Monday, March 14, 2016

Monkey Business (Paramount, 1931)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Charles a movie, the 1931 Marx Brothers feature Monkey Business, their third film and the first one expressly written for the screen instead of being based on a show the Marxes already had done on stage. It was also the first film they made in Hollywood (their previous two, The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, had been filmed at Paramount’s New York studio at Astoria, Queens) and the first that didn’t include Margaret Dumont in the cast. (She stayed out of the next one, Horse Feathers, as well, but returned for the fifth and final Marx Brothers Paramount movie, Duck Soup.) It was made during the so-called “pre-Code” era of relatively loose enforcement of the movies’ Production Code (1930-34), though the DVD we were watching (part of the Marx Brothers’ Silver Screen Collection of all five Marx Brothers Paramount films from Universal Home Video) contained Production Code Certificate 2720 R, indicating that their source was a reissue print from the “post-Code” era of strict enforcement, in which no studio-owned theatre (and that included virtually all the major houses) or independent theatre that wanted access to major-studio product could play a movie without a certificate. We’ve been making our way through Universal Home Video’s collections of the Marx Brothers, Mae West and W. C. Fields as a sort of weird tribute to the UHF TV station from my youth, Channel 36 from San Jose, which through some quirk of reception came in beautifully at our home in Marin County — looking better than some of the local broadcast stations — and I got my first chance to see a lot of great old movies on that channel in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.

Monkey Business is probably the closest the Marx Brothers came to a totally plotless movie; oh, it has a story of sorts — the Marxes (back when there were still four of the five biological Marx brothers in the act — Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo — and in fact they were still billed as the Four Marx Brothers) play stowaways on an ocean liner that’s crossing from Europe to New York. As the film opens, we get a stock shot of a liner in mid-ocean and then first mate Gibson (Tom Kennedy, who played a lot of dumb character roles in 1930’s movies but seems to have been inspired by working with truly great comedians the way Hugh Herbert was in W. C. Fields’ Million Dollar Legs) reports to the ship’s captain (Ben Taggart — his last name is listed as “Corcoran” in the cast list but I don’t recall him being referred to by name in the actual movie) that there are four stowaways in the below deck. “How do you know there are four of them?” the captain asks. “They’re singing ‘Sweet Adeline’!” replies Gibson, referencing the 1903 song that was almost automatically in the repertoire of every barber-shop quartet. The Marxes are indeed the stowaways, hiding below deck in barrels marked “Kippered Herring,” and the captain sends a crew to search the hold and find them. “Don’t bother with those barrels,” Groucho says — and the people looking for them think that’s an order from the captain. The Marxes are unveiled — almost literally — when the captain gives an order to have the barrels hoisted out of the cargo hold because they’re in the way of the search for the stowaways, and the barrels rise without their bottoms and reveal the Marxes inside. (Apparently there’s controversy over whether Harpo is merely miming to “Sweet Adeline” when the Marxes are shown singing it or whether he actually sang — my bet is on him just miming in accord with his fabled silence on screen.)

The rest of the film is mostly a long series of chase scenes involving the Marxes and the people on the liner trying to catch them, with a soupçon of plot involving nice gangster Joe Helton (Rockcliffe Fellowes) — we know he’s a nice gangster because he’s trying to get out of the rackets and is traveling home from Europe with his daughter Mary (Ruth Hall), who’s just graduated from finishing school there — and bad gangster “Alky” Briggs (Harry Woods), who’s trying to knock off Helton and/or kidnap his daughter so Briggs can take over Helton’s bootlegging business. Briggs hires Groucho and Zeppo as his bodyguards, Helton hires Harpo and Chico as his, but the plot, such as it is, is simply a series of brief burps in between the wild comedy scenes, including the one in the Briggs’ stateroom in which Groucho is romancing Briggs’ wife Lucille (Thelma Todd, a brilliant comedienne and frequent foil for Laurel and Hardy in their movies at Hal Roach Studios, which lent her to Paramount for this film) and Briggs comes in on them; one in which Harpo hides out from the pursuers by crashing a Punch and Judy puppet show and impersonating one of the puppets, then when he’s caught slides down on a miniature scooter that Charles said could be considered an early version of a skateboard; Harpo standing in front of a restroom door that looks like it says “Men” until a man who tries to use it is booted out, and then he steps aside and we see it really said “Women” (it’s a gag the Marxes stole from Buster Keaton but it’s still hilarious); Harpo catching a pet frog, keeping it in his hat, and assaulting a man in the ship’s barbershop who says he has “a frog in my throat”; and perhaps the most famous scene in the film, in which each of the four Marx Brothers tries to get off the ship when it docks by impersonating Paramount’s great male sex star, Maurice Chevalier, whose passport Zeppo has stolen.

