The Big Store

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Director: Charles Reisner
Writers: Nat Perrin, Sid Kuller, Hal Fimberg, Ray Golden

  • Groucho Marx — Wolf J. Flywheel
  • Chico Marx Ravelli
  • Harpo Marx Wacky
  • Tony Martin — Tommy Rogers
  • Margaret Dumont — Martha Phelps
  • Virgina Grey — Joan Sutton
  • Douglass Dumbrille — Mr. Grover
  • Virginia O'Brien — Kitty
  • Henry Armetta — Guiseppi

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer: 1941
black & white; 83 minutes

March 2005

The Big Store (1941) is the last of the wonderful string of movies that the Marx Brothers began in 1929 with The Cocoanuts, although they made two more films after World War II.

The plot involves a hostile takeover attempt of a department store from its heir, singer Tony Martin. The good-hearted but ineffably clueless Margaret Dumont hires Groucho as detective Wolf J. Flywheel. Assisted by Chico and Harpo, he must foil the crooks led by Douglass Dumbrille.

The Big Store is not as inspired with sparkling dialogue and byplay as the best of the Marx Brothers films, but there is plenty to like here. The roomful of Henry Armetta's dozen kids and other people sliding on automated beds in and out of walls and floors in the department store's bed section is justly famous, as is Harpo's musical trio with himself in a mirrored corner. The flight-and-fight finale around the store on roller skates is deprecated by Allen Eyles in his fine discussion in The Marx Brothers: Their World of Comedy as a simple comedic chase scene, but I liked it as a kid and still like it.

That finale must have been part of the inspiration for the spectacular battle in a department store in Null-ABC (also titled: Crisis in 2140), the 1953 science-fiction novel by H. Beam Piper and John J. McGuire.

Besides Harpo's self-trio, the other musical numbers are successfully romantic or funny. Tony Martin sings love songs to Virginia Grey. Groucho and the chorus of store employees perform "Sing While You Sell". Chico and Harpo play four-handed piano to a delighted audience. The set-piece song "Tenement Symphony" does not fit as well as it might if some background scenes at the beginning of the movie had not been cut before release.

The musical number that stands out in my mind, though, always has been Virginia O'Brien singing "Rockabye Baby" (the cradle will rock) with her classical face wearing her patent Miss Deadpan style.

Plenty of hijinks and action, good fun: a lifelong favorite of mine.


© 2005 Robert Wilfred Franson


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