Wednesday, March 21, 2018
Series Report Card: The Marx Brothers (1931)
Having their roots on stage, where they had already headline a number of popular shows, it made sense for the first two Marx Brothers movies to be based on plays they previously starred in. After proving themselves as cinematic stars with “The Cocoanuts” and “Animal Crackers,” it was determined that the four brothers should star in their first entirely original motion picture. “Monkey Business” was written exclusively for the screen. Just like their last two movies, the film would go on to become a big hit. When I was first watching through the Marx Brothers' films many years ago, “Monkey Business” quickly became my favorite.
Since plot is never very important in these films, “Monkey Business” is best remembered as the one where the Marx Brothers are on a boat. The four play stowaways on a luxurious ocean liner. While constantly pursued by the captain, they hang around the boat through the entire cruise. Along the way, they brothers – playing themselves for the first time – run afoul of two separate mobsters, “Big Joe” Helton and Alky Briggs. While Groucho flirts with Briggs' moll, Harpo and Chico end up becoming the bodyguards for Helton. Along the way, Zeppo romances with Helton's daughter, unaware of her connection to the mobster.
Another reason “Monkey Business” works so well is because it's excellently paced. The film is much shorter than the brothers' previous two films, running just a little over an hour. The film achieves this speedy pacing by mostly cutting out the musical numbers. Aside from mockingly performing the same Maurice Chevalier song, the brothers never actually sing in this one. (They do pause in the middle of a chase scene to play some free form jazz though.) There are very few songs. The most prominent song occurs when Cecil Cunningham, the film's Margaret Dunmont stand-in, sings an opera. This is quickly undone with humor, when Harpo mockingly plays his harp. Chico incorporates humor into his brief piano solo as well. By focusing on jokes over songs, “Monkey Business” becomes the brothers' most fleet-footed film yet.
reportedly the funniest in real life), didn't contribute too much to the previous two films. He was mostly stuck in small roles as Groucho's sidekick, not contributing much to the plot or getting too many jokes to himself. In “Monkey Business,” he's given more to do, slipping into the romantic lead role usually occupied by some other boring actor. He proves surprisingly charming in the role. The scene where he introduces himself to Ruth Hall's Mary Helton, involving trading handkerchiefs, is very cute. Zeppo has decent chemistry with Hall, making their scenes more entertaining than they otherwise would've been.
Still, it's clear to anyone that Zeppo's involvement in the story is mostly superfluous. Groucho generates some of the biggest laughs in this very funny film. He comically bitches with the captain, badgering him into getting into his office and eating his dinner. Some of his best lines – jokes about gats, nobody sneaking into his bedroom, shyster lawyers and fixing brakes – are exactly the kind of circular word-play you've come to expect, delivered with expert ferocity. Sometimes, lines that aren't even funny on paper, like “I'm spying on you,” become hilarious solely through his delivery. Groucho gets a lot more physical humor than usual. While flirting with the gangster's moll, he dives in and out of a curved closest. This leads to the first instance of Groucho's goofy walk. Later, he attempts to pick on the gangster's gun while it's still in his pocket. Naturally, his attempts to mess with people – pulling off toupees, commenting on an argument between two people – produce great laughs.
While Groucho's one-liners run freely and Harpo's rampages, Chico's comedy is more reactive. As usual, he plays off Groucho to great comedic effect. He crack lines about flies being unable to read paper. Or misunderstands short-cut as a reference to strawberry shortcake. Or confuses whistles or vessels. Or mutinies with Monday. His biggest gag in the film, a team-up with Harpo, has him progressively shaving off a man's mustache. While that's fantastic, one of his biggest laughs is a simple reaction to a calf and its mother cow. A reoccurring joke about his grandfather's beard is pretty good too.
Not every gag in the film works all that. Some are a little aggressively goofy. Such as Harpo attempting to fish a passport out of the pockets of random people passing by. While I love him receiving a frog as an animal sidekick, a scene where he believes the frog is down someone's throat maybe pushes things too far. Lastly, the scene where the guys imitate Chevalier is regarded as a classic. The beginning, where Harpo once again removes similar sounding objects out of his pockets, is great. However, by the end, where he's trying to sing along with the phonograph on his back, the gag has officially goes on too long.