Monkey Business (1931)
Director: Norman McLeod
Cast: The Marx Brothers, Rockliffe Fellowes, Thelma Todd
Synopsis: On a transatlantic crossing, the Marx brothers get up to their usual antics and manage to annoy just about everyone on board the ship.
The enduring appeal of the Marx Brothers is largely down to the fact that they’re seen to be unafraid of acting outside the rules of polite society without really seriously breaking the law. Sure, they commit minor criminal acts, but usually nothing beyond the kind of petty crimes we’ve all committed at one time or another. They behave the way that we sometimes wish we could, unburdened by reservations and uncaring of the possible consequences. Their films are often light on plot simply because their anarchic brand of humour not only requires no plot but is often constrained by it.
In Monkey Business, their first movie written for the screen — although there’s much to suggest a lot of ad-libbing — the Marx Brothers are stowing away on a luxury liner. We never learn why, because it isn’t important. Having smuggled their way aboard in empty barrels of kippered herrings, the brothers spend much of their time evading arrest by the ship’s hapless officers. Eventually, their madcap antics bring them into contact with a couple of feuding gangsters. Joe Helton (Rockliffe Fellowes) is a big shot, a millionaire racketeer who’s retiring from the rackets, while Briggs (Harry Woods — I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, My Darling Clementine) plans to fill the void left by Helton’s retirement by any means necessary. Even if Briggs wasn’t habitually short with his sexy wife, Lucille (Thelma Todd — The Maltese Falcon), we’d know he was no good from the combination of striped shirt, spotted tie and chequered waistcoat that he wears. That Helton is effectively shown as a good bad guy also tells us that Monkey Business was made before the Hays Code had come into force. We can only wonder at how much further the Marx Brothers’ anarchic brand of humour might have gone had the apex of their popularity not coincided with the Code’s period of greatest influence over the film industry. Anyway, Harpo and Chico become bodyguards for Helton, while straight man Zeppo falls for his sweet daughter, Mary (Ruth Hall).
Although it’s probably not amongst the best of the Marx Brothers’ work, Monkey Business ranks somewhere close to the top tier. The comedy is frenetic, breathless stuff, with many of Groucho’s lines in particular appearing to be ad-libbed. As with all humour of this variety, it’s fairly hit and miss, and even the success of the hits depends on whether vintage anarchic humour floats your boat. Much of it is undeniably clever, though, and it must have seemed revolutionary back in 1931. Having said that, one of the funniest parts of the movie is the (ahem) running joke in which Harpo simply chases a variety of pretty young ladies while they scream their heads off. And while I’m on the subject of Harpo, am I the only one who finds his screen persona to be just a little creepy? That outfit, the shaggy blonde hair, the exaggerated facial expressions, the silence — there’s just something about him that’s more than a little unsettling…
(Reviewed 21st August 2014)