Movie Review: MONKEY BUSINESS, 1931

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MONKEY BUSINESS, 1931
Movie Reviews

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

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.

REVIEW:

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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Movie Review: ANIMAL CRACKERS, 1930

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ANIMAL CRACKERS, 1930
Movie Reviews

Directed by Victor Heerman
Starring: The Marx Brothers
Review by Steve Painter

SYNOPSIS:

Mayhem and zaniness ensue when a valuable painting goes missing during a party in honor of famed African explorer Captain Spaulding.

REVIEW:

After the reasonable success of The Cocoanuts (1929), Paramount decided the Marx Brothers were talented enough comedians to have a second movie made. The second movie filmed would be the last Broadway hit the Brothers had – Animal Crackers (1930).

Animal Crackers is a favorite of Marx Brothers fans. One reason for this might be the music. Unlike in the first Marx Brothers movie where the Brothers do not get the plum musical numbers, in this one they do. The most famous number being “Hello, I Must Be Going/Hooray For Captain Spaulding.” Ironically this number does not feature Harpo or Chico, who are the two most musically gifted brothers. Instead, Groucho and Zeppo and Margaret Dumont and a host of others get the song.

As for the plot, it revolves around a party held by the wealthy Mrs. Rittenhouse, played by Dumont. The party is being held to honor the return of African explorer Jeffery T. Spaulding, played by Groucho. Chico and Harpo appear as musicians who are supposed to help provide entertainment for the guests. They do just that and even entertain the movie audience. As another part of the party, art collector Roscoe Chandler is going to show off the new painting he has acquired. Some jealous society girls get the idea to steal the painting. They do. And once again, Mrs. Rittenhouse has a daughter who has fallen for an artist, which is, again, a profession not good enough for her. So the daughter decides to have Chandler’s painting replaced by a copy her boyfriend made in art school. That makes three copies of the painting floating around.

Certainly Harpo and Chico are going to be involved in some way with all these paintings at the party. They end up stealing one of the copies during a rain storm and replace it with the one done by the boyfriend.

None of this is that important however. It is all about the comedy. Sure there are laughs when Chico and Harpo are stealing the painting. Chico hears a noise and tells Harpo to hide, so Harpo moves to the middle of the room and does a headstand.What makes Animal Crackers one of the special Marx Brothers movies is its beginning. Groucho is carried into the party by a group of Africans as if he is a sultan or something. He then meets Mrs. Rittenhouse and tells her he is glad to be here, but that he must be going. We go into the musical numbers and then Chico and Harpo appear. Chico as an Italian and Harpo as “The Professor.”

Harpo gets a hold of one of Captain Spaulding’s guns and starts shooting at the guests. A nice blonde walks by, ending his gun play, and he gives chase.

From there we are off. Chico and Harpo discover that Chandler is not the high society type, but actually some fish peddler they met in Europe. Chandler gets in a good line during Chico’s questioning of who he is. Chandler asks: “When did you become an Italian?” That is a question the audience would probably like to know as well.

Other highlights include Groucho discussing the merits of art with Chandler. He suggests Chandler should build his next gallery in Central Park. Chico and Harpo play bridge with Mrs. Rittenhouse. Harpo ends up with what seems like 50 aces of spades.

As always, there is time for Groucho to try and woe Margaret Dumont. He ends up suggesting that he marry both Dumont and her friend. This prompts her friend to say, “but that’s bigamy.” To which Groucho replies, “That’s big of me too. That’s big of all of us. Let’s be big for a change.” He ends the scene by walking to the pool with a group of bathing beauties.

Zeppo also has a nice scene here, probably his best in any of the movies he appeared in. As usual he appears at the beginning and end of the movie. At the end he is supposed to write a letter for Groucho to Groucho’s lawyers. Of course Groucho meanders around with the letter. When Groucho is finished with his dictation he asks Zeppo to read it back to him. Zeppo says he didn’t write anything down because he didn’t think it was that important. This irks Groucho and he takes a swipe at his brother.

In the end, Harpo ends up being the culprit. He has stolen two of the paintings, the real painting and the one done by the boyfriend. The movie ends with a cop trying to talk Harpo out of a life of crime, while all the silverware Harpo has stolen from the party runs down his sleeve.

Like all good Marx Brothers movies, Animal Crackers made an impact on future entertainers. Phil Collins named one of his albums “Hello, I Must Be Going.” Animal Crackers starts quickly and continues the pace throughout. Even some of the musical numbers that bog down future Marx movies do not interfere here.

Movie Review: THE COCOANUTS, 1929

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THE COCOANUTS, 1929
Movie Reviews

Directed by Robert Florey, Joseph Santley
Starring: The Marx Brothers
Review by Steve Painter

SYNOPSIS:

During the Florida land boom, the Marx brothers run a hotel, auction off some land, thwart a jewel robbery, and generally act like themselves.

