Animal Crackers usually makes me think of the soggy little critters floating in Shirley Temple’s soup but the joke’s on me because that tune didn’t come out until 5 years after this film. In fact, legend has it that Harpo purportedly offered Temple’s parents $50,000 to adopt her when they walked by the studio. That was before she was famous. Imagine what his price might have been afterward. But I digress.
This is the second of The Marx Brothers’ stage adaptations and there’s no hiding its origins. It’s very flat and confined as far as cinematic ambitions go but the same can be hardly be said of the Brothers themselves.
The plot involves a small trifle about a party put on by one Mrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont) for the intrepid African Explorer Captain Spaulding (Groucho). She is preparing to unveil a priceless masterpiece christened “After the Hunt.” This character set up would be common practice in later films becoming a type of shorthand in itself. Dumont was normally a wealthy socialite humoring Groucho and showering him with accolades. Not to be outdone Groucho would shower her with insults.
But he gets a particularly effusive introduction in Animal Crackers with “Hooray for Captain Spaulding.” Learning something from Cocoanuts the opening musical number integrates Groucho into the song and lets him make an extended charade out of all the pomp and circumstance. It would be followed by comparable numbers in Horse Feathers (1933) and Duck Soup (1933).
Though not as effusive, Chico and Harpo also get a warm welcome playing the parts of Revelli and The Professor respectively. Their gags are rampant, their anarchy as cheeky as ever, and there’s little to no respect for the plotline they find themselves in or the people who fill the spaces around them. That’s simply how they operate.
Groucho begins by picking up a full head of steam and taking off for minutes at a time with a steady stream of verbal soliloquies of lowbrow wit that gives any modern comic a run for their money. Stop me if heard this one. The most iconic involves shooting an elephant in his pajamas and Alabama where the Tuscaloosa…
Not to be outdone Harpo chases after girls incessantly, cheats at Bridge thanks to a sleeve full of Aces, and not only runs off with each version of “After the Hunt” but purloins the silverware for good measure. Meanwhile, Groucho continues to cut down his costars, foremost among them Dumont who would be his verbal punching bag time and time again. But let it be known that no one’s safe. Only Chico seems capable of upending him with his pure stupidity. Then, Harpo just can’t say anything to Groucho. They work great together.
Chico busts the guests’ ears with his idiosyncratic brand of piano playing and Harpo earns his moniker plucking his strings. And to be honest, these are the moments that I have the most difficulty enjoying. Like the musical numbers, sans “Hooray for Captain Spaulding,” these elements feel as if they are set in their era. But when the Brothers get together in a room and the wheels come off in any number of ways, those are the moments where you can’t help but smirk — you can’t help but marvel at the sheer ferocity of their comedy that still feels so alive even today.
So while this picture is much more a stage production than a film, that cannot neutralize the gags which ultimately bodes well for the pictures yet to come, maintaining the chaos but providing room to grow and mature into the transcendent qualities of A Night at the Opera (1935) for instance.
On a side note, my heart always goes out to Zeppo who was reputedly so funny in private life and nevertheless donned his typical straight man role that as expected gets completely overshadowed by his brothers. This is most obviously Groucho’s picture.
However, that’s not to underplay Harpo and Chico with their many talents. Their constant fits of delinquency are crucial to the comedy. No better example than Harpo pulling at a Flit Gun and proceeding to gas the entire drawing room before committing suicide as it were and dropping next to his sleeping beauty.