Movie Review: Animal Crackers (1930)
“The maddest comics of them all!”
Animal Cracker (1930)
Director: Victor Heerman
Cast: Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx
Synopsis: A valuable painting goes missing during a gala event to welcome home the famous explorer Captain Spaulding.
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In 1929, the Marx Brothers combined the shooting of their debut movie, Cocoanuts, with nightly performances on the Broadway stage in Animal Crackers. Like its predecessor, Animal Crackers was a huge hit, so it was only natural that it provide the source for their second movie – in fact, the movie amounts to little more than a filmed performance of the play, but with some of the musical numbers dropped. Those that survive, such as Hello, I Must Be Going and Hooray for Captain Spaulding, are mostly confined to the opening reel and serve as little more than a teaser for the barrage of humour to follow. The Brothers were uncertain about removing so many numbers, but the autocratic director Victor Heerman, who was specifically selected to keep the brothers in line, insisted on the cuts in order to keep the focus on the humour. And let’s face it, most fans of the Marx Brothers aren’t too bothered about musical interludes – unless, of course, they feature Chico tapping the ivory with pistol fingers, or Harpo speaking the only way he can, through the strings of his harp.
What plot there is revolves around a gala event held at the home of wealthy dowager Mrs Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont) to welcome home the noted African hunter Captain Spaulding (Groucho Marx), during which an expensive work of art on display at the mansion is stolen and a cheap copy left in its place. It’s not important, though. The storyline is simply the thread around which countless gags delivered at a furious pace are wrapped. More than eighty years after the movie was originally released, the humour still holds up remarkably well, even if some of the jokey pop culture references of the day fall a little flat. For example, most modern-day viewers will undoubtedly be completely mystified by the way Groucho keeps interrupting his marriage proposal to two women to give voice to an enigmatic internal monologue, which is actually a parody of Eugene O’Neill’s play Strange Interlude.
The Marx Brothers’ style of comedy is made for sound, and one can almost imagine them impatiently awaiting the advent of talking pictures so that they could sell their trademark lunacy to a wider audience. As he did in Cocoanuts, Groucho uses the stately Margaret Dumont as his verbal punchbag, and some of his jokes are risqué enough to have felt the wrath of the censor just a few years later (“This magnificent ch- er, this magnificent chest,” he stutters at one point, steering his gaze from Mrs. Rittenhouse’s voluminous bosom to the trunk in front of him). The swarthy Chico cracks jokes (but rarely a smile) in-a de accent that-a no Italian ever-a spoked, while Harpo, when not looking for someone to hold his leg, chases girls with all the tongue-lolling enthusiasm of a pup after a ball. Much of the humour feels ad-libbed, but it does nothing to diminish the quality of the laughs. And just check out how long that first scene between Groucho’s Spaulding and dodgy art dealer Roscoe Chandler (Louis Sorin – Glorifying the American Girl) goes on without a cut.
As always, forgotten fourth brother Zeppo is not so much a weak link – he was an accomplished comic in his own right who was so adept at mimicking Groucho that he sometimes stood in for him on-stage without the audience realising – as forced to cope with a role that affords him little opportunity to demonstrate his talents. Look out for him in the final scene, and see how, from standing at the front of the crowd, he backs into it before simply turning around and quietly walking away.
(Reviewed 23rd November 2016)