommy Rogers (Tony Martin) just inherited half the ownership following his uncle’s death. The other half? Well, that just happens to belong to Tommy’s aunt, Martha Phelps (Margaret Dumont). Anyway, Tommy has no plans to run a store, preferring instead to sell his share. He’d rather be running a music conservatory. In traditional Marx Brothers fashion, a villain, store manager Mr. Grover (Douglass Dumbrille), is plotting his own takeover. Martha ends up hiring a private detective, Wolf J. Flywheel (Groucho Marx), to serve as Tommy’s bodyguard after Tommy got knocked unconscious. Tommy hires Flywheel’s assistant, Wacky (Harpo Marx), who just happens to be Ravelli’s (Chico Marx) brother. Like many Groucho roles that came before, Wolf tries to romance Martha. Meanwhile,  Classic Marx Brothers shenanigans ensue, including a climactic chase through the store.

Once again, there are a pair of love interests. This time around, Tommy happens to be in love with Joan Sutton (Virginia Grey), one of the store employees. Owning the store today would make his pursuit of her grounds for sexual harassment. Regardless, he had no intentions of keeping his share. Frequent Marx veteran Margaret Dumont returns for what would be her seventh film with the brothers. It would also mark her last time going head to head with Groucho in one of their films. But as they say, all good things must come to an end. Douglass Dumbrille plays a similar role to his character in A Day at the Races.

With the return of Margaret Dumont and a number of elaborate musical numbers, it had all the fittings of a farewell film. It isn’t quite the high note that they’d like to have gone out on but they do classic Marx Brothers antics. And again, it’s not to the same level of their work at Paramount or the two MGM films supervised by Thalberg. Their best days were clearly behind them. This isn’t to say that they don’t put in the effort here because they do. It’s just that the fun that goes into making a film was no longer there and without Thalberg’s supervision, the overall quality had suffered in the process.

Louis K. Sidney had produced the film for MGM and let’s just say he got into it with the Marx Brothers. If he had his way, one of the funniest lines in the film would not be in there at all. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed although he was still upset. In fact, Louis B. Mayer even said the line in question was one of the best in the film. Who were Charles Reisner and the Marx Brothers to go against Mayer?!? The lines are as follows:

Martha Phelps: “I’m afraid some little blonde will come along and you’ll forget all about me.”
Flywheel: “Nonsense! I’ll write you twice a week!”

The Marx Brothers do Marx Brothers things in The Big Store and while it’s not their best effort, it’s the Marx Brothers doing those things that are really all that matter.

DIRECTOR: Charles Reisner
SCREENWRITERS: Sid Kuller, Hal Fimberg, and Ray Golden
CAST: Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx, with Tony Martin, Virginia Grey, Margaret Dumont, Douglass Dumbrille

MGM released The Big Store in theaters on June 20, 1941. Grade: 3/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.

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