Today marks the 80th anniversary of the release of Animal Crackers. I have seen it about 80 times, I suppose, and it is one of the few movies that actually make me laugh out loud even after multiple viewings.
While the Marx Brothers first talkie film The Cocoanuts was marred by some rough production quality, a crackling soundtrack, as well as the Brothers obvious mistrust of their directors and the camera, their second feature, Animal Crackers is greatly improved as a production, and brings us further into the world of the Brothers. This is still clearly based on a theatrical review, confined to a single location, a posh mansion, and a few of the song showcases are a bit awkwardly inserted into the plot, but Animal Crackers is far less claustrophobic and stilted than the film version of The Cocoanuts. The Brothers are clearly less inhibited in front of the camera and unleash the full force of their brand of anarchy. Groucho’s entrance as Captain Spaulding is punctuated with an incredibly athletic and silly dance. When Harpo impishly the takes to the piano keyboard, the result soon descends into an impromptu football match, with Groucho and Chico tackling Harpo and depositing him in the lap of a pretty blonde. Even stately Margaret Dumont is not impervious to the roughhouse. When Chico tries to talk her into a game of cards so he can cheat her out of some money, Harpo decides he would rather box, punching her in the stomach and lifting her feet off the ground. Full of sangfroid as always, a moment later she sits down at the table as if nothing has happened. Even poor Zeppo Marx, who had little to do in The Cocoanuts but say “Yes, Mr. Hammer,” has a better part in Animal Crackers, getting to sing an introduction for Captain Spaulding and verbally sparing with his older brother in the famous letter dictation scene.
As with stage version of The Cocoanuts, writers George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind did not make anything more than a very basic story for Animal Crackers to act as a frame on which to hang the gags. The story here involves Mrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont) throwing an elite party to display a rare painting bought by social climbing art dealer Roscoe W. Chandler, which is replaced by imitations twice over the course of the weekend. Not much of a plot, but enough to fit in a couple of young star-crossed lover the Brothers help get together. The other reason for Mrs. Rittenhouse’s party is to honor Captain Spalding, who has just returned from an exhibition to Africa, one of his greatest characters, and “African explorer” who doesn’t seem to have been any further afield than the Astoria Studios in Queens. Groucho’s first really enduring lines come in Animal Crackers, including “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don’t know.” The songs in The Cocoanuts follow the Vaudeville tradition of providing a break between the comedy bits and adding variety and “class.” The songs in Animal Crackers, by the songwriting team of Burt Kalmar and Harry Ruby are much better integrated into the story, and include two of the greatest numbers in the Marxian canon, “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” and “Hello, I Must Be Going,” which would be associated with Groucho till the end of his life.
The Cocoanuts was easily adapted for the screen—they simply filmed the play as written by Kaufman and Ryskind along with some bits that gradually evolved during the course of the long theatrical run. Things were not so easy with Animal Crackers. By 1930, the censors at the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association were extremely concerned with regulating the words that were now issuing forth from the actors on the screen. The MPPDA sent a missive to Paramount outline the issues they had with the script. They only wanted a few things taken out, namely all the jokes. The underlined words in the following lines were ordered cut:
The men must all be very old,
The women hot, the champagne cold.
We took some pictures of the native girls but they weren’t developed
Signor Ravelli’s first selection will be, ‘Somewhere My Love Lies Sleeping’, with a male chorus.
Of course removing the underlined words would have taken all of the humor out of the lines, and it would have been better to remove them completely.
The following had to be eliminated all together:
I’ll wash your mouth out with gin.
Don’t worry mother, I can hold my liquor with the best of them.
Furthermore, any inference of Captain Spalding’s “pansy tendencies”, which would constitute a violation of the section of the production code dealing with sex perversions, and outrageous demand referring to the scene when Groucho, regaling the party guests with tales of his bravery, faints when a caterpillar is discovered on his lapel.
Luckily for us, Paramount chose to ignore most of censor’s demands, although “I think I’ll try to make her” is cut from “Hurray for Captain Spalding” in the crudest of ways, breaking the melody and rhythm of the song. It is possible to accept this cut, though, when considering that the entire film could have been lost. Paramount neglected to renew the rights sometime in the 1950s, and they reverted to the writers of the play, and the film version practically disappeared for decades. In 1973, students a UCLA form “Committee for the Rerelease of Animal Crackers” (CRAC) and collected signatures on a petition to Universal, who now owned Paramount’s ‘30s catalog, to rerelease the film. Chico and Harpo had passed away at this point, but Groucho attended a press conference organized by the students, sparking a media frenzy and a huge resurgence of interest in the Marx Brothers, which led to Groucho getting an honorary Oscar in 1975.
In one more memorable scene in the film, Chico and Harpo are preparing to clandestinely remove the showcased oil painting and replace it with a fake, as a favor to a young lady whose beau is an aspiring painter who wants to show off his skill. Chico wants to work in the dark and ask Harpo for a flash light. Misunderstanding his Italian accent, he pinches his cheek, indicating his flesh, then produces a fish, a flash, a flute, and five play cards of the same suit (a flush). He finally gets it and hands over a flashlight, just as a sudden rainstorm knocks out the lights. By the time they make for another exit, the clouds have passed and the sun is out. “Attsa some weather, eh?” asks Chico. “Attsa California!” And that is just where the Brothers were headed—Animal Crackers would be the last film they would make in New York before heading out to sunny California, where they will spend the rest of their lives.