© 1931 Paramount Pictures

Monkey Business (1931)

After completing their first two films—The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers—in Paramount’s studio Astoria Studios in Queens, the The Marx Brothers packed up and moved to California at the end of 1930, bringing along their recently widowed father. Born into the soot and grim of late 19th-century New York, the Brothers eagerly embraced the Southern Californian lifestyle, joining country clubs, playing golf, and even eventually moving into the grapefruit business on the side.

In their first film made in Hollywood, Monkey Business, the Brothers look robust and suntanned. This is also the first Marx Brothers film that was not based on one of their Broadway reviews, although some elements, such as each Brother doing a Maurice Chevalier impersonation, are borrowed from some of their stage work. Nevertheless, the story is freed from the openly theatrical setting that bogged down the first two films. Animal Crackers largely improved on the slow and often interrupted momentum of The Cocoanuts. In Monkey Business, the pace is kicked up another two notches. Margaret Dumont did not immediately make the move out West with the Brothers, and she is replaced by Thelma Todd, who has the difficult task of being both the young love interest, and also the pillar of womanhood which the brothers all try to attack. Todd had impeccable comic timing herself, and the scenes between her and Groucho are lightning fast. The vast steamliner set gives the boys plenty of room to run around, and Harpo in particular revels in a joining a Punch and Judy show being held in a playroom for shipboard children and destroying a customs inspection desk.

As the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock once intoned “the greater the evil, the greater the picture.” As the masters of comedy, the Marx Brothers and their team of writers were beginning to understand that the greater the foil, the greater the comedy. The Cocoanuts satirized the greedy and gullibility of the New Yorkers who shelled out dough for useless plots during the Florida land boom, and Animal Crackers poked fun at the pretension of art collectors.  Beginning with their third film, the Brothers would benefit by satirizing bigger and bigger ideas, including academia, politics and war, opera, the medical profession and so on. Being set largely aboard an ocean liner, Monkey Business allows the brothers to poke fun at the rigid class divides that separate first class passengers from second class, second class from steerage, and steerage from stowaway, which of course the position of the Brothers. Foreshadowing A Night at the Opera, Groucho muscles in on an interview that an opera diva is giving to reporters on her return to America. He is completely unfazed by supposed position or pretention. “Is it true you are getting a divorce as soon as your husband recovers his eyesight?” Groucho asks the soprano, grabbing a pen and pad from a baffled reporter. “Is it true you wash your hair in clam broth? Is it true you used to dance in a flea circus?” When the outrage woman threatens to call for the captain, Groucho replies “so that’s it? Infatuated with a pretty uniform, eh?”

As stowaways, the brothers have to sneak of the boat when it docks. The eventually make their way out hidden under blankets on a stretcher bearing a sick passenger. The sailors set down the stretcher, and all four Brothers pop out and run off, enraging the 1st officer who is still on the deck. Sitting on a trunk and laughing at their antics is a sharply dressed man in pinstriped trousers, spats, and a fedora. This is Samuel “French” Marx, the father of the Marx Brothers, an unsuccessful tailor who was drafted into the Marxian master plan to serve as the acts “advance man” when they were on the Vaudeville circuit, travelling ahead of them to secure bookings and put up posters. He was also their “laugh starter”, sitting in the middle of the audience and chuckling at every joke in order to prod sluggish theater-goers. In his only film appearance, his wife, who was the Brothers manager, has passed on, and he only has a few months to live himself, but he has returned to his old and enjoyable job—laughing at his four sons.

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