Monkey Business (1931 )

Directed by Norman Z. McLeod
Cinematography Arthur L. Todd

Monkey Business is a 1931 American Pre-Code comedy film. It is the third of the Marx Brothers‘ released movies, and the first with an original screenplay rather than an adaptation of one of their Broadway shows. The film also stars  Thelma Todd. It is directed by  Norman Z. McLeod  with screenplay by S. J. Perelman  and  Will B. Johnstone. Most of the story takes place in on an ocean liner crossing the Atlantic Ocean.

The four Marx Brothers stowing away on an ocean vessel by hiding in barrels in this promotional still for Monkey Business. Left to right: Harpo, Zeppo, Chico, Groucho.

Typical for many Marx Brothers films, production censors demanded changes in some lines with sexual innuendo. Monkey Business was banned in some countries because censors feared it would encourage anarchic tendencies.

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This is the first Marx Brothers film not to feature Margaret Dumont: this time their female foil is comedian Thelma Todd, who would also star in the Marx Brothers’ next film, Horse Feathers. A few years after the release of Horse Feathers, Todd died in unexplained circumstances. A line of dialogue in Monkey Business seems to foreshadow Todd’s death. Alone with Todd in her cabin, Groucho quips: “You’re a woman who’s been getting nothing but dirty breaks. Well, we can clean and tighten your brakes, but you’ll have to stay in the garage all night.” In 1935, Todd died in her car inside a garage, apparently from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning.

Early on in Monkey Business, the Brothers—playing stowaways concealed in barrels—harmonize unseen while performing the popular song “Sweet Adeline“. It is a matter of debate whether Harpo joins in with the singing. (One of the ship’s crew asserts to the captain that he knows there are four stowaways because he can hear them singing “Sweet Adeline”.) If so, it would be one of only a few times Harpo used speech on screen, as opposed to other vocalizations such as whistling or sneezing. At least one other possible on-screen utterance occurs in the film A Day at the Races (1937), in which Groucho, Chico, and Harpo are heard singing “Down by the Old Mill Stream” in three-part harmony.

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This was the first Marx film to be filmed in Hollywood. Their first two films were filmed at Paramount Pictures’ Astoria Studios in Queens, New York City.

Upon alighting from the ship, the Marx Brothers’ real life father (Sam “Frenchie” Marx) is briefly seen in a cameo appearance, sitting on top of luggage behind the Brothers on the pier as they wave to the First Mate.

Reception and impact

Monkey Business was a box office success,and is considered one of the Marx Brothers’ best films. Contemporary reviews were also positive. Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times wrote, “Whether it is really as funny as ‘Animal Crackers‘ is a matter of opinion. Suffice it to say that few persons will be able to go to the Rivoli and keep a straight face.” Varietys review began, “The usual Marx madhouse and plenty of laughs sprouting from a plot structure resembling one of those California bungalows which sprout up overnight.” Film Daily agreed that the plot was “flimsy”, but also found the film “crammed all the way with laughs and there’s never a dead spot.” John Mosher of The New Yorker thought the film was “the best this family has given us.”

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The film was evidently based on two routines the Marx Brothers did during their early days in vaudeville (Home Again and Mr. Green’s Reception), along with a story idea from one of Groucho’s friends, Bert Granet, called The Seas Are Wet. The passport scene is a reworking of a stage sketch in which the brothers burst into a theatrical agent’s office auditioning an impersonation of a current big star. It appeared in their stage shows On the Mezzanine Floor and I’ll Say She Is (1924). This skit was also done by the Marxes in the Paramount promotional film The House That Shadows Built (1931).

The concept of the Marx Brothers being stowaways on a ship would be repeated in an episode of their radio series Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel (1933) in the episode “The False Roderick” and would also be recycled in their MGM film A Night at the Opera (1935) The essence of Groucho’s joke, “Sure, I’m a doctor—where’s the horse?” would serve as an integral plot element for their film A Day at the Races (1937). Also repeated in that later film would be the uproarious medical examination that Harpo and Chico give opera singer Madame Swempski (Cecil Cunningham).

