Monkey Business Review

Michael Brooke has reviewed the Region 1 DVD release of Monkey Business starring The Marx Brothers.

By 1931, sound film technology had improved dramatically, and the benefits can clearly be seen in Monkey Business: it’s a far more cinematic piece of work than its predecessors. In fact, it’s the first Marx Brothers film that was devised specifically for the cinema, Animal Crackers and The Cocoanuts essentially being recordings of their long-running stage hits.

The other advantage was that for the first time they had a director who really understood their particular brand of humour – his predecessors having been hired more for their competence with the then new sound film technology than any particular comic gifts (The Cocoanuts’ co-director Robert Florey didn’t even find the Marx Brothers funny, which one might have thought was a bit of a handicap).

Norman Z McLeod will never go down in history as one of the great comedy film-makers, and he wasn’t a patch on Leo McCarey (who made Duck Soup), but he was certainly one of the better directors the Marxes worked with, in that he knew how to construct a solid, fast-paced narrative framework on which the brothers could hang whatever it was they felt like hanging on it (McLeod also performed a similar service for W C Fields).

Significantly, both this film and the two that followed it (Horse Feathers, Duck Soup) are twenty minutes shorter than their first two films, but they’ve lost nothing in the cutting – indeed, the faster pacing and relative absence of irrelevant musical interludes (there are a couple, but they’re kept to a minimum) makes them far more entertaining.

Further bonuses include the presence of S.J.Perelman as co-screenwriter – a more perfect scribe for the Marxes it would be hard to imagine – and Thelma Todd as by far the feistiest female foil Groucho ever had, even though ultimately she’s a little too knowing to be an ideal substitute for the sadly absent Margaret Dumont.

For the first and only time, all four brothers begin the film on an equal social footing – they’re stowaways on a luxury cruise liner. That said, after they’re discovered and chased, their individual personalities quickly assert themselves – Groucho immediately steals a captain’s uniform and wreaks havoc among the officer classes, while Harpo prefers to subvert a children’s puppet show. And woe betide anyone careless enough to complain that he has a frog in his throat after Harpo’s beloved pet has gone missing!

On board, the various brothers are hired by rival gangsters Alky Briggs and Joe Helton as bodyguards, despite their obvious lack of qualifications (Groucho: “Afraid, me? A man who’s licked his weight in wild caterpillars, afraid?”), while Groucho gets involved with Alky’s moll (Todd) in one of his more memorable attempted seduction scenes (“My husband’s just inside – if he finds me out here he’ll wallop me!” – “Always thinking of your husband – couldn’t I wallop you just as well?”)

When the ship eventually reaches its destination, they try to get through immigration by stealing Maurice Chevalier’s passport and attempting various impersonations, one of the funniest scenes in their entire canon, particularly when we get round to Harpo’s phonograph-aided version (ironically enough, the largely forgotten Chevalier – a megastar at the time – is probably now more famous for being the butt of a Marx Brothers joke than for anything else he did!).

What prevents Monkey Business from scaling the lunatic heights reached by Horse Feathers, Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera is that it pretty much fizzles out once it reaches dry land, and the romantic subplot involving Zeppo is particularly dreary.

And, as with The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, the central storyline never really catches fire – it just trundles along in the background as if to prove that the film was more than just an excuse for a series of deranged comedy sketches. Not that that’s a major drawback – Monkey Business is certainly one of the Marxes’ funnier films – but it does make it rather less satisfying as a whole: the climax in particular is something of a damp squib.

Happily, the DVDs have been improving along with the films, as this transfer is comfortably superior to Animal Crackers, which in turn was a cut above The Cocoanuts. The print is in acceptable physical condition, barring a few spots, scratches and tramlines, and while it’s a little soft overall, it’s distinctly sharper than its predecessors, and has a pleasantly wide dynamic range. It’s not exactly state-of-the-art, but it certainly gives you a good solid transfer of a decent print, and with this film that’s all I really wanted.

Similarly, the sound more than adequate given the limitations of the original 1931 recording, though it’s clear that great strides had been made on the technical side of things since Animal Crackers was made. Ultimately, it’s a little fuzzy (particularly when music is involved), but the dialogue comes through loud and clear, and it’s no more nor less than what I expected, as was the number of chapter stops: the usual sixteen.

Equally predictable given the other DVDs in this series is the total lack of extras – so, as ever, I’m going to have to point you in the direction of WinStar’s The Unknown Marx Brothers, which has more than enough in that department.

Michael Brooke

Updated: Feb 27, 1999

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