Animal Crackers

Animal CrackersSynopsis: Hooray for Captain Spaulding! Animal Crackers is a classic of screen histor, and it’s as uproariously funny today as it was 50 years ago. This film introduced Groucho’s most famous character, Captain Spaulding, whose song became the theme of his “You Bet Your Life” TV program. Highlights include Groucho’s African lecture (“One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas, I don’t know.”) and the card game which Harpo and chico play with the wealthy society woman, Mrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont).

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Animal Crackers 6.75

eyelights: the skill of the performers.
eyesores: the vaguely familiar (i.e. rehashed) premise.

“One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don’t know.”

‘Animal Crackers’ is the second feature film starring The Marx Brothers, after ‘The Cocoanuts‘. Released in 1930, this musical comedy revolves around a party thrown by a wealthy socialite to celebrate the return of an African explorer. Over the course of the soirée, however, an expensive painting that she was planning to unveil goes missing, and a mad dash to find the artwork begins. Naturally, all manners of hilarity ensues.

It’s really hard for me to express enthusiasm for the picture that Groucho Marx called “the best of our movies”. To me, ‘Animal Crackers’ seemed like a veritable rehash of their previous film (unsurprisingly, they are both based on stage musicals that were written by the same author): the basic structure is the same, it has similar plot points, and the Marx Brothers play similar parts and have similar shticks. They’re nearly interchangeable.

Clearly, the picture is merely a vehicle for a series of Marx Brothers performances, with some scenes seeming out of place, wedged into the story for no apparent reason other than to let them do their thing. The worst of them for me were the Harpo skits, which were all physical comedy, but which were not contextually appropriate. He was skilled at what he did, there is no doubt, and he is endearing, but it produced few chuckles.

My favourite bit was probably the one when Harpo tries to convince two women to marry him, because there’s a transgressive discourse about the value of bigamy, something you’d rarely see. I just liked that they dared to discuss it and that all parties were receptive enough that the discussion, while written for comedic effect, could take place. Plus he interrupted the exchange to monologue us, commenting on the scene. Nice touch.

Unfortunately, it appeared as though many of the performances were a bit sloppy, with actors stumbling over their lines. I say “appears” because it’s conceivable that this was intentional and I just didn’t get it. But it seemed strange to keep full takes in which the actors trip over their characters’ names and spend parts of the skit trying to improvise their way back to the correct dialogue. Why not simply start over and do it correctly?

To me, watching what looked like outtakes, or bloopers, was distracting.

In many ways, the picture felt like a stage play that just so happened to be filmed. Of particular issue is the fact that the Marx Brothers routines are devised for audience reaction, with pauses where the laughter should be. This made a lot of their bits fall flat because the beats were off, not designed for cinema audiences: it was one-liner, pause, visual gag, pause, and so forth. This wore on me even if their skill was apparent.

Imagine going to see a stand-up comedian performing one-liners to a silent room. That’s what it felt like.

I also found that most of the dialogues, the thing I liked most about their previous effort, weren’t particularly clever -let alone funny- here. Oh, sure, there are a few exceptions, but even the Groucho one-liners that are considered the highlights of the film by some critics (ex: “Africa is God’s country, and He can have it.”) aren’t exactly crafted by the sharpest of wits. This left me watching the otherwise reheated elements with disinterest.

The picture is a slightly higher grade production than ‘The Cocoanuts’ was, and that’s a welcome change, but this has limited impact on one’s enjoyment: there are plenty of terrific productions that don’t stir the viewer. Honestly, I think that ‘Animal Crackers’ might be better savoured by those who have not yet seen ‘The Cocoanuts’ – and vice versa. But I’m sure that the best way of all to see it would have been live, when it was performed on Broadway.

As a motion picture, ‘Animal Crackers’ is strangely anemic.

Dates of viewing: May 26+29, 2015

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