Scene from the bargain basement(1941)
With Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, Margaret Dumont, Tony Martin, Virginia Gray, Douglass Dumbrille
Directed by Chuck Riesner
Black and White
Reviewed by JL and JB

    With the possible exception of their final film, LOVE HAPPY (1949), THE BIG STORE represents the nadir of the Marx Brothers' film career.  In previous films, Groucho had been a doctor, a lawyer, a college president, an African explorer, and the president of a mythical country.  In this film, he works in a department store.  And if you think department stores aren't as ripe for satire as politics, education and grand opera...well, you'd be right.  There's a few good laughs in the Groucho-Dumont exchanges, Harpo has a clever harp solo with mirrors, and that's about all this film has to recommend it.  The mere mention of "Tenement Symphony" is enough to send Marx fans into convulsions, so I won't mention it here. 2½ - JL

     Mr. Grover, as played by fine character actor Douglass Dumbrille, has got to be the most incompetent crook in the entire history of cheap low-rent movie thugs.  He has been cooking the books in his favor at Margaret Dumont's department store so his plan to cover up his crime is to kill anybody who gets in his way and doing that killing in the store itself. During business hours, mind you, with hundreds of customers around.  Yet he tries about 27 times to off his first victim without any success.  Grover even hires two killers to do his business for him, and then they fail and are captured by the police.  He keeps coming up with the stupidest ways of having people killed, such as murdering somebody in a crowded elevator or hiding a gun in a camera.  Later, when the Marx Brothers have an incriminating photo showing him kidnapping somebody, Grover engages a police officer to chase them around the store and kill them, even though they are in possession of the picture, which will obviously fall out of their hands if the cop manages to kill them, and then Grover will be exposed anyway.  To avoid all suspicion, when he does finally get hold of the photo, he burns it in front of the cop and says "You've got nothing on me."  You know, some people just shouldn't be crooks.  It's not really his fault though.  As I mentioned in my review of AT THE CIRCUS, Marx Brothers screenwriters had forgotten how to create simple plots.  By the time of THE BIG STORE, they had forgotten how to create plots that even made a lick of sense.  I mean, seriously, if you were one of the hired killers captured by the cops, wouldn't you immediately finger Grover as the guy who hired you?

     The music in the film (there's lots of it) is both good and bad, and will probably be what you remember most when you watch the movie.  Harpo's fantasy harp trio and his piano duet with Chico would be highlights in any Marx Brothers film, while Groucho's "Sing While You Sell" and Tony Martin's "Tenement Symphony" are unfunny and ungodly, respectively. Lost in all the gigantic production numbers is the song quite lovely "If It's You", sung by Tony Martin.  Martin does have a great voice, so if you come to Marx Brothers movies for the intrusive leading man stuff, I guess this is the one for you.

     Still, while there is hardly any classic comedy in THE BIG STORE, the film is much more pleasant than AT THE CIRCUS or GO WEST, as long as you're not expecting A NIGHT AT THE COCOANUT RACES WITH DUCK CRACKER FEATHERS.  There are a couple of funny lines here and there (when a man walks into the store with 12 children, Groucho asks "Do you have any other hobbies?") and some fairly amusing scenes such as Groucho's encounter with a couple of shoppers in the bed department. 2½ - JB

 The Marx Brothers     The Age of Comedy


"Hmm, same tailor... how much do you owe him?"

Notes by John V. "Jay" Brennan


Groucho sings "Sing While You Sell" with the cast.  Written by Hal Borne (music), Sid Kuller and Hal Fimberg (lyrics).


Chico's short solo in the opening scene: Schubert's "Moment Musical No. 3 in F Minor"

Harpo's Solo: A medley of Mozart's Piano Sonata No. 15 in C major and Beethoven's Minuet in G.  If you don't know these two pieces by their official names, you can be almost certain that you know them when you hear them played.

Chico and Harpo's Piano Duet: "Mexican Hat Dance" (traditional) / "Mamãe Eu Quero" (Vicente Paiva and Jararaca). Written in 1937, "Mamãe Eu Quero" was turned into a international hit by Carmen Miranda in 1940.

Harpo and Chico are featured for a few moments in the "Tenement Symphony" (Hal Borne, music; Sid Kuller and Ray Golden, lyrics) number at their respective instruments.


Clara Blandick (Auntie Em from THE WIZARD OF OZ) plays a woman who requests a new hit song at the record department.  Virginia O'Brien is the deadpan singer in the "Sing While You Sell" number.  Russell Hicks (J. Frothingham Waterbury from W. C. Fields THE BANK DICK ) plays one of the buyer of the film's Store.  Fields favorite Jan Duggan (best known as Cleopatra Pepperday in THE OLD FASHIONED WAY plays a woman inquiring about a bed.  Henry Armetta, known to Laurel and Hardy fans as the Inn Keeper from FRA DIAVOLO aka THE DEVILS BROTHER plays the guy with the dozen kids.  This cast is way too interesting for such a mediocre film.


Our friend Tory writes:

   "Sing While You Sell," while hardly "Everyone Says I Love You," from HORSE FEATHERS, is at least sung by smiling people showing some exuberance. And I would be remiss if I didn't admit I find myself humming it today. But "The Tenement Symphony"?...was that actually being sung (partially) by a choir of boys holding flashlights under their chins? And cutaways to young musicians doing little "bits" to represent some very joyless lyrics? Terrible lip syncing, so common in "musicals" is something we're all used to (think of "Marble Halls" in The Bohemian Girl) but Tony Martin's job here it just adds to the funereal sense of unreality that permeates this "symphony." Ugh...

     I was somewhat impressed with the slapstick chase scene at the end. Though terribly long, I thought it was good and silly and (remember, boys, I am NOT a film expert) I don't know how some of the effects were achieved. Harpo's mirror solo is great, and Harpo's and Chico's piano duet was absolutely perfect!! My wife made me rewind and we watched and laughed at that scene again. As good as anything the boys ever did...

      Did you notice that the Italian customer is the Innkeeper from [Laurel and Hardy's] Fra Diavolo (aka The Devil's Brother)? Hooray! I love that guy...

     And I still have a huge crush on Margaret Dumont...



The grand dame THE BIG STORE marks Margaret Dumont's last appearance with the Marx Brothers.  She would perform on television with Groucho one more time in 1965, recreating the opening of ANIMAL CRACKERS on The Hollywood Palace.  She passed away a few days later before the show aired.  Despite the adversarial relationship she had onscreen with the Marx Brothers, she loved "the boys" even as she complained that they ruined her chances to be thought of as a real actress.  The Marx Brothers loved her too, especially Groucho, who mentioned her in his speech when he received his lifetime Oscar.  It may or may not be true that she "never understood the jokes" as Groucho often said (she certainly seems to having a grand time on The Hollywood Palace), but "Maggie" certainly knew her importance to the team.  "I'm the best straight woman in Hollywood," she said in 1937, the same year she won the Best Supporting Actress Award from the Screen Actor's Guild for her work in A DAY AT THE RACES.

     To understand Dumont's importance to the team, you need only to watch AT THE CIRCUS and notice how when she finally shows up, the movie suddenly comes alive.  Is there a Marx Brothers fan out there who doesn't consider Margaret Dumont to be at least as important to the team as Chico?