Cast & Crew
Singer Tommy Rogers wants to sell his half-share in Phelps department store, which he inherited from his adopted father, Hiram Phelps, and give the money to a conservatory of music for poor children. Unknown to Tommy, store manager Grover has been stealing from Phelps for some time and does not want to be found out, so he sends one of his cohorts to kill Tommy. When Tommy, who has worked out a deal for the Hasting Brothers chain to buy the store, is knocked unconscious in an elevator, his aunt Martha, who owns the other fifty percent of the store and is engaged to Grover, becomes concerned for his safety. Over Grover's objections, Martha decides to hire a private detective, and, after consulting the telephone directory, selects down-on-his-luck Wolf J. Flywheel. The eccentric Flywheel accepts her offer of $25 to take the case and promises anonymity. She then introduces him to Grover, saying that Flywheel is a new floor walker she wants to hire. Grover is suspicious of Flywheel, especially as he and Martha recite poetry to each other, but she soon admits that Flywheel has been hired to protect Tommy. Tommy is touched by her concern and agrees to let him be his bodyguard. He also hires Flywheel's jack-of-all trades assistant, Wacky, who turns out to be the brother of Tommy's friend Ravelli. Within a short time, Flywheel, Wacky and Ravelli have created chaos in the store and annoyed customers, much to Grover's irritation. The day before the sale is set to go through, Grover arranges for Peggy Arden, a woman with whom he is involved, to lure Tommy to a road house. Although she poses as an important music critic, Tommy refuses to meet her, thus foiling another of Grover's schemes. That same day, music department employee Joan Sutton, with whom Tommy is in love, happily tells her brother Chris that she and Tommy are now engaged. Chris, who has been one of Grover's cohorts, has a change of heart and tells Flywheel about the two thugs who are in the store to kill Tommy. As they are talking, the Hastings brothers enter the store and Flywheel mistakes them for the hired killers, but his error is quickly pointed out by Grover. By chance, Wacky and Ravelli catch the real killers when an elevator operator shouts "up!" and the criminals think that he is a policeman ordering them to put their hands in the air. With identities now established, Grover concocts another scheme and suggests that the final papers for the sale be signed after the store closes, when they can hold a ceremony for the staff and invite the press. During a photo session, the lights go out and Joan is kidnapped, so Flywheel, Wacky and Ravelli decide to develop the picture and see who took her. Tommy soon finds Joan and when Ravelli develops the picture, Grover is revealed as the culprit. Grover then sneaks up on them and demands the negative and photo at gunpoint. After a brief struggle, a wild chase through the store ensues, which involves a variety of conveyances, including roller skates and bicycles. Flywheel, Wacky and Ravelli eventually corner Grover and he is forced to admit his murder plot as cameramen are poised to take his picture and he knows that one of the cameras has been rigged with a hidden gun. Finally, Martha agrees to be engaged to her hero Flywheel, and as they enter his ancient car, it is repossessed,and they are towed away.
Hal Le Sueur
Six Hits And A Miss
The Four Dreamers
St. Luke's Choristers
Harry C. Bradley
Conrad A. Nervig
Louis K. Sidney
Robert Van Eps
Edwin B. Willis
The Big Store
Actually, the three brothers were growing tired of moviemaking after twelve years in Hollywood and Thalberg's death seemed to clinch it. In April 1941, just two months before the June release of The Big Store, Groucho told the Los Angeles Herald, "When I say we're getting sick of the movies, I mean the people are about to get sick of us...Our stuff is simply growing stale. So are we." He would go on to explain, "After Thalberg's death, my interest in the movies waned...the fun had gone out of picture-making." A breakup was coming, but the three brothers would give audiences one last round of fun in The Big Store before hanging it up.
Louis K. Sidney was brought in to produce The Big Store (which Groucho had already announced would be the Marxes' final film). Unfortunately Sidney's interests were more financial than creative. While in pre-production, he gave the boys a pep talk. "Your last two pictures have lost money," Sidney pointed out. "We are not going to lose money...we're going to have a good picture." He also asked for the Marxes' undying cooperation in achieving this goal. But despite Chico's responding, "I love you...I'm going to go all the way with you," Sidney would run into some trouble with the brothers.
The problem stemmed from a single line in the picture. Late in the film, Margaret Dumont tells Groucho, "I'm afraid some little blonde will come along and you'll forget all about me." Groucho's punch line would follow, "Nonsense! I'll write you twice a week!" But for some reason, Sidney hated Groucho's retort and ordered the line cut from the movie. Luckily, the film's director Charles Reisner, a former vaudevillian, loved the line. He and Groucho had it put back in before the preview screening of The Big Store and the line got the biggest laugh of the night at the screening in Pomona, California. But producer Sidney was not laughing. He stormed out of the theater and confronted one of The Big Store's writers, Sid Kuller (who had no part in the decision), demanding to know how the line ended up in the picture. What happened next became Hollywood gossip. Apparently Louis B. Mayer was informed of this accusation, which directly implicated the Marx Brothers. Harpo explained to Mayer that there was a line in question. And when Mayer was told which line was the point of controversy, he exclaimed, "greatest line in the picture." However, Mayer's response only angered Sidney further, who demanded to know who had gone against his orders. No one answered for a moment. Then, Chico finally uttered the classic line, "Well, let's just say the god of comedy put it in."
