Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 20, 2004)
For the Marx Brothersí second big-screen adventure, we head to 1930ís Animal Crackers. In this flick, we start with a party held in the honor of explorer Captain Jeffery Spaulding (Groucho Marx) at the home of Mrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont). As part of the celebration, ďwealthy art patronĒ Roscoe Chandler (Louis Soren) brings a valuable painting for exhibition. He does so to declare his love for the widowed Mrs. Rittenhouse.
Spaulding arrives with his field captain, Horatio Jamison (Zeppo Marx). Hot on his heels we meet a musician named Signor Emanuel Ravelli (Chico Marx) and his partner ďThe Professor (Harpo Marx). After the party ends, they prepare for the unveiling of the painting, and two new characters arrive: Mrs. Whitehead (Margaret Irving) and her daughter Grace (Kathryn Reece), part of a prominent family that just returned from Europe. They donít like the Rittenhouses, so Grace plans to play a trick on them that involves a copy of the famous artwork. Daughter Arabella Rittenhouse (Lillian Roth) doesnít care for the Whiteheads either, but sheís involved with struggling artist Johnny Parker (Hal Thompson).
A mix of complications evolve. Groucho woos both Mrs. Rittenhouse and Mrs. Whitehead. Arabella decides to play a painting-related gag that she hopes will advance Johnnyís career. Emanuel and the Professor reveal a secret about Chandlerís past that he wants to keep under wraps. Various other schemes develop.
As usual, the plotlines donít add up to much. Marx movies use their stories for little more than a loose framework. The flicks live and die by their comedic set pieces. Unfortunately, not much to Crackers soars, and it works as one of the Brothersí lesser efforts.
A lot of the problems stem from the inept filmmaking on display. Crackers suffers from a shocking lack of clarity in its photographic elements. The camera often bobs when it moves, displays strange and erratic framing, and canít quite decide what it wants to show. The composition is often bad, and we actually watch the cameraman struggle to figure out where to settle. Itís a distraction that makes the movie amateurish much of the time.
The jerky storytelling doesnít help. Marx films usually suffer from weak plots, and that occurs here. The flick jerks from one moment to another, usually in search of a gag. When it doesnít find anything, it flails, and it pushes unnaturally toward the next joke.
The editing contributes to the awkwardness, and some bizarre staging also mars the piece. People just stand around and watch while exposition and gags occur. Itís a weird choice show the crowds as they do nothing while the shtick unfolds. It seems artificial and makes the movie even more off-kilter.
Except for the usually reliable Dumont, Marx movies present generally flat characters and weak performances from the secondary participants. These seem worse than usual here, especially due to the insanely broad gestures from Roth. Actually, she becomes inadvertently amusing. Her work is so strange that it turns entertaining.
The sloppiness extends to even the takes used. On a few occasions, the actors screw up, but God forbid they reshoot those scenes. Nope - we get the blown takes here! They usually recover fairly well, but these elements add to the amateurish nature of the flick.
On the positive side, Crackers tends to integrate its musical numbers better than usual. It actually utilizes some of them to tell the story, which is a change from Cocoanuts. Unfortunately, it still grinds to a halt for some of the songs, especially during the inevitable harp solo from Harpo. At least it brings in Chicoís piano number in a more unified manner.
Some of the comedy works fairly well. Unfortunately, the problems with editing mar some of these, as a lot of them just go on too long. For example, the card game meanders and simply doesnít want to end.
Much of the humor lacks the spark that infuses the best Marx work. A decent number of laughs occur, but not enough to redeem all the flaws. I donít expect a perfect flick from Animal Crackers, as even the best Marx material suffers from significant problems. However, this flick is simply too amateurish to be enjoyable.