Saturday, December 31, 2011

Day 31: Monkey Business (1931)

"One of the stowaways goes around with a black mustache."
"Well, you couldn't expect a mustache to go around by itself."

When I was around eight or nine, AMC, which is now primarily known for their groundbreaking original programming, used to have Marx Brothers marathons on New Year's Eve & Day. In fact, my old VHS copies of their films were taped during one of these marathons. The Four Marx Brothers made a total of five films together at Paramount Pictures from 1929-1933. Their first two were based on their smash hit Broadway shows The Cocoanuts & Animal Crackers, and their last two are widely regarded as two of their best, Horsefeathers & Duck Soup. Smack dab in the middle is arguably their weakest effort, their first original screenplay, Monkey Business.

The brothers, playing nameless castaways on a cruise ship bound for the United States, find their way through several madcap adventures, none of them particularly inspired. The plot, razor thin though it be, concerns a gangster named Alky (Harry Woods) trying to kill and/or extort money from a wealthy businessman by the name of Big Joe Helton (Rockliffe Fellowes). Groucho and Zeppo find themselves in the employ of Alky, while Chico and Harpo come to work for Helton, but the latter don't offer much protection from the former, and the former seems to have no interest in actually killing the latter. Still with me?

When the ship docks in New York, Helton is to throw a party to introduce his daughter Mary (Ruth Hall) who has fallen in love with Zeppo. During the party, Alky and his thugs kidnap Mary, hide her in a barn, and it's up to the brothers and Helton to rescue her and save the day.

It's a pretty lame plot even by the subpar standards set by the brothers other efforts, but it's filled with some pretty decent comedy bits. The most inspired bit in the whole film is recycled from their vaudeville days when, in an attempt to get off the boat, they steal Maurice Chevalier's passport and one by one, try to pass themselves off as the famous crooner. It's hilarious, but I've seen a video of them doing the original bit, and this feels shoehorned into the film and subsequently not as inspired as it had been. In another, Harpo hides out in a children's puppet show on the ship and masquerades as one of the puppets as the Captain and First Mate try to wrestle him out.

It's unfortunate that even the best bits are pretty thin and unmemorable. There are half a dozen scenes in any of their other films that are better than even the best in this one. A key missing element here is Margaret Dumont, the legendary foil for Groucho. Her presence is sorely missed here, and without her, Groucho flounders a bit, delivering witty one-liners to a random assortment of people, none of whom can live up to the incredible Ms. Dumont.

The physical comedy is top-notch as always, and Harpo is really in top form here. He's always been my favorite Marx Brother, and his prop work and physical bits are hilarious. He's even given a foil of his own during his harp scene, when he accompanies a soprano singing "O Sole Mio," and is given a wonderful opportunity to infuse his harp playing with some very funny asides. His best work lie just ahead of him in their next two films, but he really steals the show here even with the weak material. Chico on the other hand is given some really bad bits in this film. His comedy has always relied heavily on word play and almost every single bit he does in the film is a stretch at best, like confusing vessel for whistle, and the endless puns about his grandfather's beard. It's really weak sauce and Zeppo is as superfluous as he's ever been.

There are much, much better Marx Brothers films out there and I urge you to seek them out (any of the four I mentioned in the first paragraph would be preferable, along with their first two MGM efforts A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races). I would recommend Monkey Business only for the die hards, and even then, it resides next to Room Service, At the Circus, The Big Store and Go West as lesser works (don't even get me started on Love Happy and A Night in Casablanca). Granted it's still funnier than most movies being made today, but they made much better films and you should do yourself a favor and watch those first.

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