Review: Animal Crackers (1930)

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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.

3.5/5 Stars




Our Relations (1936)

405a7-l26h_our_relations_1936How can you get sick of Laurel & Hardy? Maybe it’s possible, but I always enjoy coming back to them, because they are easy on the eyes and the mind. They have the mayhem of The Marx Brothers or The Three Stooges, but they remain, perhaps, even more endearing more often than not. They may not be as witty as Groucho or as belligerent as Moe and his crew, but they have heart and every “fine mess” that they get into is usually a pleasure to watch.

Our Relations is another one of their short features and it borrows its main plot device from the long overused identical twin trope. We have undoubtedly seen it countless times on many a movie and most definitely a TV show. But before I harp on them too much, I will give them some slack because it was the 1930s, not 2014. That being said, the confusions and mix-ups that occur as a result of this situation are a segue to some fun comedy.

The story begins with a strangely well to do Ollie and Stan having a nice time with their wives. It is their two seafaring twins who cause trouble at a bar and hold onto an invaluable ring. They get more than they bargain for having to navigate two angry wives, two angry girls, an angry waiter, an angry sailor, some angry gangsters and the always miffed James Finlayson. Notice I didn’t specify which pair of twins, because each set has their share of grief.

It gets difficult telling them apart after a while as they keep playing “the shell game” and our only cues are their ties and some theme music that tips us off.  Most definitely this is a fun romp with our two…four heroes. The facial expressions of Stan Laurel always crack me up (including his sniveling), and Ollie is forever a klutz with the help of his bumbling buddy.

It culminated with the wonderfully hilarious scene in the cement that was the goofy apex of a solid Laurel and Hardy film. If you want culture or high brow humor please go somewhere else. As for me and myself, I will continue to enjoy what these two men gifted us all those years ago. It also had a moral to the story. There is nothing quite as important as our relations. Scratch that. Maybe it was just made for us to laugh, and there is nothing much wrong with that.

3.5/5 Stars