Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 30, 2004)
After a couple of very erratic movies via 1929’s The Cocoanuts and 1930’s Animal Crackers, the Marx Brothers finally found their bearings with 1931’s Monkey Business. This flick utilizes a tremendously simple story. It places the brothers - Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo - as stowaways on an ocean liner. The crew finds them and they flee.
Not much plot occurs on board, though the boys do get involved with some gangsters. Alky Briggs (Harry Woods) keeps his unhappy wife Lucille (Thelma Todd) cooped up in their cabin while he tries to undermine competitor “Big Joe” Helton (Rockcliffe Fellowes). Both crooks recruit various pairings of the brothers to do their dirty work. In addition, Zeppo tries to romance Helton’s daughter Mary (Ruth Hall).
Most of the film’s second half takes place on shore. When they come to port, Helton throws a big party for Mary. The action revolves around that shindig, and Briggs’ men try to kidnap Mary.
Why? I don’t have the foggiest idea. Maybe the movie explained this point, but it got lost in the comedy. Marx movies never featured the most concise story telling, and Monkey is no exception. The stories exist as little more than a loose framework to create opportunities for the brothers to act goofy.
And that’s absolutely fine with me. The Brothers’ two earlier movies got bogged down in extraneous story details and too many characters. Too frequently they focused on participants other than the Marx boys, and those elements were nothing more than dull distractions. I’d guess the filmmakers added the other roles because the Brothers weren’t proven commodities yet; the studio probably wanted to hedge their bets with some more traditional elements in addition to the Marx boys’ wackiness.
With the success of the two earlier movies, I figure this emboldened the Brothers and let them cast off the unnecessary parts. Thank God - I hated all the non-Marx elements of those first two flicks. Of course, the films still feature other characters, but here they all connect to the Brothers in some way.
It was definitely a good idea to cast Zeppo as the romantic lead. The two earlier flicks used non-Marx actors in those roles, and they were weak additions. No, Zeppo isn’t a magnetic personality, but at least his involvement feels more organic. In the first two movies, he did little more than stand around, so it makes sense to use the blandest Marx in a more prominent straight role.
Monkey also changes earlier patterns in that it omits all musical numbers. The first two pictures featured significant song and dance routines. Happily, they get the boot here. Yeah, we’re still stuck with the inevitable piano solo from Chico and Harpo’s tedious harp routine. I suppose someone enjoys those moments, but I loathe them, as they do nothing more than grind the story to a halt for some pretentious show-off bits.
At least we lose the production numbers. The earlier movies were half-assed musicals. They included enough of those pieces to fall under the “musical” banner, I suppose, but they didn’t totally commit to the genre. I’m more than happy to completely avoid those bits in Monkey. Their absence strongly benefits the film.
Unusually, the Brothers don’t play characters in Monkey. No, this doesn’t mean they act like their daily-life selves. However, the prior flicks - and subsequent ones as well - put the Brothers into roles with different names and jobs. For instance, Animal Crackers made Groucho an explorer named Captain Spaulding, and the other Brothers also portrayed particular parts.
They still exhibit the same caricatured personalities here, but they take the unusual step of sticking with their actual names. In truth, I’m not even sure we ever hear their names during the flick, but they’re credited under their real monikers; Groucho plays “Groucho”, etc. It’s a sensible move. What’s the point of pretending they’re various characters when they act the same anyway?
Monkey is probably the purest exploration of the Marx Brothers’ styles. As I noted, it barely bothers to muster a plot, and it concentrates almost wholly on the nuttiness. The Brothers go for more radical material than we’d seen to date as well. Any form of restraint goes out the window for this wacky exploration.
If you need to see what I mean, just check out the climax. I won’t spill the beans totally, but all the Brothers end up in a barn to save the kidnapped Mary. Most movies would concentrate on those efforts, but they’re tertiary here. Instead, the flick mostly deals with the crazy commentary on the action offered by Groucho and the others. It’s more spoof than anything else, and it presents a clever awareness of the genre’s conventions that’s unusual for a movie of this era.
Monkey Business isn’t perfect, but it may well be the best flick the Marx Brothers ever made. That’s because it’s the simplest, most focused piece they created. It eliminates most extraneous distractions and concentrates on lunacy, which makes it eminently satisfying.