Monkey Business Review
Monkey Business is included in the new "Marilyn Monroe Collection" from Fox DVD and it's inclusion could be considered to be straining a point. The radiant Marilyn, seen here in 1952 on the brink of stardom, appears in the film for about fifteen minutes at most - only slightly more than in the excellent All About Eve- and is fourth-billed after Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers and Charles Coburn. This certainly isn't her film in the same sense as Bus Stop or The Seven Year Itch. But once you accept that it's in the set to fill it up as much as anything else, it's interesting as an example of how her image was already being processed and glossed by the studio system so that this intelligent woman, acutely aware of the stereotype which was being attached to her, was already becoming the archetypal Dumb Blonde.
However, before we consider this clever little bit of misogyny, it's worthwhile looking at Monkey Business itself. It's certainly got the best possible pedigree for a screwball comedy. Cary Grant was at the peak of his comic charm, Ginger Rogers was still renowned for her past light comedy work with Fred Astaire and, in Howard Hawks, the film had one of the greatest of all Hollywood directors and one who had proved time and again that when it came to comedy he had the lightest Midas touch in the business. Unfortunately, this five-star background may explain why there's a slight sense of disappointment about the film. The premise - scientist discovers a youth potion which makes him and all around him regress to teenagerdom and then into pre-adolescence - isn't too bad; indeed, Hawks had worked with even sillier concepts before (Grant in drag in I Was A Male War Bride, Grant and Katie Hepburn with dinosaur bones and a leopard in Bringing Up Baby) and pulled them off triumphantly. But this basic idea is oddly laboured here and worked out with a rather cold logic that tends to mitigate against the crazy laughs for which it aims. The "monkey business" of the title refers, along with adolescent hi-jinks, to the involvement of a thoroughly likeable chimpanzee who mixes some of the formula with a cooler of drinking water with, allegedly, hilarious results. But the film overplays its hand. First we get Cary Grant's dull, middle aged scientist reverting to puberty - getting a crew-cut, buying some horrible trendy clothes and a flashy sports car - and flirting outrageously with Monroe (playing the company secretary). This is amusing stuff and very well played by Grant and Monroe. But then we get Ginger Rogers doing roughly the female equivalents but ending up in tears and locking Grant out the bridal suite where she has taken him in order to relive their honeymoon. This is less amusing, largely because Rogers isn't even half the comic actor that Grant is, and goes on much too long. The last half hour consists of an extended scene of the couple becoming children again, consisting of much embarrassing nonsense involving Grant making up as a Red Indian and attempting to scalp his lawyer. By the time the rest of the company directors have imbibed the wondrous drug and are chasing each other around with soda siphons, you begin to wish you'd decided to watch a Robert Bresson movie instead.
It's hard to explain why the film doesn't work. Hawks can pace this sort of thing to perfection but the set-up is far too lengthy and the laughs are only sporadic. The cast work very hard with Grant deserving some kind of medal for devotion to duty as he prances around making a complete fool of himself. His comic timing remains a thing of wonder but even he cannot make a silk purse out of the proverbial sow's ear. I think the main blame has to rest with the scriptwriters. Ben Hecht, Charles Lederer and I.A.L. Diamond sound like the dream team for any comedy, but in 1952 Hecht and Lederer were well past their best and Diamond was young, adrift and three long years from his first memorable collaboration with Billy Wilder. The lines are sometimes sharp but too often lazy and derivative and all the situations into which they place their characters seem over-familiar - at least three and possibly more of them derive from the Victorian novel "Vice Versa". The structuring is entirely logical in how it explores the premise but Grant's first reversion to being a teenage boy has all the best lines and situations and Ginger Rogers is reduced to copying the moves of her more talented co-star. The arbitrary last minute inclusion of a baby is, in particular, a sign of sheer desperation from writers who don't know how to finish their story.
However, for all the disappointment of a screwball comedy which doesn't turn the screws sufficiently tight, it remains diverting entertainment. Grant is always worth watching, but the surprising scene stealer turns out to be Charles Coburn as his boss at the chemical company. A distinguished stage actor who became a star in his sixties, Coburn purloins every scene in which he appears, and his timing matches that of Grant. He also gets the best line in the film as, handing a paper to his secretary Monroe he says "Find someone to type this" and then looks shamefacedly like a little boy caught being bad with his justification, "Anyone can type..." Coburn went on to be equally memorable in Hawks's next film, the considerably superior Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
As for Monroe, she plays the ditsy secretary with immaculate skill, but let's face it she has very little to do. Coburn's line gets the biggest laugh in the film but there is also something slightly sinister about what it presages for the future. Monroe is defined here solely by her physical presence and there's no sign that anyone thought she might have more to her than this. There's also a slight chill at the exchange between Grant and Rogers - "She's half infant", "Not the half that's visible" - and Monroe seems to have been directed to play her role as a naive innocent who is quite unaware that men are drooling over her. It's a shame because she shows some comic flair in her earlier dialogue and she has chemistry to burn with both Grant and Coburn. If it was anyone but Monroe then this might not be such a significant point but it's impossible not to be aware of it given both her subsequent history and the fact that the film insists on stressing it at every opportunity. She deserved something better, but it seems that very few people had the imagination to find it for her. Hawks, to his eternal credit, tried as hard as anyone in his next film with her.
Monkey Business is not the best example of a Hawks film, a Cary Grant film or a Marilyn Monroe film. But it's acceptable entertainment and Hawks is, even in his lesser work, incapable of making anything without at least a modicum of style over and above what a hack could provide. Compared to your average dumb comedy of 2002 - and they are getting dumber all the time - then this could look to your average viewer like some kind of classic. But it's certainly not an essential work of any of the participants.
Fox have gone to a considerable amount of trouble in their Monroe collection to restore the films to their original quality. Monkey Business needed less restoring than some of the others, but whatever work has been done has paid off. It looks simply marvellous.
One has to add that this is in the context of the age and the relative obscurity of the film. it is presented in the original fullscreen Academy ratio and in gloriously contrasted black and white. The shadow detail is razor sharp and the image always looks crisp and vibrant. There is a small amount of film grain but this looks natural and at least means that the menace of edge enhancement is not a problem. There is no serious problem with artifacts and the level of detail is excellent. This is as good a transfer of a film of this vintage as I've seen and matches the work Warners have done on Citizen Kane and Now Voyager.
The soundtrack is also very good. Naturally in the original mono format, it presents the dialogue and music with beautiful clarity.
There are three extra features. The original theatrical trailer appears, again looking very nice, and is an example of the jokey voiceover trend that has become so annoying. We are promised the time of our lives and, personally, I'd be tempted to ask for my money back. There is also a 20 picture stills gallery with some production shots of Monroe and some scenes from the film. Finally, a brief restoration comparison details the work done to restore the film back to its original quality.
We get 20 chapter stops and static menus with a picture of Monroe to match the other discs in the collection.
It has to be said that this is not even remotely like Hawks's best work and compared to Bringing Up Baby it is marginal doodling. Nor is the best film to showcase Monroe as she appears so briefly but it is interesting in terms of how it defines the screen persona from which she spent the next ten years trying to escape. The DVD presents the film to its very best advantage and is worth a look if you are a fan of any of the participants.