The Film: Monkey Business (1931)
The Principals: Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx, Zeppo Marx, Thelma Todd, Norman Z. McLeod (director)
The Premise: Four stowaways who kind of look like each other (The Marx Brothers) are chased by the staff of the boat. All find employment working for or against gangster Alky Briggs (Harry Woods), which leads to a party and a rescue.
Is It Good: Bitch please, The Marx Brothers were in their PRIME in this film.
This was the third Marx Brothers movie, and the first one that doesn’t feel stage bound. The Marx Brothers at that point were inspired performers, and their earlier films were essentially filmed stage plays, so they are funny, but feel stilted. Though I would never say this is a visual triumph, there’s a number of gags and locations that don’t make this feel as visually limited as their first films.
And the one great underlying notion of this film and Groucho, Chico and Harpo is chaos so having the freedom of locations elevates the film. The film revels in the unbridled joy of fucking shit up (not in a violent way, though). These character are absurdist, and don’t believe in any sort of authority. Of course there’s a childlike innocence to them, but then Harpo – the silent one who often has a scene in their movies entertaining kids – is just as happy to chase after women in a manner that suggests he might (I’ll go fifty-fifty) know what to do with them if he actually catches one.
Zeppo Marx – who became the odd man out as the brothers kept working – was for all intents the “handsome” Marx, which means that he would handle the film’s perfunctory narrative (as the majority of these films have) that usually involved a love interest. In this case he meets the daughter (Ruth Hall) of a reformed bootlegger, Big Joe Helton (Rockliffe Fellows – and that’s one of the greatest names ever). It strikes me that Helton is a surrogate figure for “Bootlegger” Joe Kennedy and that Alky Briggs = Al Capone, but the latter is more likely than the former. Groucho and Zeppo end up with Alky, and Chico and Harpo end up working for Big Joe, but none of them really care about the jobs. In the same way – though a bit more entertaining, most of their films stop so Chico can play piano and Harpo can play the harp.
Watching this at the New Beverly recently – though the film continues with its love interest narrative, I would have been just as happy if the film ended with the four getting off the boat. The rest is fine, there are some great jokes in the last reel of the movie, but it’s hard to care about whether or not Zeppo gets the girl. The fun is watching the boys avoid getting busted as stowaways, which leads to a sequence where Harpo pretends to be a part of a punch and Judy show, or Chico and Harpo pretend to be barbers. The Barbershop scene is great, and sums up so much of what makes these movies great. One of the boat’s officers wants to get a shave while looking for the stowaways, and so the two go about clipping the man’s mustache into shape. Since they aren’t barbers, the mustache is slowly clipped out of existence.
In this, you can deconstruct how the Marx brothers worked. First there is the man’s mustache. Removing a mustache isn’t painful, but the man obviously has a great pride in his appearance, and the work that went in to having such a thing. At first it’s a slight error in having one side of the mustache be longer than the other, and the boys try and fix it by making sure that both sides are even, but their measuring skills are comically lacking. The joke is inevitable, but where there are a number of jokes like this that traffic in discomfort of the inevitable, this never has any sense of malice. Because they are only hurting the man’s pride. And so you enjoy every piece of the mustache that’s removed, because fuck that guy.
I see something kind of profound in these gestures, the majority of the Marx Brothers films are about spitting in the eye of the establishment, and these characters are the lower class and on top of that illegal immigrants. The film was made during the depression, but though this never comes to the surface to the point of distraction, these guys are the trodden on pissing in the face of the upper class. And it’s glorious. Even the stuff that’s dated plays whether you know who Maurice Chevalier is or not. When all four take their turns with a Chevalier impression, the comic invention grows with each attempt.
Is It Worth a Look: Duck Soup is – in my mind – not only their best work, but probably the greatest comedy ever made (so Will Ferrell, nut up and see that shit), but this is top tier Marx Brothers material, and it has that thing that so many great comedies do where it just puts you in the eye of the whirlwind of comedy. Anchorman is inconceivable without the Marx Brothers. Then again, so are many things.
Random Anecdotes: Thelma Todd died in a garage, and Groucho makes a joke about leaving her in a garage to die. Therefore setting up one of the greatest alibis in the history of the world. This has no connection to the Howard Hawks film of the same name. HH’s Monkey Business has some good Cary Grant, great Charles Coburn and fun Marylyn Monroe, and is an acceptable matinee picture from Hawks, but decidedly second or third tier Hawks.