Monkey Business (1931)
Monkey Business (1931)

Genre: Slapstick and Musical Running Time: 1 hr. 17 min.

Release Date: September 19th, 1931 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Norman Z. McLeod Actors: The Marx Brothers, Thelma Todd, Rockcliffe Fellowes, Harry Woods, Ruth Hall, Tom Kennedy

 


 

F

our stowaways in the forward hatch are causing problems on a massive cruise ship. They’re difficult to catch, yet they sing continuously in their kippered-herring-barrel hiding spots and write insulting notes to the captain. But once the first officer (Tom Kennedy) is commanded to locate the troublemakers, a madcap chase ensues, with Groucho (with cigar always in hand), Harpo (silent as always), Chico (routinely hatching plans), and Zeppo (not quite sure how to make his character unique) doing all they can to elude the authorities – and upset the captain and flirt with the women on board. “Well of all the colossal impudence!”

The Marx Brothers’ antics aren’t terribly original, but they’re executed with a decent level of precision. From the slapstick chases to the roughhousing in a puppet show, the various gimmicks are both bizarre and comical. As is standard in their theatrical episodes, the stars impersonate employees and professionals (here, the ship provides a wide range of professions, many of which aren’t exclusive to a cruise), doing their jobs with perfectly disastrous results. And there’s always time for spontaneous singing and dancing, which drags supporting roles unwittingly into the absurdity.

Further sticking to their formula, the four goofballs provide the laughs, while the other characters attempt to remain serious, resulting in plenty of moments in which dramatic personas must basically ignore the chattering wackos. A mobster (Harry Woods) and his moll (Thelma Todd) have their own missions, soon embroiling the stowaways in a murder plot against a millionaire (Rockcliffe Fellowes) and his daughter (Ruth Hall). But much of this is meaningless, existing primarily to string together unrelated skits, which curiously find a rotation of the brothers randomly walking into each subsequent scene. The layout of the vessel is correspondingly inconsequential; the personas appear and disappear, shifting from location to location as if teleporting.

Following the blueprints of a variety show, Groucho and Chico exchange nonsensical conversations full of literal translations of aphorisms; Chico and Harpo pull scams on unsuspecting passengers; Groucho spouts tongue-twisting hokum to everyone in earshot and pursues older women; Harpo tosses things around, plays with a frog, and chases younger women; and Zeppo remains the only one of the group who isn’t disheveled or an obvious clown, which makes his onscreen identity unexceptional. With its feature-film length, the ship setting isn’t always enough, prompting a segue to a dinner party (and the climax in a barn) that promises additional chaos and plenty of physical comedy. And once on dry land, time is allotted for Chico to play the piano, for Harpo to pluck the harp, and for the ridiculousness to grow exponentially. Few bits stand out, but the shenanigans are dependable and satisfying.

– Mike Massie

  • 5/10