Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Series Report Card: The Marx Brothers (1930)

2. Animal Crackers

Despite whatever reservations the brothers might have had about it, “The Cocoanuts” was a hit for Paramount. The Marx Brothers were immediately put to work on a second feature. Also adapted from one of their stage plays, Paramount would give the director's chair to Victor Heerman. The hope was that Heerman, a strict disciplinarian, would reign in the Marx Brothers' rambunctious performing style while keeping shit funny. I have no idea how shooting when on set but it's hard to argue with the results. “Animal Crackers” would become the fourth most popular American film of 1930, ensuring the Marxes would continue to find work at the studio for years to come.

The film has Groucho Marx appearing as Captain Jeffrey T. Spaudling, a famous big game hunter, who is returning to America from a recent trip to Africa. He has been invited to the home of socialite Mrs. Rittenhouse. An art collector named Chandler is also there, revealing a famous painting by an artist named Beauregard. Rittenhouse's daughter, Arabella, is engaged to John, a talented but thus far unsuccessful painter. The two cook up a plot to replace the famous Beauregard painting with a perfect duplicate, painted by John. The scheme quickly goes awry, thanks to an oddball musician invited to play the party and his even stranger friend.

Though only a year passed between the release of “The Cocoanuts” and “Animal Crackers,” it feels like film-making technology had already come a long way. This is still a fairly early sound film. There's little in the way of a musical score, scenes often playing out with just the cast talking to each other. The story is still fairly stage bound, which is especially apparent in an extended gag involving a temporarily darkened room. However, there's some attempts to make things more cinematic. The sets are shot at a wider angle, giving everyone more room to run around. Heerman was obviously a little more adapt at keeping up with his famously energetic stars.

“Animal Crackers” is a stronger film than “The Cocoanuts” in its script as well. In fact, this fast-and-loose comedy has an actual theme. “Animal Crackers” is partially a movie about deception. The central plot involves a painting being replaced with a nearly indistinguishable forgery. The painting isn't the only thing in the movie that isn't what it appears to be. Respected art collector Roscoe W. Chandler is later revealed to be Abie, a lowly fish monger. While the script never outright has Captain Spaulding revealing himself to be a fraud, he certainly doesn't act like the respectable individual his title suggests. These idea never really goes anywhere but it adds an interesting layer to “Animal Cracker's” story.

Further displaying a control on pacing “The Cocoanuts'” directorial duo lacked, Victor Heerman would cut several musical numbers from the film. The songs that were left in the movie, in a smart decision, frequently involve the brothers directly. “Hoo-Ray for Captain Spaulding,” which would become something like Groucho's personal theme song over the years, features the vaudeville star singing and dancing throughout the number. Chico's required piano number features Groucho cracking jokes throughout. Harpo eventually joins him by banging some horseshoes together. The three even take a break halfway through, to pass a coat around like a football. Even the non-comedic musical numbers aren't so bad. Hal Thompson's romantic duet with Lillian Roth, “Why Am I So Romantic with You?,” is actually pretty good, with a decent melody. Though Harpo's harp accompaniment is still a bit of a snooze.

While “The Cocoanuts” had the benefit of being made in the lawless pre-code era, “Animal Crackers'” content came under a little more scrutiny from censors. And it's easy to see why, as “Animal Crackers” is way hornier than its predecessor. Harpo is chasing the same blonde girl all throughout the film. Later, he flirts with a girl on a park bench, the two even smacking each other's asses. At one point, Groucho exits a scene with a group of bouncy, swimsuit-clad college girls. There's jokes about bigamy, undeveloped native girls, magnificent chests, scratching Elsie, and the maid's bedroom. So the going-ons are a little more ribald this time. The editing was so bad that, for many years, only a cut version of the film was available. Luckily, an original print was restored in 2016.

“Animal Crackers” also features some of Groucho's most famous bits. He's introduced in the film asking a proud African for his license plate and it only gets wackier (though less racist) from there. During a comedic attempt to seduce Margaret Dumont and another woman, he keeps making melodramatic asides to the audience for no reason. This proceeds a later moment where Groucho directly breaks the fourth wall, by apologizing for a corny joke. An attempt to dictate a letter to Zeppo starts out in a silly place and only gets more circular and absurd as it goes on. There's good reoccurring gags about Spaulding repeatedly introducing himself and pretending to be a detective. That double-talk and absurdist word play peaks during Captain Spaulding's presentation about his trips in African, by far the most well-known bit in the film And it's still hilarious, with quips about elk-a-hol, rich bears, and irr-elephant details.

Thoroughly unleashed, Harpo gets some great gas to himself. An early scene has him firing a rifle at random people. Which would be a bit off-putting if it didn't conclude with a fantastically odd gag involving a statue. Harpo floats checks back into his pocket, steals people's ties, and swings his legs into people's laps while sitting on a coach. A small, but truly hilarious bit, has him folding a card table's legs back up just as someone else attempts to fold them out. Maybe Harpo's best bit comes near the end of the film. A police chief, who was accusing him of thievery just a minute before, shakes his hand. Pilfered silverware then falls from his sleeve. And continues to fall, on and on, for a solid minute.

Most of Chico's best bits, as is usually the case, occurs when playing off other characters. Introduced as a trombone player, he quickly ends up bickering with Groucho and cracking some killer sewer puns. Goofy wordplay like that is also brought up when referring to Uruguay. Another favorite pun Chico mistaking “parachute” for “pair of shoes,” which results in a hilarious and very spontaneous seeming action from Groucho. One of the highlights of the film involves Harpo mistaking Chico's garbled request for a flashlight for similar sounding objects. This results in a fish, a flask, a deck of cards, a flit gun, and a flute appearing. The film then has the confidence to repeat the same guy but in total darkness, which somehow makes it just as funny.

Not every gag in “Animal Crackers” worked for me. An improvised boxing match between Harpo and Chico feels like a weaker reprisal of something from “The Cocoanuts.” A game of Bridge played between those two, Margaret Dumont, and the film's female lead is too slow and really goes on for much too long. (Though it does end with a killer gag, of Harpo suddenly wearing high heels.) The film attempts to fuse its plot and its humor near the end, with Chico describing some clues to Groucho. That scene is a bit sluggish too, despite one or two lines about left-handed moths.

“Animal Crackers” shows the anarchic, subversive elements of the Marx Brothers coming more into play. The film is more about the free-spirited brothers hassling the squares than “The Cocoanuts” was. The movie's complete disregard of traditional rules becomes truly apparent during one of my favorite cinematic endings, where Harpo just gases (kills?) all the characters in the movie. This anti-authoritarian streak would make “Animal Crackers” a favorite with college kids in the seventies. That fandom led to the movie being restored and screened theatrically for the first time in decades. I bet the Paramount execs never saw that one coming. While still a little bumpy, “Animal Crackers” is pretty damn good and probably the Marxes' first genuine classic. [Grade: B+]

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