02/01/2012

Monkey Business (1931)


Here's a splendid Marx Brothers outing for Paramount, their third feature and the first from an original script not derived from one of their stage shows. From the moment these stowaways emerge from barrels of kippered herring aboard an ocean liner harmonising 'Sweet Adeline', Monkey Business proves to be one of their funniest and most nonsensical films. Having been chased around the ship by a furious captain and crew (as they would be again in A Night At The Opera, 1935), hiding out in gangster's closets and Punch and Judy shows, the Brothers find themselves on either side of a gang war - Groucho and Zeppo acting as "muscle" for tough guy Alky Briggs (Harry Woods) and Harpo and Chico for "Big Joe" Helton (Rockcliffe Fellowes), a situation complicated by Groucho's romantic overtures to Briggs' frustrated moll (former schoolteacher and Miss Massachusetts Thelma Todd) and Zeppo's love for Helton's debutante daughter (Ruth Hall). The idea of a "reformed" bootlegger trying to go legit and make a show of entering high society makes for a surprisingly topical plot angle for a Marx vehicle (which could be said to serve as a parody of the Warner Brothers gangster thrillers of the period) but, as always, the primary concern here is with pricking pomposity and all-encompassing, consequence-free anarchy, of which there's no finer example than the four siblings playing merry hell at passport control by throwing papers around and imitating French crooner and studio stable-mate Maurice Chevalier. "If a nightingale could sing like you..."



Groucho was very much at odds with writer S.J. Perelman during the making of Monkey Business, stemming from a disastrous early script reading at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles in which Perelman was asked to do a read-through in front of 27 people and five dogs, none of whom laughed once. However, despite the writer's unhappiness, there are plenty of great lines in tact in spite of the meddling of the Hays Office, not least this excellent Groucho plea to Todd: "Oh, why can't we break away from all this, just you and I, and lodge with my fleas in the hills? I mean, flee to my lodge in the hills." The Brothers also found a more sympathetic director than Victor Heerman from Animal Crackers (1930) in the person of Norman Z. McLeod, a University of Washington light-heavyweight boxing champion and World War One fighter pilot, who put up with and even encouraged their on-set clowning, which frequently included one brother dressing up as another to confuse proceedings. McLeod and Todd would both return for the equally successful Horse Feathers the following year, as would no nonsense producer Herman Mankiewicz (before finding immortality as Orson Welles's co-writer on Citizen Kane, 1941), whom Perelman described as having, "a stormy Teutonic character and [an] immoderate zest for the grape and gambling... if he had any lovable qualities, he did his best to conceal them". However, Mankiewicz knew comedy and hotly resisted efforts to expand the Marx formula: "If Groucho and Chico stand against a wall for an hour and crack funny jokes, that's enough of a plot for me". When asked by Perelman and fellow gag writer Arthur Sheekman about the psychology of the Marx characters, Mankiewicz replied: "One of them is a guinea, another a mute who picks up spit, and the third an old Hebe with a cigar. Is that all clear, Beaumont and Fletcher? Fine. Now get back to your hutch and at teatime I'll send over a lettuce leaf for the two of you to chew on. Beat it!" By all accounts, a brilliant but fearsome individual.

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