Monkey Business (1931) Norman Z. McLeod
Universal – The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection Blu-ray (1:19)
Monkey Business is the third Marx Brothers film, but the first to be shot from an original screenplay. (The first two, The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930), were by and large adaptations of their Broadway shows.) Is it a better film than Animal Crackers? Is it their best film before Duck Soup (1933)?
In this series of madcap escapades, the brothers stowaway on an ocean liner heading for America. After having been discovered as stowaways by the ship’s Captain Corcoran (Ben Taggart), the chase is on, stopping only long enough for a series of shenanigans to ensue, which they do often: Harpo becomes part of a Punch and Judy show, Chico and Harpo pretend to be barbers, Groucho chases after the wife (Thelma Todd) of a notorious gangster (Harry Woods), and all four brothers impersonate Maurice Chevalier while trying to obtain a passport. And we’re just getting warmed up.
Although the first two films are good, Monkey Business is the strongest of their initial three for several reasons: the writing is tighter, the jokes and gags more frequent, and each brother (even Zeppo) is allowed to contribute something significant. Interestingly, Monkey Business at 79 minutes is significantly shorter than its predecessors The Cocoanuts at 93 minutes and Animal Crackers at 96 minutes. (For a time they would get even shorter, some just slightly over an hour, with their longest, A Day at the Races (1937), coming in at what seems an epic 109 minutes.)
Of course nearly every Marx Brothers picture needs a female foil for the brothers’ insanity, sort of a “voice of reason” figure who has absolutely no chance of using logical means to subjugate the madness. But they try. In the first two films, Margaret Dumont (an actress I have come to greatly admire) filled that role. Yet that honor was given here to comedian Thelma Todd, who would also star in the next Marx Brothers film Horse Feathers (1932). Dumont returned after Todd’s (apparently accidental) death in 1935, which was determined to be from carbon monoxide poisoning in her garage. The death was tragic and oddly enough, eerily foreshadowed in a line of dialogue from Monkey Business. In a scene set in Todd’s cabin, Groucho says, “You’re a woman who’s been getting nothing but dirty breaks. Well, we can clean and tighten your brakes, but you’ll have to stay in the garage all night.” Although you certainly can’t blame Groucho, you have to wonder what went through the poor man’s mind for the rest of his life.
But let’s not end on such a dark note. The laughs come quickly and often with Monkey Business, so please check it out for yourself. In fact, if you haven’t picked up the recent Universal release of The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection, you should. It’s not only classic comedy, it’s classic cinema.
Photos: RareFilm, Pre-Code, Tactical PopCorn