Monkey Business, released 19 September 1931, is turning 85 years old. This was the Marx Brothers’ third film. Just like all of their other Paramount films, it’s very freewheeling and anarchic, without much of a real, structured plot and story arc. That doesn’t matter, though, since their early films wouldn’t be nearly the same with some rigid three-act structure and more breathing time between each joke. These films are so fun precisely because they’re so unpredictable and chaotic.
The brothers have stowed away on an ocean liner, inside barrels that used to hold kippered herring. A search for the stowaways commences, and they’re discovered when the barrels are hoisted up on a rope. They run away, and spend most of the rest of their time on the ship dodging discovery, mingling with passengers, and pretending to be people they’re not.
The brothers’ opening scene (the film’s second scene) features them singing “Sweet Adeline” inside the barrels. Many people have speculated this was one of the times where Harpo snuck his voice in.
Shenanigans include a chess game, a puppet show with Harpo (always such a natural in scenes with children), a barber shop, Harpo making friends with a frog, and Groucho impersonating the captain in his quarters. Along the way, the brothers stumble into the acquaintances of rich racketeer Joe Helton and his rival Alky Briggs. Alky enlists Groucho and Zeppo to spy on Helton, and Helton recruits Chico and Harpo to shadow Briggs.
Zeppo, as the team’s straight man, gets to have a romance (instalove, of course) with Helton’s daughter Mary. This is one of the films where he gets a fair amount of screentime and a more important role. I wish all of the Paramount films had featured Zeppo this prominently. He was said to be the funniest one in real life, and he had to know all the others’ parts when they were touring so he could fill in at a moment’s notice. He was funnier and better than Groucho in the stage production of Animal Crackers.
On a shallower note, I also wish Zeppo had gotten more screentime because he was so handsome! He’s one of my vintage celebrity crushes, even knowing he wasn’t such a wonderful husband in real life.
More trouble arises when the boat reaches its destination, since the brothers can’t get off without passports. Offscreen, Zeppo bumps into famous actor and singer Maurice Chevalier, and swipes his passport. Each of the four brothers takes a turn pretending to be Chevalier by customs, and sings his song “You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me.” When the ruse fails, they find another way to sneak off the ship.
Back on land, they attend Mary Helton’s débutante party (what used to be called a coming-out party), and predictably engage in even more shenanigans. In the middle of the party, Mary gets kidnapped by her father’s rivals, and it’s up to the brothers to save the day.
The film was a big box office success, and garnered lots of good reviews. It’s widely considered one of their best films. If you haven’t seen any of the Paramount films yet, you can’t go wrong with this one. It also stars the lovely, ill-fated Thelma Todd as Alky Briggs’s much-put-upon wife.
Since I had the misfortune to see two of their most unrepresentative films first (Love Happy and Room Service), it took awhile for me to give them another chance and start warming up to them. My first comedy love will always be slapstick, but I’ve deeply, truly grown to love their more verbal style as I’ve gotten older.