Today! Because I worked myself up from nothing to a state of extreme poverty –
Monkey Business (1931)
Directed by Norman Z. McLeod
Starring Groucho Marx (x4), Harpo Marx (x4), Chico Marx (x4), Zeppo Marx (x2), Thelma Todd, Rockliffe Fellowes, Harry Woods, Ruth Hall, Tom Kennedy
The Marx Brothers third feature film, and the first not based on one of their Broadway shows, Monkey Business attempts to expand their very stagey banter into a real motion picture, with largely good results. There are clearly some growing pains in this move – while the scope of the movie broadens out a bit, the team’s bread and butter remains the same, with extended comic dialogues and paired off routines between Groucho & Chico, Chico & Harpo, and Groucho & Zeppo. It would be another year before they truly figured out how to break the routine for good, in Horse Feathers.
In very casual reference, this one would be “The Marx Brothers on a boat,” at least for the most part (and also, “The first Marx Brothers boat movie,” as they spend a bunch of A Night at the Opera the same way). There is a plot about gangsters, and the boys get up to typical Marx hijinks, but one of the more significant changes in routine in Monkey Business is the lack of Margaret Dumont – their frequent foil on screen. Thelma Todd was brought on as the gangster’s girlfriend who ropes in and embroils the Marxes in the general plot, and so fun and different was this pairing that she would return for Horse Feathers, in a pretty similar capacity.
But all in all, this is when the unapologetically great Marx films began. While Animal Crackers has a slightly more coherent plot and more memorable songs, Monkey Business barely ever pauses to catch its breath. The brothers would later complain of these Paramount movies that audiences didn’t get a chance to relax – it’s just gags on top of gags for the entire running time – and thus the MGM movies added more music and significant love interest plot away from the comedy team. Some of those movies are still great, but this era is where the Marx Brothers film became a genre in itself. One of Thalberg’s guiding principles in the later movies was that they didn’t have to be as funny – which is a super weird take on movies from comedians. I get the logic – the brothers felt a little worn out and overused maybe, and didn’t see what they were doing as being true to motion pictures. A Night at the Opera is certainly more a traditional film than Monkey Business, but that doesn’t mean the earlier movie was flawed. It just hadn’t existed yet. The final straw, oddly enough, was Duck Soup, which was somewhat of a disappointment at the box office and their last Paramount film, despite it now being heralded as their best movie almost across the board.
The awards were nil in ’31, but ultimately Monkey Business did find inclusion on the AFI’s Comedy list from 2000, as the 73rd greatest/funniest movie ever. What was the criteria on that list? Best film comedy? Funniest? Either way, it was the fifth of five Marx films to make the list, so that ain’t bad! It also makes a Two-Timer of Zeppo, following his role in #261 The Cocoanuts, and Four-Timers of Groucho, Harpo, and Chico, also appearing in #173 A Day at the Races and #309 Go West. Spotlight!