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aptly titled, and wacky good fun

22 June 2004 | by dr_foreman (Brooklyn, NY) – See all my reviews

How does one review a plotless movie? In “Monkey Business,” the Marx Brothers spend the first hour running around on a ship, then they crash a fancy party, then they fist-fight gangsters in a barn. Is there connecting material? Well, yeah – of the thinnest sort imaginable. Does the lack of a coherent plot hurt the film? Not really. Bottom line: it’s hilarious. Groucho in particular steals the show with his weird combination flirting/insulting routines.

It’s worth noting that, while I laughed a lot at “A Night at the Opera,” I laughed even more at this movie. In fact, I was in exquisite pain by the end. Of course, “Opera” actually makes some sense, so it might still be the better movie.

Definitely the best Marx Brothers film that doesn’t feature Margaret Dumont, and the strongest showcase for the brothers’ talents as physical comedians.

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Thelma Todd

Zeppo’s best Marx Brother Film

10/10
Author: theowinthrop from United States
21 May 2005

Zeppo Marx is frequently considered with a trace of a sneer: the fourth brother who was not worthy of membership in one of filmdom’s two best comedy teams. He was the fourth brother of Groucho, Chico, & Harpo Marx (and is only slightly better remembered than fifth brother Gummo, who never appeared in any of their films).

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Gummo Marx

He looked the best of the brothers (he was the youngest) so he could play the romantic lead if nobody else had the role (like Oscar Shaw did in COCONUTS). However although his appearance was better than the other three brothers, he was not a really handsome man like Robert Taylor or Tyrone Power. Also he had a serious problem with his sense of humor – he had one but it was remarkably similar to Groucho’s.

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In fact, during the Broadway run of COCONUTS, Groucho was ordered by a doctor to take a long, overdue rest. He took off for two weeks, and was replaced by understudy Zeppo. At the end of two weeks he talked to the producers, and they willingly allowed him to take an additional week off. In fact, when that was finished they said he could take more time off if needed. They were not in a rush to get him back. Suspicious, Groucho went unannounced to the theater one night, and watched Zeppo being so good the audience was laughing hysterically at his delivery and acting. In a single day Groucho returned to the show. Groucho never made that mistake again.

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It would have been impossible for Zeppo to have played a smaller version of Groucho on screen. There would have been an imbalance with two Grouchos in the films. So Zeppo was usually put into the films as Groucho’s assistant, or secretary, or even his son (in HORSE FEATHERS). His part in COCONUTS, as the film exists today, is not very impressive (there is one scene where he and Groucho try to greet Chico and Harpo as new customers at the hotel, and keep missing their hands). In ANIMAL CRACKERS he is Jamison, the secretary to “Captain Spaulding”, and has an amusing sequence regarding the immortal firm of “Hungerdunger, Hungerdunger, Hungerdunger, Hungerdunger, & McCormick”. In HORSE FEATHERS he did take part in the mad football game at the end of the film. In DUCK SOUP, as assistant to Rufus T. Firefly, he had more sequences that were funny, such as when he gets slapped for telling a story to Groucho that Groucho had previously told to him. He also takes part in the “Fredonia’s Going to War” number, and in the battle section at the end. But only the Hungerdunger scene in ANIMAL CRACKERS (shared by Groucho), and this film, MONKEY BUSINESS, gives one an idea of Zeppo as an effective comic.

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Here, unlike the other four appearances, he is not connected in the past with Groucho. He is paired with him, when he and Groucho are hired by Alky Briggs to be his torpedoes. However, he is frequently chased on the boat, and finds time to romance the film’s heroine, in one particularly good moment telling her of his eternal devotion to her just before fleeing from her side to avoid being captured by members of the ship’s crew. He also is able to romance her at her coming out society party, and rescues her from Briggs’ gang. Here he finally does something normal to assist the film. He is a passably pleasant leading man, but nothing spectacular.

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MONKEY BUSINESS was also surreal in it’s humor, best in the puppet show sequence and also the attempt of the four brothers to get off the boat pretending to be Chevalier. It is a very funny movie – maybe not the best of all their films (DUCK SOUP or A NIGHT AT THE OPERA are that), but close to the best.

As for Zeppo, he remained part of the act and the films for two more years, and then quit both to become a successful film agent. He would always be in Groucho’s shadow as a comic, and even in death (soon after Groucho’s death in 1977) passed on with hardly any impact on the public. Had he branched out on his own (if anyone had shown interest in such a move) he might have had a chance to show his talents, but it is problematical.

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