Marx Brothers fans love to discuss which film is the best, with the argument using coming down to Duck Soup or A Night at the Opera. (Horse Feathers is probably my personal favorite.) The next topic of conversation is usually which is their worst entry. Many Marxists place The Big Store at the bottom of the list, but this is a film that I am found of for a number of reasons. Sure, Groucho’s song “Sing While You Sell” is but a shade of the brilliance of “Hurray for Captain Spaulding” or “Lydia the Tattooed Lady,” and the schmaltzy “Tenement Symphony” is truly terrible, but there are some great moment between these doldrums.
When The Big Store was released in 1941, it billed as the Marx Brothers farewell film, although the trailer admitted it may have been like the first of many “farewell tours” given by the late actress Sarah Bernhardt. Indeed, they would later go on costar in A Night in Casablanca in 1946 and Love Happy in 1949, and Groucho would make solo appearances in films throughout the ‘50s. The three films proceeding The Big Store had toned down the usual frenetic pacing of the Brother’s onscreen antics, but the idea that they were working on their last film together seems to have inspired them to squeeze out some extra energy. The climatic chase scene, which has the Brothers fleeing from the villain on roller skates through the titular department store, is silly as can be but is also a lot of fun to watch, something that can’t be said about any parts of Room Service.
The Big Store also marks the last on-screen pairing between Margaret Dumont and Groucho, whose acidic chemistry on screen been a central part of Marx Brothers comedy. Dumont plays the heiress of a department store who is being courted by the store’s manager, who has sinister plans to marry her and then bump her off, giving himself complete interest in the store. Dumont’s character is, as always, completely ill-informed and hires inept private detective Wolfgang Flywheel (Groucho) to protect her nephew, a radio crooner who doesn’t know that he is another target in the manager’s plan to wrestle away control of the store. While Groucho and his brothers do not climb on Maggie as if shimmying up a flagpole, as they had done in their earliest films, the verbal sparring is still there. Groucho and Dumont’s scenes together are priceless and their delivery perfect, even if the lines are not terribly funny. To wit:
Maggie: You make me think of my youth.
Groucho: He must be a big boy by now.
Harpo’s harp solos have always been a personal favorite part of the films for me. They exist in a world away from the comedy, a time when Harpo puts aside his clowning and reveals a bit of his true self, but they are also in important piece in the overall act. His “solo” in The Big Store is one of the best, as three Harpos, two reflected in full-length mirrors set in gilded frames, accompany each other on a Mozart minuet. 30 years earlier, the boys’ mother Minnie, who was the manager of the act, hoisted the instrument on Harpo, then still billed as “Arthur Marx” as a way to add “class” to the act. That strategy, designed to increase the pay the family could demand from theater managers, was never meant to start a life-long pursuit, but the seeds sown in those early days bear their finest fruit in this scene.