In the end, the Marx Brothers kept to their word, retiring from the movies after The Big Store. But the retirement wouldn't last long - the boys would sign with United Artists to make A Night in Casablanca in 1946.
Producer: Louis K. Sidney
Director: Charles "Chuck" Reisner
Screenplay: Hal Fimberg, Ray Golden, Sid Kuller, based on a story by Nat Perrin
Cinematography: Charles Lawton
Film Editing: Conrad A. Nervig
Original Music: George Bassman, Hal Borne, Milton Drake, Ben Oakland, Artie Shaw
Cast: Groucho Marx (Wolf J. Flywheel), Chico Marx (Ravelli), Harpo Marx (Wacky), Tony Martin (Tommy Rogers), Virginia Grey (Joan Sutton).
BW-84m. Closed captioning.
by Stephanie Thames
The Big Store
Virginia Grey (1917-2004)
She was was born in Los Angeles on March 22, 1917, and was exposed to the film industry at a very young age. Her father, Ray Grey, was a Keystone Cop and acted in several other of Mack Sennett's comedies with the likes of Mabel Normand, Dorothy Gish and Ben Turpin. When her father died when she was still a child, Virginia's mother encouraged her to join the acting game and audition for the role of Eva for Uncle Tom's Cabin, a big budget picture for Universal Studios in the day. She won the role, and acted in a few more pictures at the studio: The Michigan Kid and Heart to Heart (both 1928), before she decided to temporarily leave acting to finish her schooling.
She returned to films after graduating from high school, and after bouncing around Hollywood doing bits for various studios, she hooked up with MGM in 1938. Her roles in her first few films were fairly non-descript: In Test Pilot and Ladies in Distress (both 1938), she did little more than look pretty, but in the following year she had scene-stealing parts in The Women (upstaging Joan Crawford in a delicious scene as a wisecracking perfume counter girl) and as the suffering heroine in Another Thin Man (both 1939).
Despite her versatility (she could handle comedy or drama with equal effectiveness), MGM would cast her in some above-average, but hardly starmaking movies: Whistling in the Dark, The Big Store (both 1941), and Tarzan's New York Adventure (1942). She left MGM in 1943 and became a freelance actress for several studios, but her material as a leading lady throughout the '40s were mediocre: Swamp Fire, House of Horrors (both 1946), and Mexican Hayride (1948) were sadly the more interesting films in her post-MGM period. But by the '50s she was a well-established character actress, appearing in fairly big-budget pictures: All That Heaven Allows, The Rose Tattoo (both 1955), Jeanne Eagels (1957).
In the '60s, Grey turned to television and found work on a variety of hit shows: Wagon Train, Peter Gunn, Bonanza, My Three Sons, I Spy, and several others; plus she also captured a a couple of notable supporting parts in these films: Madame X (1966), and Airport (1970), before retiring completely from acting in the early '70s. She is survived by her sister, Lorraine Grey Heindorf, two nieces and two nephews.
by Michael T. Toole
Virginia Grey (1917-2004)
If Ms. Phelps were not my fiancee, I would turn in my resignation and walk out of this store for good!- Mr. Grover
Oh no, no-- Martha Phelps
Fiancee?- Wolf J. Flywheel
Yes.- Martha Phelps
You mean a woman of your culture and money and beauty and money and wealth and money would, would marry that imposter?!- Wolf J. Flywheel
Can you tell me the price of this bed?- Woman Shopper
$8000- Wolf J. Flywheel
Why that's preposterous! I can get the same bed anywhere in town for $25.- Shopper
Yes, but not with me in it!- Wolf J. Flywheel
I'll take your picture. Hey! Look at me and laugh.- Ravelli
I've been doing that for 20 years.- Wolf J. Flywheel
"The Big Store" is American con artists' jargon for an elaborate type of confidence game. A well-known film example of a Big Store con is the one played on Robert Shaw by Robert Redford and Paul Newman in Sting, The (1973).
Working titles of the film were Step This Way, Murder with Music, Bargain Basement and The Bargain Basement. The opening title card reads: "Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer presents Groucho Chico Harpo Marx Bros. with Tony Martin in The Big Store." Screen credits, reviews and the CBCS list the character played by William Tannen as "Fred Sutton," but he is called "Chris Sutton" within the film. Christian Rub, Joe Yule and Etta McDaniel are listed in the CBCS, but they did not appear in the released film, although Rub's character, the "Professor," is mentioned. Charles Holland is listed as a cast member on a Hollywood Reporter production chart, but his appearance in the released film has not been confirmed. Hollywood Reporter news items and M-G-M departmental memos add the following information about the production: Shortly before production began, John M. Nicholaus of the M-G-M special effects department was developing some "3-D" effects to be included in one of the film's musical numbers. There were no 3-D effects in the released film. An additional musical number, entitled "I Want My Mama" was to be performed as a piano duet, but it was not in the film.
The Big Store was the final film that the Marx Brothers made at M-G-M. A Hollywood Reporter news item and some reviews indicated that it was to have been the brothers' last film together, but they appeared jointly in one additional film, the 1946 United Artists release, A Night in Casablanca (see below). The Big Store also marked the last feature film of actress Enid Bennett, who began her motion picture career in 1917 and appeared in numerous silent films, including the 1922 Douglas Fairbanks picture Robin Hood (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1921-30; F2.4663).