Zeppo, Chico and Groucho do the Chevalier impersonation and are easily caught, but Harpo comes in and his Chevalier impersonation sounds just like the real one — since he’s got a phonograph strapped to his back on which he’s playing Chevalier’s record of “You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me.” In some ways Monkey Business is a pencil sketch for an even greater Marx Bros. movie, A Night at the Opera, since not only are the Brothers playing stowaways but there’s a great scene in which a returning diva, Madame Swempski (credited on to Cecil Cunningham — was that a girl named Cecil or did the Marxes really cross-gender cast?), gives a press conference on the boat, only it’s taken over by Groucho, posing as a reporter and asking the most insulting questions he can think of: “Is it true you’re getting a divorce as soon as your husband recovers his eyesight? Is it true you wash your hair in clam broth? Is it true you used to dance in a flea circus?” When she protests, “I don’t like this innuendo,” Groucho fires back, “That’s what I always say: love flies out the door when money comes innuendo!” Once the Marxes get off the boat (by posing as a sick passenger and the three health care workers attending to him) the scene shifts to Joe Helton’s big coming-out party for his daughter — the film’s costume designer seemed confused about whether this was supposed to be a costume party or not, since some of the guests are dressed as cowboys and/or Indians while others are in normal wear — only she’s kidnapped by Briggs’ gang and taken to an old barn, a rather sordid and tacky-looking setting for the end of a film that until then has looked pretty stylish (that big Art Deco ocean liner is a triumph of the set designer’s art!).

There are still some nice gags, including yet another gag spoofing the pretensions of art singing — Groucho announces, “I wish to announce that a buffet supper will be served in the next room in five minutes. In order to get you in that room quickly, Mrs. Schmalhausen (Maxine Castle) will sing a soprano solo in this room” — as well as the obligatory piano and harp interludes from Chico and Harpo, respectively (though instead of a solo Harpo takes over from another harp player as Mrs. Schmalhausen’s accompanist and makes his distaste for her singing of “O Sole Mio” incredibly obvious) — and though Monkey Business peters out with a rather lame punch line (the three Marx Brothers who matter — Zeppo has rescued Ruth Hall from his kidnappers and is busy canoodling with her — are attacking a haystack with rakes and Groucho explains, “I’m searching for a needle in a haystack”), most of it is a laff-riot, the Marxes at full power unencumbered by much in the way of romance, music or plot. Monkey Business was directed by Norman Z. McLeod from a script credited to S. J. Perelman, Will B. Johnstone and Arthur Sheekman, with crediting J. Carver Pusey (a cartoonist who was hired as a gag man for Harpo) and Al Shean (the Marxes’ uncle and a vaudeville and Broadway star in his own right as half of the team of Gallagher and Shean), and Marx Brothers biographer Allen Eyles suggested that Perelman’s influence on the Marxes manifested itself in making Groucho more infantile than usual (when “Alky” Briggs is threatening to kill him for flirting with his wife, Groucho bats his eyes, raises the pitch of his voice to sound like a teenage girl, and says, “Do you think a girl thinks less of a boy if he lets himself be kissed?”) and Harpo more savage and demonic.