Review: Monkey Business (1931)

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“Love flies out the door when money flies innuendo.” – Groucho Marx

To call on an unforgivable quip worthy of The Marx Brothers, this film is a barrel of laughs. Hardy Har Har. I promise. Never again. I’ll leave it to the professionals. I never was much for comedy anyway…

It’s true these men had approximately 20 years of vaudeville and 5 years on Broadway under their belts even before moving to film. They were a well-oiled, grease-painted machine by now.

Because while some of their puns might be horrendously awful, they come in such a constant barrage of quips and commotion, it’s difficult not to tip your hat in deference. The Marx Brothers are a force to be reckoned with on a great many fronts.

In this particular instance, they are four stowaways who are singing “Sweet Adeline” in the ship’s hull on a transatlantic voyage. It’s the stuff of urban legend whether or not Harpo can actually be heard singing in the film (Later on he gets a little help from Maurice Chevalier on a phonograph).

They spend much of the film’s opening half fleeing the ship’s Captain and all his staff who are looking to put the brigands in irons. But they’re a slippery bunch and they find plenty of time to get into all sorts of mischief as they do best. After all, that’s what they’re there for.

The narrative is blessed by a greater fluidity than its predecessors meaning the Brothers can scramble around and they have an ever-changing array of sets to do their worst. In the same sense, it suggests that they have graduated from mere stage to screen adaptations and are finally getting their feet wet in what the cinema truly has to offer.

It also boasts the swellest live-action Punch and Judy show you’ve ever seen courtesy of Harpo’s pantomime as he outsmarts his pursuers while trading the type of blows you’d expect with such a violent form of entertainment. It’s for the kids.

Groucho and Chico overrun the Captain’s quarters with colossal impudence calling for lunch to be served and finding time to play their typical back and forth over a globe and the history of Columbus sailing the ocean blue in 1492. They were never ones to connect linguistically, though they do agree on one thing amid the stultifying banter. They’d rather be talking about nurses.

Then Chico and Harpo showcase their ineptitude as barbers when cutting a man’s mustache. Their game of too long-too short soon has him looking like Charlie Chaplin and then the cleanest baby face on deck. Likewise, they disrupt perfectly civil chess matches and bowl over innocent bystanders. Harpo even befriends a frog.

Meanwhile, Zeppo the most straight-laced of them all charms a beautiful young woman with greater implications. She’s a perfectly innocent girl but her father is a fairly notorious gangster, Big Joe Helton.

Groucho quite by accident ends up in another gangster’s closet and works on wooing his mistress (Thelma Todd) with his suave dancing and witty one-liners. Groucho’s dancing and guitar playing are on point with that iconic half crouch of his, coattails flying and strings twanging with raucous abandon. Harpo and Chico might be considered the more memorable indulgers in the arts but I almost prefer Groucho. Maybe its a matter of relating to him more.

You expect him to get a belly full of lead but this is the Marx Brother’s Universe so he and Zeppo get hired on as heavies. That brings us to the film’s main conflict if there is any. The Brothers unwittingly find themselves on opposite sides of a gang feud. They never were much for gun-toting, preferring a more primeval form of violence known as slapstick.

A lavish gala is held by Helton only to have his daughter kidnapped by his mortal enemy. The terrace is almost more interesting as Groucho starts meowing like a suggestive kitty picking up the prancing two step where he left off with the same gangster’s moll.

But let us not forget someone was kidnapped. A barn proves to be a fitting setting for the final showdown Marx Brothers-style as Groucho provides color commentary and Chico and Harpo conk their adversaries over the head like they do best. Zeppo’s the only who’s up to any serious fighting.

Monkey Business is probably the first Marx Brother picture to realize their talents with cinematic scope. The wealth is spread wonderfully with each brother alotted the time to shine — showcasing their various shticks — but the medium also provides greater avenues for the sake of a punchline. They would only push the envelope further with Horse Feathers (1932) and Duck Soup (1933).

4/5 Stars

1 thought on “Review: Monkey Business (1931)

  1. This is one of my favourite Marx Bros films and a go to film when I’m stuck on what to watch. As brilliant as Duck Soup and A Night At The Opera are, the madcap chaos and fast lines are particularly strong in Monkey Business. The Groucho/Thelma Todd/Briggs scene is comedy gold. It does lose some team once the boys are off the ship. But still a lot of fun.

    Liked by 1 person

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