TV Cream

Films: M is for...

Monkey Business

The first full-steam outing for the Marx Brothers, stowing away in barrels of kippered herring for an entrance to top all entrances. From then on, it’s high grade larking about on deck, under the aegis of softly-spoken, ex-cartoonist Horse Feathers helmsman Norman Z ‘Quiet as a mouse pissing on a blotter’ MacLeod, who was there mainly to handle the technical stuff and let the Brothers get on with being the Brothers. The thankless task of cooking up the original script fell, in the main, to bookish humorists SJ ‘Where Do I Sit?’ Perelman and Will Johnstone, hoiked over from New York by the Marxes to read out their offerings to a hard-to-impress crowd of brothers, producers, wives and dogs. Set pieces are famed in legend and song – the ‘phoney barbers’ routine as endlessly recycled in episodes of Scooby Doo; Harpo mimicking those curmudgeonly old chess-players, then nicking their game and taking it off into another room; the Chevalier-imitation-as-proof-of-identity round robin; Harpo’s maybe too-celebrated-by-dullard-cinephiles Punch and Judy dismemberment; a fine round of farcical in-and-out-of-the-sumptuous-Art-Deco-fitted-wardrobes avoiding thin-tached gangster Alky Briggs (‘I’m wise! I’m wise!’) and, of course, the endless baiting of Ben Taggart’s bluff old captain (‘And stay out of my office!’). It’s all pitched just right – the Brothers are looking out for no-one but themselves, and aren’t trying to help out a crappy opera singer, or save a sanitarium or anything – just to cock up each and every stock situation the travelling wipe reveals. Loads of stuff was, of course, cut – the initial kippery reveal was rightly judged great enough to justify dispensing with a lengthy ‘how they survived in those barrels’ pre-amble with herring bones, nail polishing, sucking vinegar through straws, etc. Similarly, the ending, with Zeppo and Thelma ‘finally alone’ on a yacht having their stolen kiss interrupted with the three other brothers popping their heads out of barrels (beer, this time) to serenade the pair with a rendition of Chevalier’s If a Nightingale Could Sing Like You, has been chopped, and the film ends arbitrarily on that marvellously inconsequential pun instead. Margaret Dumont, that gargantuan, pearl-festooned Aunt Sally who continued her ‘the joke’s on me’ role well beyond the realm of on-set duty, but was almost certainly far sharper than it suited her career to make out, is also out for the first time, at Groucho’s behest, it seems. Still, the print is in far better condition than either Duck Soup or the criminally fragmentary Horse Feathers, all the better to capture Norm Z’s many swooping camera shots, laid on thick with typical early ’30s ‘Bloody Hell! We can move this thing about at last!’ excessive zeal.

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