Synopsis: The iconic Marx Brothers – Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo – head for the high seas in the outrageously funny Monkey Business. While hiding from the authorities on a luxury cruise ship, a quartet of stowaways inadvertently find themselves posing as bodyguards to rival gangsters. Complete lunacy ensues as the brothers get mixed up in a kidnapping and must save the day. Featuring some of the legendary comedy team’s wackiest scenes ever, including all four brothers each trying to pass themselves off as real-life actor Maurice Chevalier; this unforgettable film earned a place on the AFI’s 100 Year…100 Laughs list.
Monkey Business 7.5
eyelights: Groucho. the zippy pace.
eyesores: the bareness of the plot.
“Oh, engineer? Will you tell them to stop the boat from rocking, I’m going to have lunch.”
‘Monkey Business’ is the third Marx Brothers motion picture. Released in 1931, it was a huge success and is considered to this day as one of their best. Unlike their previous films, this one wasn’t based on one of their musicals; it was written specifically for the screen, drawing inspiration from some of their stage routines.
This time we find the four Brothers as stowaways on a cruise liner, trying to avoid being caught by the captain and his crew. This permits the comedians to get into all sorts of sight gags and silly scenarios, before eventually bumping into two underworld factions: Groucho and Zeppo with Mr. Helton and Chico and Harpo with Alky, Helton’s rival.
From that point on they are they are trapped in a plot to kill Mr. Helton, with Chico and Harpo as hitmen and Groucho and Zeppo as bodyguards. Everyone gets out of this unscathed, naturally, and once ashore, they all reconvene at a party that Helton is throwing for his daughter, whom Alky decides to kidnap – only to be thwarted by the Marxes.
Frankly, I was quite impressed with ‘Monkey Business’ compared to the previous ones: while the humour remains the same, it’s incorporated in the picture more convincingly, with the routines shortened enough to have an impact but not overstay their welcome, and flowing from one to the next instead of being wedged in.
As with the previous ones, I watched the picture with the subtitles on, because the audio isn’t superb and because Groucho has a tendency to speak so quickly that my brain doesn’t even have time to register his zingers before others zip by. With the subtitles on, which stay on screen for a decent amount of time, I can keep up or catch up.
I found Groucho much better here than in ‘Animal Crackers‘, which was by far his weakest effort thus far, so I had a good time here. He was rather skilled both at verbiage and silly comedy. I loved how he made absurd associations whenever he was formulating arguments and then followed them up with nonsensical conclusions.
Chico and Harpo’s routines were sampled in smaller bits, which made them more enjoyable, less of a burden on the picture. I still don’t understand their appeal, although Harpo has a childlike quality that is endearing. Still, his routine is stupid and it doesn’t at all work in most contexts, forcing the filmmakers to contrive scenes.
The worst of them was this bit when Harpo hides in a Punch and Judy show that’s taking place in front of a bunch of children. Firstly, everyone saw him go in. Secondly, the actual performer doesn’t protest. Thirdly, his face can’t be mistaken for a Punch and Judy doll. There’s just no way that this routine holds up. And it’s just not funny.
Then there is a very predictable barbershop routine that Chico and Harpo do, wherein they pretend to be barbers and a crew member is coaxed to sit down for a shave. Naturally he decides to have a nap, setting us up for the obvious botched job. And so we watch the pair trim his mustache down to nothing before shaving it off altogether. Ha.
One of the best routines comes from the four of them, as they try to get off the vessel by pretending to be Maurice Chevalier, whose passport they’ve stolen. What makes it work is the absurdity of them successively trying to use the same passport and singing the same song to prove they are the French singer. You’d have to be a maroon to try that!
The picture trips up a bit at the end, when they’re at the party because there’s even less plot. At this point, the whole third act revolves around silly interactions and imposes the requisite piano solo by Chico and harp solo by Harpo. It’s okay, not great and it’s followed by the kidnapping and the inevitable “heroics” of the brothers.
All in all, though, ‘Monkey Business’ made for a rather enjoyable experience. And, at a breezy 78 minutes, it really doesn’t overdo it; you get a chance to have a good time without ever getting bored and then it’s over. Which, in some ways, makes you want more. And that’s what makes a good motion picture, really. Which this is.
But I won’t tell you what it ain’t.
Date of viewing: May 30, 2015