Monkey Business

Ring a Ding Ding

Monkey Business (1931)

     I think I have found my second favorite Marx Bros. movie. Granted, I’m still working my way through them, and I have been told Animal Crackers might be a life-changer, but I am adding Monkey Business to my list of favorites.

     The four brothers –with Zeppo in a role more connected to the others than usual– are stow aways on a luxury liner. The first half of the film is spent attempting to evade the ship authorities while wreaking other havoc on board. Groucho falls for a racketeer’s wife, Chico and Harpo clip a man’s mustache clean off, and Zeppo finds legitimate romance with the daughter of another racketeer (Ruth Hall). The men also pair off to become hoods for the two racketeers, the younger of which is attempting to take over the business of the older. Groucho seems to be playing for both teams, however.

     The boat eventually docks, at which point the stow aways have trouble exiting because they all present a passport stolen from an unseen Maurice Chevalier and each tries to prove himself by singing “You’ve Brought a New Kind of Love to Me” (Harpo via mini record player attached to his back). The group continues to work for the racketeers and more shenanigans occur at the coming out party of Zeppo’s new girlfriend, at which she is kidnapped and taken to a barn (or is it a stable? “If you look at it, it’s a barn. If you smell it, it’s a stable,” Groucho says. “Well, let’s just look at it,” Chico responds.).  The men manage to foil the kidnapping and make friends with a cow (“I know, heifer cow is better than none, but this is no time for puns.”).

     This was the first Marx Brother film made in Hollywood –the first two having been filmed in New York. Additionally, it was the first written for the men, rather than being adapted from their stage shows. The screenwriter was S.J. Perelman, who also composed my favorite Marx film so far, Horse Feathers, in addition to other major films such as Around the World in 80 Days –his last. Monkey Business has less of the long dialogue exchanges between the fellows as seen later in Horse Feathers and more short quips of play on words.

     The physical comedy seems to be at its maximum in Monkey Business. If one literally closes his eyes for a few moments, he will miss the start of a tussle or a singular joke based solely on a facial expression or gesture. Speaking of physical characteristics, I would say Harpo is at his creepiest in this film. Whereas the mute character is typically endearing with his wide-eyed, raised-eyebrow grinning expression, he manages to morph into a monstrous doll in this movie. While hiding from the ship’s crew, Harpo ducks into a puppet booth putting on Punch and Judy skits. He attaches a doll body to his neck and provides the freakish face to match the other puppets. This cross-eyed, puff-cheeked persona is the stuff nightmares are made of. I gather he must have used this face in other films, but this was my first exposure to it, and I’d say the puppet body made it that much more frightening.

Too blury to get the full effect, but this was the best I could find.

  • Monkey Businessis set for 3:30 a.m. ET July 4 on TCM.

Source: Robert Osborne

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