Monkey Business (1931 film)
theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Norman Z. McLeod|
|Produced by||Herman J. Mankiewicz|
|Written by||S. J. Perelman
Will B. Johnstone
|Music by||John Leipold|
|Cinematography||Arthur L. Todd|
|Distributed by||Paramount Pictures|
Monkey Business is a 1931 American Pre-Code comedy film. It is the third of the Marx Brothers' released movies, and the first with an original screenplay rather than an adaptation of one of their Broadway shows. The film also stars Thelma Todd. It is directed by Norman Z. McLeod with screenplay by S. J. Perelman and Will B. Johnstone. Most of the story takes place in on an ocean liner crossing the Atlantic Ocean.
On board a ship to America, four stowaways get involuntarily pressed into service as toughs for a pair of feuding gangsters while trying desperately to evade the ship's crew. Prior to this, the film has no real plot, just the brothers causing unending uproar. Except in the credits and in the screenplay, the Brothers' characters have no names in this film. They are referred to simply as "the stowaways". After arriving stateside, one of the gangsters kidnaps the other's daughter, leaving it up to the brothers to save the day.
- Groucho Marx as Groucho
- Harpo Marx as Harpo
- Chico Marx as Chico
- Zeppo Marx as Zeppo
- Rockliffe Fellowes as J.J. 'Big Joe' Helton
- Harry Woods as Alky Briggs
- Thelma Todd as Lucille Briggs
- Ruth Hall as Mary Helton
- Tom Kennedy as First Mate Gibson
- Cecil Cunningham as Madame Swempski, opera singer giving interview on ship
- Charlotte Mineau as Emily, woman on veranda of mansion having an illicit affair
- Maxine Castle as opera singer singing O Sole Mio
- Bess Flowers as wife of man dressed as Indian at party
- Ben Taggart as Captain Corcoran
- Davison Clark as passport official
Typical for many Marx Brothers films, production censors demanded changes in some lines with sexual innuendo. Monkey Business was banned in some countries because censors feared it would encourage anarchic tendencies.
This is the first Marx Brothers film not to feature Margaret Dumont: this time their female foil is comedian Thelma Todd, who would also star in the Marx Brothers' next film, Horse Feathers. A few years after the release of Horse Feathers, Todd died in unexplained circumstances. A line of dialogue in Monkey Business seems to foreshadow Todd's death. Alone with Todd in her cabin, Groucho quips: "You're a woman who's been getting nothing but dirty breaks. Well, we can clean and tighten your brakes, but you'll have to stay in the garage all night." In 1935, Todd died in her car inside a garage, apparently from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning.
Early on in Monkey Business, the Brothers—playing stowaways concealed in barrels—harmonize unseen while performing the popular song "Sweet Adeline". It is a matter of debate whether Harpo joins in with the singing. (One of the ship's crew asserts to the captain that he knows there are four stowaways because he can hear them singing "Sweet Adeline".) If so, it would be one of only a few times Harpo used speech on screen, as opposed to other vocalizations such as whistling or sneezing. At least one other possible on-screen utterance occurs in the film A Day at the Races (1937), in which Groucho, Chico, and Harpo are heard singing "Down by the Old Mill Stream" in three-part harmony.
Upon alighting from the ship, the Marx Brothers' real life father (Sam "Frenchie" Marx) is briefly seen in a cameo appearance, sitting on top of luggage behind the Brothers on the pier as they wave to the First Mate.
Chico performs two pieces on the piano, the "Pizzicato" from Sylvia by Léo Delibes, which then morphs into the song "When I Take My Sugar to Tea" written by Sammy Fain, Irving Kahal, and Pierre Norman. Harpo performs "I'm Daffy over You" by Sol Violinsky and Chico. The most famous sequence from this film involves the four brothers attempting to get off the ship using a passport stolen from famous singer (and fellow Paramount star) Maurice Chevalier. Each brother impersonates Chevalier (complete with straw hat) and sings "You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me" ("If a nightingale could sing like you ...") in turn. This poses a problem for Harpo, who never talks. Yet his rendition is nearly flawless. He is using a hidden phonograph playing a Chevalier record. When the turntable slows down and he has to rewind it, the ruse is uncovered. The dance band at Mary's debut party is playing the song "Ho Hum!" when the Marx Brothers arrive.
