The Phelps Department Store is about to be sold by its new part owner, Tommy Rogers with the permission of Martha Phelps, the dowager co-owner. The current manager doesn't want this as the irregularities in the books will show up. When an attempt is made on Tommy's life, Martha enlists the worst private eye in the world to protect him, Wolf J. Flywheel.Written by
John Vogel <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Confusing plot, too often flat, and frequently absent Marx Brothers, but a few hilarious scenes
While I disagree with the conventional wisdom about the Marx Brothers' film made before The Big Store, Go West (1940), believing it to be yet another one of their many masterpieces, I have to agree with the conventional wisdom about The Big Store. It has the feeling of a contractual obligation film. One, two or all three of the Marx Brothers are absent for long periods of time. The story is often confusing. The film doesn't flow very well. Some of the material featuring other performers simply doesn't work. Even when it does work, it's never as good as the Marx Brothers' material, and even their work is too often strangely flat.
The Big Store is really the story of Tommy Rogers (played by famed pop singer Tony Martin). Rogers has just gained partial ownership of the Phelps Department store with the passing of a relative. However, he's not interested in the store, so he plans to sell and use the money to build a state of the art music conservatory in conjunction with his friend, Ravelli (Chico Marx). Unfortunately, not everything at the Phelps store has been on the up and up, and surviving store manager Mr. Grover (Douglass Dumbrille) is worried about buyers discovering their creative bookkeeping. So they try to off Tommy, which leads to hiring private detective Wolf J. Flywheel (Groucho Marx) and his assistant, Wacky (Harpo Marx), who happens to be Ravelli's brother. At the same time, Mr. Grover is courting Martha Phelps (Margaret Dumont), Tommy's aunt, with machinations of eventual ownership of the store.
In terms of meatiness, that's far more of a plot than I usually relay, but all of that is presented in the first 10 - 15 minutes of the film. The remainder involves playing out those threads. The problem is that the above is way too complicated, especially for a Marx Brothers film. The Marx Brothers style was that plots were really secondary to their anarchic, madcap skits. In truth, the two were usually well integrated in their films, with meatier plots than the conventional wisdom has it, and the skits relatively seamlessly enmeshed in the plots.
Here, the plot is often difficult to follow, and when you do manage to follow it, it just isn't that interesting. Despite this, there are still a number of fabulous set pieces. The scene where we first meet Groucho and Harpo in Groucho's private eye office is hilarious. The bedding department scene is good. The climax, featuring an extended chase through the department store, is a lot of fun, including its cartoonish use of wire stunts and camera tricks.
But there just isn't enough of that stuff, and one of the Marx Brothers' strongest points--Groucho's verbal bantering, is oddly flat just as often as it isn't. Even the usual musical sequences are problematic, unlike their sublime charm in Go West. Only Harpo's musical sequence and a brief duet with Chico on the piano are worthwhile. Groucho is given a schmaltzy "big musical production number" that goes on too long, is supposed to be funny and isn't, and ends up with Groucho doing little else but mugging and doing his trademark walk while other characters we're not familiar with sing the song.
Tony Martin has a song early on in the film that's okay, but doesn't exactly fit the tone of the film, and later, he does another "big musical production number", called "The Tenement Symphony", that is bizarre, to say the least, but not particularly funny. Instead, it's a strange mish-mash of styles that is strongly derivative (in a negative way) of George Gershwin.
While Marx Brothers completest certainly can't avoid The Big Store, it's difficult to imagine this being anywhere near the top of the list for any Marx Brothers fan. It's also not a great way to introduce anyone to their work (as they're likely to not be very interested in seeing more), and there are far better films for casual viewers who are not particularly interested in the Marx Brothers.
The few hilarious scenes could easily be excised and work just as well (if not better) in isolation, as "random" skits. But the film is very slightly recommendable for them.
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