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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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Horse Feathers

Ring a Ding Ding

Horse Feathers (1932)

     I made my second foray into the zany world of the Marx brothers last night with their fourth feature, Horse Feathers. Like Duck Soup the title in no way pertains to the story about a college’s attempt to create a winning football team. The plot of this flick, however, is merely meaningless as it simply provides a platform upon which the foursome can run amuck.

     Originally planned as a story that mixes the men up with mobsters, that line was dropped after the son of aviator Charles Lindbergh was kidnapped in March 1932. The mob thread weaves itself only minimally into the final product that features two hoods hired to masquerade as college football players on the team opposing our protagonists.

     In the end, Groucho would play the new dean of the college in question where he starts the film generally degrading the school faculty and singing a tune about how he is against any ideas a person might have. Zeppo plays the dean’s son, a student at the college who is carrying on with the “college widow,” the young, hot, blonde Connie, played by Thelma Todd. Thinking that the university should focus less on academics and more on football, the dean is told to recruit the hoodlums from the speakeasy, unaware they are already slated to play for the opposing team. When he arrives at the speakeasy, the dean confuses Chico and Harpo‘s characters for the football players. When the dean discovers that Chico’s character, Baravelli, an iceman and bootleg booze delivery man, and Harpo’s dog catcher are not the players he sought, he has them instead kidnap the actual athletes. That, of course, fails but the four non-students end up playing a ridiculous game of football at the film’s close that is dripping with Marx physical humor.

     At 68 minutes in length, Horse Feathers is a quick but pleasant trip through one joke after another. The film was not without its off-screen trouble, however. Groucho was feuding with writer S.J. Perelman and Chico was injured in a car accident that shattered his kneecap, required the use of an on-screen body double and showed up as a limp toward the movie’s end. Regardless, I truly loved some of the dialogue exchanges in Horse Feathers. Chico has quickly become my favorite of the brothers. I love a good Italian accent…or a bad one. Below is an example of some of the verbal nonsense that transpired among the brothers as they try to figure out the speakeasy password “swordfish” (which allegedly inspired the title of the movie Swordfish from 2001).

Wagstaff (Groucho): I got it! “Haddock”.
Baravelli (Chico): ‘At’s a-funny, I got a “haddock” too.
Wagstaff: What do you take for a “haddock”?
Baravelli: Sometimes I take an aspirin, sometimes I take a calomel.
Wagstaff: I’d walk a mile for a calomel.
Baravelli: You mean chocolate calomel? I like-a that too, but you no guess it.

     Given its brevity, Horse Feathers makes a great quickie laugh if you do not care too much about a decent plot. With the Marx brothers, however, one does not need a plot.

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