Most of us who grew up watching and loving the Marx Brothers will agree on one thing -these guys were very, very funny, very talented, very creative, maybe the most surreal of all characters in the history of motion pictures.
Okay, ever heard of a seldom-seen or talked-about 1957 film called The Story of Mankind? Well, The Story of Mankind, it is universally agreed on, is a pretty rotten movie. Strictly forgettable, but for one single note of interest: The Story of Mankind is the last joint film appearance of the Marx Brothers. It is also their only full-length color film.
The Story of Mankind was sort of a mixed blessing (like many movies, come to think of it): yes, we get to see the Marx Brothers, and any Marx Brothers is better than no Marx Brothers. But Chico, the oldest brother, was a full 70 years old, and brothers Groucho and Harpo were in their late 60s. The boys were a bit long in the tooth by this time. It was a bit like the classic Beatles reunion so many hoped for, but with the Fab Four in their 50s or 60s.
The source for this debacle was a "serious" book by Hendrick van Loon (sounds like a Marx Brothers character, doesn't he?). The film was one of the first examples of a true "all-star cast." Hollywood has since learned, several times, that the greatest, most colorful casts in the world do not an entertaining or popular film make.
The casting is intriguing, to say the least. Groucho Marx is cast as Peter Minuet, the guy who bought Manhattan Island from the Indians for $24. Brother Harpo is cast as Sir Isaac Newton (???), and brother Chico, in a possibly a sly, sarcastic swipe at his well-known career as a ladies man, is cast as a monk.
The other cast members and fascinating role assignments are worthy of a mention. Vincent Price is the Devil. Dennis Hopper chews up the scenery as Napoleon, Agnes Moorehead is Queen Elizabeth I, Peter Lorre hams it up as Nero, And Ronald Coleman, in his surely regrettable final film, is cast as "the spirit of man." John Carradine plays "Khufu" (???). Oh yes, and Virginia Mayo is Cleopatra.
Each of the above actors and actresses are indisputably talented and have each given us wonderful performances. It is a tribute to this film's excruciatingly bad script, not their individual talents, that these poor guys end up looking so ridiculously bad.
Those are the famous ones, the stars we have actually heard of. Now get ready to say "Who?" Okay, we have Bobby Watson as Adolf Hitler (he looks like one of the aspiring Fuhrers in Mel Brook's The Producers), Austin Green as Abe Lincoln, Dani Crayne as Helen of Troy, and Jim Ameche (Don's brother) as Alexander Graham Bell.
But let's look at the great Marx Brothers. Groucho is actually quite good, and funny, in his role as Peter Minuet. His beautiful wife, Eden Hartford, plays a very sexy Indian girl he meets and leers at, so Groucho plays the character we all know and love him for -the sly, conniving deal-maker with an eye for the ladies.
Groucho is so incredibly talented, he almost couldn't help but be funny. He buys Manhattan from the naive Indians: "Be glad it's not 300 years later. You might have been wiped out in the stock market." He manages to lure the chief's pretty daughter "Running Water" away with an anachronistic rendering of "Swanee River." (As a sidebar, Groucho's pretty daughter Melinda has a brief role in the film, too. She is billed as "Christian Girl." The fact that of an obviously Jewish girl making her film debut as a Christian girl is pure Marx Brother surreality, too.
Harpo's portrayal of Sir Isaac Newton is obviously unbelievable. But the wonderfully talented silent Marx brother puts in a very funny and memorable performance. He gets hit by the apple, gets mad, and discovers gravity. Harpo briefly plays his trademark harp -who knew Newton was a harp player?
Both Harpo and Groucho come off quite well, in contrast to the third Marx Brother, poor Chico. In a (probably) wry comment on Chico's legendary prowess as a skirt chaser, a very old, weathered-looking Chico plays a monk. Chico is, to be precise, a monk who warns Christopher Columbus how dangerous his voyage to the New World could be. With Groucho and Harpo, we are delighted -they each bring a bit of genuine humor into this dreadful film. But with Chico, we have only regret.
He plays the role of a monk (no funny lines are given to him) with deadpan seriousness. Chico is completely wasted in this dull role. The great Chico would be dead four years later (the film came out in 1957; Chico passed away in 1961).
The Story of Mankind was a natural for inclusion in the Medved Brothers' book The Fifty Worst Movies of All-Time, and The Golden Turkey Awards. Singled out for the Worst Miscasting Award is the bizarre Harpo Marx as Sir Isaac Newton. The possibly least explicable thing about the Marx Brothers in this film is that they are not seen together. Director Irwin Allen had the notion of getting them together "for one last movie," but the boys are only seen in three separate scenes. Oh well.
Watching talents like the Marx Brothers in a truly lousy film like The Story of Mankind is rather like Shakespeare writing an article for Mad magazine. It is like watching Michael Jordan play for the WNBA. It is watching Rembrandt paint with finger paints and draw with crayons. It is …well, you get the idea.
Thank God the Marx Brothers can still easily be viewed and appreciated on TCM or AMC or by buying or renting a copy of A Day at the Races or Duck Soup or Monkey Business. Or easier yet, just watch their older movies on YouTube. Skip The Story of Mankind. Once-in-a-lifetime comedic geniuses like Groucho, Chico, and Harpo definitely deserve better.