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 <email@example.com>
When Wacky is propelled up through the open elevator roof door, the wires pulling him and the outline of his back harness are clearly visible. See more »
Wolf J. Flywheel:
[Flywheel lying in a bed in The Big Store, when Guiseppi, his wife, and their 12 children surround the bed. Flywheel sits up]
What other hobbies have you got?
Eh, we like-a to see something different in a bed.
Wolf J. Flywheel:
You would? Just press that button over by the davenport.
Where is the davenport?
Wolf J. Flywheel:
Its in Iowa.
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Marx Brothers at half speed - and Douglas proves a comic
Groucho Marx, in one of the interviews in Richard Anobile's book about the brothers, admitted that the films after the death of Irving Thalberg (he meant after A Day At The Races) were not his favorite, and he considered them the team's worst films. This is not a totally fair evaluation. Two of the films (Room Service and A Night in Casablanca) were as good as Horsefeathers or Animal Crackers. But it must be admitted that At The Circus, Go West, The Big Store, and Love Happy (not to say their unfortunate solo performances in The Story of Mankind)were below par Marx. All had good moments in them - but only moments. If one can cut these films to only highlight their highlights the resulting anthology film would be almost as good as Room Service and A Night in Casablanca.
Groucho is Wolf J. Flywheel in this film - one of his catchiest pseudonyms. Like his later, tamer film role as Sam Grunion in Love Happy, he is a detective. Like Grunion he is living a hand to mouth existance, owing rent. In the last moments of the film Charles Lane forcibly reposes his car, an ancient vehicle (for 1941 America) with the sign, "Welcome Admiral Dewey, Hero of Manilla" on the back - the battle of Manilla Bay was in 1898, and the car looks like it just arrived on the scene before Dewey died in 1917. Groucho is therefore definitely interested in impressing and romancing his normal foil, Margaret Dumont, for financial security. In the end they and Harpo are in the car as it is towed away.
It was not the first time that Groucho played a character named Flywheel. In the missing year of 1934, while he and his brothers left Paramount after Duck Soup failed (and when Zeppo decided to become an agent rather than a straight man - a wise decision as he was a very successful agent), Groucho and Chico made a series of radio programs about a firm of shyster lawyers, Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel. The tapes of these broadcasts no longer exist (apparently) but the scripts have been published. Many of their routines appear to have been used in these scripts, which are funny. One hopes the tapes will still manage to turn up one day.
The best moments in the film are those dealing with Groucho trying to impress Dumont, and his confrontations with Douglass Dumbrille, as the conniving, pompous store manager Grover. Harpo's fantasy moment with two other Harpos playing a trio is fine. Chico really does not do too well in the film - nothing in particular standing out. This is not enough to sustain the film, until the final ten minutes.
The brothers have photographed Grover paying two goons to assassinate Tony Martin (the heir to Dumont, the owner of the store - Dumbrille wants to marry her to get control of the store). Dumbrille tries to get the photo back, and chases the brothers through the deserted departments of the store.
Douglas Dumbrille was a recognizeable movie villain throughout the 1930s and 1940s. He appeared opposite Crosby and Hope in Road to Utopia, and opposite Abbott and Costello in Lost in a Harem. In such roles he usually just gave the normally competent straight dramatic villainy that he gave in such films as Treasure Island (he was Israel Hands, who tries to kill Jackie Cooper/Jim Hawkins). But it was different with the Brothers, as he appeared in two films with them. He had played Morgan, the racetrack owner in A Day at the Races. Dumbrille was not the only actor who played in several Marx Brother films - Walter Woolf King was Gasparri in A Night at the Opera and was one of the two villains in Go West. Sig Ruman was Herman Gottlieb in A Night at the Opera, Dr. Leopold X. Steimetz in A Day at the Races, and Hans Stubel (the Nazi War Criminal in hiding) in A Night in Casablanca. Margaret Dumont appeared in seven Marx films, and Thelma Todd in Horsefeathers and Monkey Business. Ruman, Dumont, and Todd were all expert comic actors, and perfect foils for the brothers. King was okay, but no more. But Dumbrille was the interesting repeater in the bunch.
In A Day at the Races, Dumbrille had little to do, except to threaten Harpo for not throwing a race, and looking apoplectic while the brothers demolish his racetrack to prevent a race from occuring before their missing horse can be found. As such, his performance there is little different from his performance in Road to Utopia or Lost in a Harem. But the conclusion of The Big Store is different. Here, he steals the chase from the stars of the film
It is true that by 1941 the brothers were too old for the stunts needed - and so they use doubles (compare it to Go West a year before, where they still do some of their own stunt work). In some of the tumbles Grover is supposed to take, one can see that Dumbrille has a double too. But the difference is that the director noted that Dumbrille's unsmiling, stiff face can be used to punctuate what a ridiculous figure he could become. For he does become ridiculous, despite the grave reason for his chasing the brothers. Suddenly he has to do such ridiculous things as ride a bicycle in the store (a kid's bike at that) while wearing his floorwalker outfit) to catch the brothers who are on skates. He puts on skates too at one point, and falls into a counter full of ladies hats. He disappears behind the counter, and raises his head to show he is wearing a lady's hat with a flower on top. It's a priceless image, for his expression has not changed.
It is Dumbrille who makes the forced chase worth watching - it was (perhaps) his finest moment as a comic actor. I wonder if the brothers (especially the critical Groucho) ever stopped to realize how they had briefly abdicated their movie to a supporting player.
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