REVIEW:

Vaudeville acts are dead now, but at the turn of the last century they were extremely popular. Some of the best performers in vaudeville still remain with us in the form of the movies they made. Actors like Charlie Chaplin and W.C. Fields, along with a lot of other comedy acts, cut their teeth on the vaudeville circuit. When Hollywood came calling for their popular acts, the actors obliged and became silent movie stars.When sound came to movies more popular vaudeville acts could make the jump from stage to screen. One of those acts was the Marx Brothers. The four brothers from New York had been performing in vaudeville since the mid-1910s. Eventually their collection of comedy routines was structured around a plot, although never too structured, and the Brothers took their comedy to Broadway.

Their first Broadway play became a hit. It was called I’ll Say She Is (1924). Unfortunately little of that play remains intact. There is a great YouTube video of a scene in it, but that is all. Instead we are left with the second Broadway musical comedy put on by the Marx Brothers. The Cocoanuts was a huge success in 1926, and once sound came in, it was decided that it could be filmed as a movie. The film version of the play introduced the Marx Brothers to audiences outside of New York.

For those who have seen other Marx Brothers movies The Cocoanuts might be a bit disappointing. First of all, like a lot of other Marx Brothers pictures, parts of the movie are missing. In the years that have passed some of the negative been destroyed, so there are jumps and even where there aren’t jumps the negative has some haze on it. But it is still the Marx Brothers, which is always a good thing.

Irving Berlin wrote the music for the comedy, he of “God Bless America” fame along with other serious songs. The beginning is full of songs, and really drags. But once you get past the first three numbers, things pick up.

Groucho plays the owner of The Cocoanuts Hotel in Florida. Zeppo, always the great straight man, plays Jamison the desk clerk for the hotel. Groucho and Zeppo talk for a bit in the beginning, allowing Groucho to get in some good one liners, but that is about all that is good in the first 10 minutes of the movie.

Margaret Dumont, also a great straight man, plays Mrs. Potter, a wealthy woman on vacation with her daughter. Groucho is after Dumont’s money as always and our story concerns the troubles of Dumont’s daughter, Polly, and her boyfriend Bob. Bob is a wannabe architect, which means that Mrs. Potter feels he is not good enough for her daughter. Instead, she wants her daughter to marry Harvey Yates, a more well-off man.

Of course plot doesn’t matter much in Marx Brothers movies and this one is no different. Things get good in the movie when Chico and Harpo show up for a stay at the hotel. As always, the two partners try their best to steal whatever they can. When their suitcase opens up and Groucho sees that there is nothing in it, Chico tells him “Don’t worry, we’ll fill it up before we leave.”

The tough thing about writing a review of a Marx Brothers movie is that the Marx Brothers are in it. Their brand of comedy movies so fast and is so visual, especially Harpo, that it is hard to recreate through words what is on the screen. I will mention a few of the good scenes here, but you will have to watch the movie to rightly appreciate them.

The first appearance of the popular rotating door comedy routine is in this movie. A woman, who has the room next to Mrs. Potter’s, invites Harpo and Chico to see her. Her idea is to have them be in her room, while she goes into Mrs. Potter’s to steal a necklace. Of course she does not count on Groucho trying to sneak into Mrs. Potter’s room to see Mrs. Potter. So Groucho and the woman are trying to sneak into Mrs. Potter’s room without being seen and Chico and Harpo are trying to get into the woman’s room without anyone noticing. The scene was redone in many other Marx Brothers movies, most notably A Night at the Opera.

In another scene, Groucho tries to auction off some swamp land to raise money. He goes over his plan to boost bids with Chico. The idea is that Chico will start the bidding and then bid up whenever someone joins in, so that Groucho can get as much as he can for the land. Well, this doesn’t go quite as planned since Chico ends up being the only one that bids on the land. Of course he has no money and Groucho’s plan for quick riches is a failure.

Lastly, the ending is memorable. Bob has been thrown in jail for apparently stealing Mrs. Potter’s necklace. But Harvey and his female accomplice did the deed. Only Harpo knows this, and of course, he can’t tell anyone. So at the end a dinner is being hosted in the hotel by Mrs. Potter’s for the engagement of her daughter with Harvey. As part of the celebration, everyone involved with the wedding makes a speech. Speeches are boring and Harpo makes this clear, by walking away from the table each time someone speaks so he can get some punch. He comes back to the table drunker and drunker each time.

The Cocoanuts is not the best Marx Brothers movie, but it is the first. There was enough good comedy here to warrant more movies. There is enough good comedy in it still to warrant viewings today, even if only to understand where some of the later Marx routines came from.

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