- "Sweet Adeline"
- "You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me"
- "O Sole Mio" sung by opera singer Maxine Castle with harp accompaniment by Harpo
- "I'm Daffy Over You"
- "When I Take My Sugar to Tea"
According to TCM's Robert Osborne, a sequel was planned for this film that would continue the mafia theme. During the development of that film, aviator Charles Lindbergh's son was kidnapped and killed by what was believed to be gang members. The writers quickly shifted gears and based the Brothers' next film very loosely on the Marx Brothers' earlier stage show Fun in Hi Skule, which would evolve into Horse Feathers.
Reception and impact
Monkey Business was a box office success, and is considered one of the Marx Brothers' best films. Contemporary reviews were also positive. Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times wrote, "Whether it is really as funny as 'Animal Crackers' is a matter of opinion. Suffice it to say that few persons will be able to go to the Rivoli and keep a straight face." Variety's review began, "The usual Marx madhouse and plenty of laughs sprouting from a plot structure resembling one of those California bungalows which sprout up overnight." Film Daily agreed that the plot was "flimsy", but also found the film "crammed all the way with laughs and there's never a dead spot." John Mosher of The New Yorker thought the film was "the best this family has given us."
The film was evidently based on two routines the Marx Brothers did during their early days in vaudeville (Home Again and Mr. Green's Reception), along with a story idea from one of Groucho's friends, Bert Granet, called The Seas Are Wet. The passport scene is a reworking of a stage sketch in which the brothers burst into a theatrical agent's office auditioning an impersonation of a current big star. It appeared in their stage shows On the Mezzanine Floor and I'll Say She Is (1924). This skit was also done by the Marxes in the Paramount promotional film The House That Shadows Built (1931).
The concept of the Marx Brothers being stowaways on a ship would be repeated in an episode of their radio series Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel (1933) in the episode "The False Roderick" and would also be recycled in their MGM film A Night at the Opera (1935). The essence of Groucho's joke, "Sure, I'm a doctor—where's the horse?" would serve as an integral plot element for their film A Day at the Races (1937). Also repeated in that later film would be the uproarious medical examination that Harpo and Chico give opera singer Madame Swempski (Cecil Cunningham).
Awards and honors
American Film Institute recognition
- 2000: AFI's 100 Years... 100 Laughs #73
- Hanson, Patricia King, ed. (1993). The American Film Institute Catalog of Motion Pictures Produced in the United States: Feature Films, 1931-1940. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. p. 1418. ISBN 0-520-07908-6.
- "Film Reviews". Variety (New York: Variety, Inc.). October 13, 1931. p. 14.
- Harrison's Reports film review; October 17, 1931, page 167.
- Monkey Business trivia at the Internet Movie Database.
- Plot summary of Monkey Business at the Internet Movie Database
- Censored Films and Television at University of Virginia online
- Louvish, Simon (2000). Monkey Business: The Lives and Legends of the Marx Brothers. New York City: Thomas Dunne Books.
- Dirks, Tim. "Movie Review: "Horse Feathers"". Filmsite.org. Retrieved 2008-04-06.
- "Horse Feathers". Marxology. Retrieved 2008-04-06.
- Griffin, Danel. Movie Review: Monkey Business. Film as Art. University of Alaska Southeast. Retrieved on 2008-04-06.
- Hall, Mordaunt (October 8, 1931). "Movie Review - Monkey Business". The New York Times. The New York Times Company. Retrieved September 21, 2015.
- "Monkey Business". Film Daily (New York: Wid's Films and Film Folk, Inc.): 8. September 27, 1931.
- Mosher, John (October 17, 1931). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker (New York: F-R Publishing Corp.). p. 65.
- A Night at the Opera trivia at the Internet Movie Database.