MONKEY BUSINESS directed by Norman Z.McLeod (USA, 1931)
After two movies based on vaudeville shows, Monkey Business was the first Marx Brothers film written specially for the big screen. It’s included on the syllabus of the The Language of Hollywood Coursera MOOC to show how, with the coming of sound, many films of the 1930s were not dependent on innovative auteurs but relied on the ability of the players to generate the entertainment.
Effectively, this means that the director’s job is reduced to simply pointing the camera and relying on the timing of the performers.
The Marx Brothers had honed their comic skills on Broadway and knew exactly what audiences wanted, as is proven by the huge success of this movie.
Theirs is the essence of situation comedy with the specific situations here being a ship, a high-class party and a barn. Most of the action takes place on board an ocean liner where the four brothers are stowaways.
There’s a vague sub-plot involving a mafia hit man but logical narrative is not the order of the day. The producers knew full well that what people paid to see the respective gimmicks,or ‘shticks‘, of Groucho, Chico and Harpo (you can discount the characterless Zeppo who was never going to be a main attraction).
So we get Groucho’s relentless wise-cracking, Chico’s repeated mangling of the English language and, best of all, the manic visual genius of Harpo.
Ironically for a sound film it the ‘silent’ actor who ends up being the funniest.
The unifying factor is that all the brothers are motivated by sex, relentlessly chasing women with varying degrees of failure (somewhat depressingly, only the bland Zeppo has any success in this department).
Harpo invading a kid’s Punch & Judy puppet show and sabotaging a chess game are two of the best scenes but the pièce de résistance is when all four brothers try in turn to convince the passport authorities they are the French crooner Maurice Chevalier. Last up is Harpo who, when his concealed record player is discovered, goes crazy like a young child throwing a mega tantrum.
It’s a crazy film that has no plot development and it’s simply the case that ,when this particular round of gags runs out, the story ends.
In short, Monkey Business is seriously dated but sporadically hilarious.