Two nights ago Charles and I had one of our rare evenings at home alone together and we celebrated with a dinner and a screening of the Marx Brothers’ second (surviving) film, Animal Crackers. The Marx Brothers had begun in vaudeville, first as a musical act and then graduating to comedy because in vaudeville comedians were paid better, and also because they had an uncle who was already a comic star in vaudeville — Al Shean (the real last name was Schoenberg), partner in the famous act of Gallagher and Shean and also the Marx Brothers’ first writers. By 1916 they were vaudeville headliners doing a gonzo act that prefigured their later films — in one sketch called Home Again, about a group of travelers returning from an ocean voyage, Groucho declaimed, “At last I set my feet on terra firma. It’s good to be somewhere where if you eat something, you won’t see it again.” In 1924 the Marx Brothers made it to Broadway with a revue (Broadway-speak for a musical that was just a bunch of comedy sketches, songs and dances strung together without a plot) called I’ll Say She Is, which was funded by a wealthy shoe manufacturer who wanted to give his stage-struck mistress her break. It was a hit, and in 1928 the Marxes went on to a second show, a (more or less) plotted musical called The Cocoanuts satirizing the then-current Florida land boom (and bust — whole fortunes were literally washed away when a massive hurricane hit Florida in 1926 and sent the boom-inflated price of Florida real estate plunging) with “A”-list talent backing them up. Their producer was George M. Cohan’s former partner Sam Harris, their writer was George S. Kaufman (one of the few times he worked without a collaborator), and their songwriter was Irving Berlin. The Cocoanuts was such a smash hit that Paramount made an offer for the movie rights, which included signing the Marxes to a three-film contract at $100,000 a film. (Paramount originally offered $75,000 but Zeppo Marx talked them into a higher sum, prefiguring his later exit from the act and successful career as an agent.)
In 1929 the Marx Brothers closed The Cocoanuts and went into another stage musical, Animal Crackers, with Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind as writers and Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby not only supplying the songs but possibly contributing to the script as well. The Marxes performed both day and night, filming The Cocoanuts at Paramount’s New York studio (now the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens) by day and acting in Animal Crackers on stage at night. All seemed to be going well for them until the 1929 stock market crash hit and Groucho lost a ton of money in it. He responded by throwing out most of the script for Animal Crackers and instead going on stage with one bitter joke about the stock market after another. (One particularly memorable line was, “I can see a day when the pigeons will be feeding the people in Central Park.”) In 1930, to fulfill their contractual obligation to Paramount for a second film, the Marxes went back to Astoria Studios to film Animal Crackers with most of the original stage cast — except for the romantic leads, which were recast; what Morrie Ryskind once referred to as “the boy who nobody cared about [who] made love to the girl nobody cared about” were played by Hal Thompson and Lillian Roth. Roth, whose descent into alcoholism and recovery via AA later became the subject of the popular 1950’s book and film I’ll Cry Tomorrow (with Susan Hayward superb as her), had apparently behaved so badly on the set of Cecil B. DeMille’s Madam Satan that to punish her Paramount decided to send her to New York and subject her to making a film with the Marx Brothers — though she recalled later that they behaved towards her like perfect gentlemen even though the Marxes were already well known in the business as cut-ups who were as undisciplined and anarchic off screen as they were on. Later Buster Keaton, who worked with them as a gag man at MGM, said, “You could never get them together in the same place at the same time. They had to have three assistant directors, one for each Marx Brother, just to get them to the set.” So in order to keep them disciplined, Paramount assigned the direction of the film to Victor Heerman, who was best known as a writer (he and his wife, Sarah Y. Mason, wrote the script for RKO’s 1933 adaptation of Little Women, directed by George Cukor and starring Katharine Hepburn) but who had got his start as a director for Mack Sennett and therefore knew enough about slapstick to be a suitable Marx Brothers director.
It was Heerman who decided to throw out most of Kalmar’s and Ruby’s songs — the only real numbers left in the film are the prologue, “Hooray for Captain Spaulding,” and “Why Am I So Romantic?,” a lovely duet (certainly better than anything the more highly regarded Irving Berlin turned in for The Cocoanuts!) between Hal Thompson and Lillian Roth which Kalmar and Ruby wrote for the film — and by doing so he turned Animal Crackers into a well-oiled laugh machine, brilliantly funny and crammed full of some of the Marxes’ best lines, comic action and pantomime scenes ever. Even the musical interludes that remain, like Chico Marx endlessly noodling at the piano, become butts of the jokes; Chico plays the same phrase over and over and admits, “I can’t think of the finish.” “That’s funny,” says Groucho; “I can’t think of anything else!” There’s also a nice line for Robert Grieg, who plays Hives the butler, whose boss Mrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont) lets him know that Captain Spaulding, the famous African explorer (Groucho Marx), is spending the weekend with them and wants a room with two baths. “I think the Captain would like two baths, don’t you?” says Mrs. Rittenhouse, to which Hives replies, “Well, if he’s just returned from Africa, he may need two baths.” (Nice to see a Marx Brothers movie in which they let someone else get some of the laughs.) Animal Crackers is best known for its set pieces rather than its silly plot: Mrs. Rittenhouse is out to make her first party of the summer a huge hit and embarrass her fellow 1-percenters, notably long-time rival Mrs. Whitehead (Margaret Irving). She’s not only invited Captain Spaulding as her guest of honor, she’s also invited art collector and philanthropist Roscoe W. Chandler (Louis Sorin) to unveil the French artist Beaugard’s Old Master painting “After the Hunt” (which looks hideous, probably deliberately so) at the climax of the evening. Only at least two copies of the Beaugard are floating around; one was painted by John Parker (Hal Thompson), penniless artist boyfriend of Mrs. Rittenhouse’s daughter Arabella (Lillian Roth), who conceives the idea that if she takes down the real Beaugard and substitutes John’s copy, he’ll be acclaimed as a great artist in his own right, Roscoe W. Chandler will commission a portrait from him, his career will be made and they’ll be able to marry. The other Beaugard copy was painted by Mrs. Whitehead’s daughter, Grace Carpenter (Kathryn Reece), who suggests to her mom that if they take down the Beaugard and substitute her lousy copy, Mrs. Rittenhouse will be embarrassed and the Whiteheads will be the victors in the social war. (Actually all three paintings, which are seen together in the final sequence, looked indistinguishably hideous to me.)
