Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Series Report Card: The Marx Brothers (1931)

3. Monkey Business

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.

In “The Cocoanuts” and “Animal Crackers,” Groucho Marx played an authority figure. Primarily irreverent ones but authority figures nevertheless. In their previous movies, Harpo and Chico spent part of their time harassing stiffs and bosses. “Monkey Business” moves past such formalities. The entire movie is devoted to the brothers, all four of them, being huge assholes to the people in charge. They spend most of the movie fleeing the boat captain or taking the air out of a pair of super-serious mob bosses. Moments like this make it clear why this comedy team would become cult hits with sixties anti-authoritarian hippies. In “Monkey Business,” the Marx Brothers rejects anyone who says they know better and mocks everyone who takes themselves even a little seriously. It's one of the brother's most anarchic films and all the better for it.

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.

Zeppo, rather notoriously no one's favorite Marx brother (though 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.

If Groucho's verbal wit runs wild in “Monkey Business,” Harpo's physical form of comedy is equally unhinged. He makes a habit of hiding in unusual places in this one. He hides under a woman sitting in a chair – sitting atop another guy – as well as also posing as a camera or the back of a dress, attaching himself to various girls. One of the highlights of the film has Harpo ducking into a Punch n' Judy Show. He pretends to be one of the puppets, baffling and irritating the cops on his trail. The way this gag concludes, with an extra leg appearing, is especially inspired. As is his insistence on bringing a chess board into a tense meeting for no reason. Harpo even makes tiny gestures hilarious, like glancing into a barrel lid as if it's a mirror or tossing a life saver on a random person's head as he runs by.

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.

The first hour of “Monkey Business,” which is most of the movie, is set on the boat. Once the brothers arrive on land, it's true that “Monkey Business” slows down a little bit. Seeing the guys riff on a crowd of stuffy party-goers is something we've seen them do before. Granted, there's stand-out moments here, like Groucho acting like a cat out on the porch. By the time we get to the comedic fight scene in a barn, “Monkey Business'” manic energy has definitely started to run out a bit. Even that has some pretty good bits, like Harpo hitting people on the head with a hammer or Groucho commenting on the fight like a sports announcer.

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.

Going into this rewatch of “Monkey Business,” I was curious if it would be as funny as I remembered it being. The film holds up in every way. It's filled to the brim with gut-busting gags and jokes, the audience rarely going long without a huge belly house. Whether or not it's the best of the Marx Brothers' films is up for debate. However, it might be the funniest. Moreover, it'll always be my favorite. Audiences in 1931 agreed and made it an even bigger hit than the brothers' previous two features. [Grade: A]

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