Movie Review: MONKEY BUSINESS, 1931

Movie Reviews

Directed by Norman Z. McLeod
Starring: The Marx Brothers
Review by Steve Painter

On a transatlantic crossing, the Marx brothers get up to their usual antics and manage to annoy just about everyone on board the ship.


Monkey Business (1931) is sort of a precursor of things to come from the Marx Brothers. It involves the four Brothers as stowaways on a ship. This was exploited to a lesser degree in A Night at the Opera (1935). On its own, Monkey Business is average Marx Brothers. It has some decent laughs, but the ending is terrible and the stowaway scene in A Night at the Opera is a little better.

What this movie has that previous Marx Brothers movies didn’t is Thelma Todd. Todd was a comedienne who worked with Laurel and Hardy for a bit. Her life was cut short in a garage one night in 1935. Groucho makes a crack about locking Todd up in the garage and not letting her out during one of their scenes together. This line was cut out of the movie’s later releases, but is present in the current DVD offering.

The movie also is absent of Margaret Dumont. The Marx Brothers staple did not appear in the movie and has her character replaced by a wealthy man who has a daughter that Zeppo falls in love with.

We open up in bowls of a ship bound for America. The Marx Brothers are in barrels singing “Sweet Adeline.” They jump out of their barrels for the audience to see and Groucho makes some quips. They return to their barrels when they hear movement on the stairs coming down to where they are. The captain has sent the crew to find the stowaways.

The crew does just that, but they cannot catch the Marx Brothers. They race up the stairs onto the deck and from there unleash their mayhem on the passengers, crew and captain. Groucho and Chico hit up the captain first and end up eating his lunch and storing him in his closet.

In an interesting scene, Harpo runs away from one of the crew members and ends up in the children’s nursery. The kids are watching a puppet play. Harpo joins in as one of the puppet heads. This confuses the crew member and astounds the children. Harpo is the Marx Brother most associated with children and this scene is a perfect illustration of that.

Looney Tunes is famous for taking routines used by silent comedians and the Marx Brothers. One routine that was used in the cartoon involves a character shaving someone with a mustache. Of course the character who is giving the shave ends up shaving the mustache off completely. That happens here as one of the crew members wants a shave and in order to hide from him, Chico and Harpo pose as barbers. They give him a close shave and he leaves with no mustache.

The real plot of the movie comes in almost a third of the way through. This is when Groucho, who is on the run, ends up walking into the room occupied by gangster Alky Briggs and his wife Lucille, played by Todd. Briggs likes Groucho’s speaking ability and tells him he is part of the gang. Zeppo also walks into the room and becomes part of the gang as well. The idea is the two will provide protection for Briggs while he tries to get Big Joe Helton to give him a piece of New York. Helton has said he is retired from the gang turf war and just wants to live life alone in luxury with his daughter, who has the hots for Zeppo.

As it ends up, Chico and Harpo walk in on Helton while they are trying to find some quiet so they can play chess. Helton enlists them as his bodyguards. None of this really matters until the boat docks in New York.

The best part of the movie occurs when the Brothers attempt to get off the boat. They do not have a passport, causing them to have to steal one. They steal crooner Maurice Chevalier’s passport. In order to try and get off the boat each one tries to sing a song of his. Harpo gets the closest, as he has a miniature phonograph play Chevalier’s record. But the phonograph skips and he is kept on the boat with the rest of his brothers.

They finally leave the ship when a man falls ill. Groucho jumps in as he impersonates a doctor, much like what will happen in A Day at the Races (1937). Instead of having the patient removed from the ship, the crew ends up taking the Marx Brothers off on the cot.

This should be where the movie ends, but it doesn’t. Now in New York, Briggs comes up with a plan to take Helton’s daughter. Helton holds a party, where Groucho provides some good comedy and Harpo and Chico get their musical solos, but nothing else really happens. Helton’s daughter is kidnapped and taken to a barn. Chico and Groucho arrive there with a picnic and wait for Zeppo to knock out Briggs, thus giving a happy ending.

Monkey Business is not a bad movie, but it is not a great one either. As far as Marx Brothers movies go, it is not in the elite, but then again it isn’t one of their worst, like their movies from the 1940s. It is somewhere in the middle. As always, the major comedy scenes in the movie are worth watching. But a lot of the rest isn’t.

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