What counts in this one are the comedy routines, including Harpo’s ramble through Mrs. Rittenhouse’s front hall with a rifle, shooting things at random (like some of the early Mack Sennett comedies, this film treats a man walking around with a gun firing at people as if it’s the most normal thing in the world — both Charles and I joked that this looked like a benefit show for the National Rifle Association, and the only comeuppance Harpo gets is when two statues come to life and one of them fires back at Harpo); Spaulding and Emmanuel Ravelli (Chico Marx, as if you couldn’t guess — Harpo’s character is simply called “The Professor,” a precursor of the demolition job the Marx Brothers, with Kalmar and Ruby again involved as songwriters and screenwriters, would do on higher education in Horse Feathers two years and two films later) arguing over the rates Ravelli and his musicians get (“Well, for playing we get $10 an hour.” “How much do you get for not playing?” “$12 an hour. Now, for rehearsing, we get special rates: $15 an hour.” “$15 an hour? And how much do you get for not rehearsing?” “You couldn’t afford it. You see, if we don’t rehearse, we don’t play, and that runs into money”); Ravelli and “The Professor” learning that Roscoe W. Chandler is really their old friend from the streets, Abie Kabibble the fish peddler (“How did you get to be Roscoe W. Chandler?” asks Chico — and Chandler fires back, “How did you ever get to be an Italian?”), and trying to blackmail him (he gives them a check, Harpo drops it to the floor, and it literally bounces); Spaulding’s lecture about his African expedition (“One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How it got into my pajamas I’ll never know”); his and Chico’s search for the painting, in which they decide that if they can’t find it in Mrs. Rittenhouse’s home they’ll have to look in the house next door, and if there isn’t a house next door, “then we gotta build one” (“Just a little place that I can call home and tell the wife I won’t be there for dinner,” says Groucho); the dictation scene in which Groucho has his secretary, Jamison (Zeppo Marx, who understudied Groucho’s role during the stage run and once took over for him for two weeks with nobody noticing), take a letter to his lawyers, Hungerdunger, Hungerdunger, Hungerdunger, Hungerdunger and McCormack; the game of bridge where Chico and Harpo play Mrs. Rittenhouse and Mrs. Whitehead with an unending supply of aces of spades; the Strange Interlude parody which — reflecting Groucho’s losses in the 1929 stock market crash and all the bitter, nasty jokes he’d made about it on stage — ends with a joke about him seeing “stra-a-a-ange figures … we-e-e-e-ird figures … Steel, 186; Anaconda, 74; American Can, 138”; and the finale in which Harpo does a not-too-well (but still better than it was in The Cocoanuts!) version of the famous part of the Marxes’ vaudeville act in which he drops whole heaps of silverware from the sleeve of his coat (it was actually lined with secret panels that enabled him to store virtually anything and pull it out as needed), ending with a silver coffeepot (the routine was already so famous that in the middle of it Groucho says, “I can’t understand what’s delaying that coffeepot”); and the finale in which Harpo puts the entire cast to sleep (including himself) with knockout gas dispensed from a Flit sprayer.
Some of the slapstick is so ferocious one wonders how the Marxes stood doing these routines over and over again on stage, eight shows a week before live audiences, but Animal Crackers is a formidably funny film, the most popular the Marxes made until A Night at the Opera and a comedy classic. Incidentally it was off the screen for 17 years; when MCA-TV bought the 1928-1949 Paramount catalog in the 1950’s they found that Paramount had renewed the copyright on the picture but not on the sound (at least that’s what one imdb.com “trivia” poster says), and they didn’t sort it out until 1974, by which MCA had long since taken over Universal and they arranged for a theatrical re-release of Animal Crackers under the Universal banner. It got reviewed as the funniest film of 1974 — even with Woody Allen’s Love and Death coming out the same year! — and seen in 2016 it makes a mockery of the so-called “comics” of today who think that by being potty-mouthed and farting on screen they’re being “irreverent.” The only sad thing about Animal Crackers is it reinforces every dark thought you’ve had plowing through today’s “comedies” that the art of making people laugh and being truly, dangerously irreverent is a lost one!