This Is Not a Film Blog
Which led me to thinking about the Marx Brothers. Perelman contributed dialogue to several of their Paramount films, but he seems most present in Monkey Business (1931), which gets surprisingly little commentary from the movie lovers. (Consulting the IMDB, I see that Ben Hecht and Herman Mankewicz worked on it, too, without screen credit.) I want to suggest that Monkey Business is in fact a surreal examination of the immigrant experience, never very remote for the first- and second-generation Americans who dominated the film industry in its early years.
It's the only film where Groucho does not occupy some position of authority or renown (hotel manager, college president, famous explorer, etc.). In fact, the four brothers play characters who don't even have names, like the thousands who arrived on Ellis Island with complicated names from Eastern Europe and left with names like Harris and Jones. On the ocean liner where most of the movie is set, they aren't even steerage passengers -- they're stowaways. This doesn't stop them from writing insulting notes to the captain and otherwise running amok -- clearly anarchists. Not yet on American soil, they're already being offered employment by organized crime: there are two rival bootleggers on board who, improbably, try to recruit the brothers as bodyguards. In one lovely scene, one of the gangsters hands loaded pistols to Groucho and Zeppo. As soon as he turns away, they exchange a meaningful look -- What kind of crazy violent country are we going to? -- and drop the guns into a bucket of water. Harpo, meanwhile, when not frantically chasing women, has discovered a future in show business; he imitates a puppet in a Punch & Judy performance for the ship's children. The new Americans will work their way into the mainstream through talent and guile -- watch Chico and Harpo take a chess game away from two important-looking men before they know what is happening.
Adding to the movie's crazy energy, Margaret Dumont has missed the boat. In her place is the fabulous Hot Toddie -- Thelma Todd, the blonde comedienne with the wide eyes and endless energy. She plays the neglected wife of one of the bootleggers, mirroring her real life. (She may have been murdered on orders from Lucky Luciano, her business partner and sometime lover.) Where Groucho bounced off Dumont, he melds with Todd, popping in and out of her closet, dancing a wild tango and peppering her with Perelman zingers: "You must have been married in rompers -- mighty pretty country around there." "You're a girl who's had nothing but dirty breaks. We can clean and tighten those brakes, but you'll have to stay in the garage overnight." "Come, let us lodge with my fleas in the hills -- I mean, flee to my lodge in the hills."
When the ship reaches New York, the four illegals try to enter the country with a passport they've stolen from Maurice Chevalier. Why not? Foreign celebrities are always welcome -- it's the wretched refuse who are chased and deported. For some reason, their renditions of "You Brought a New Kind of Love To Me" fail to convince the authorities, but a passenger faints, giving Groucho an opportunity to impersonate a doctor, while Harpo scatters the immigration documents and rubberstamps everything and everyone within reach. Soon they're crashing a high-society costume party, where Groucho tells a guest dressed as a Native American, "If you don't like our country, why don't you go back where you came from?" Before long Groucho is perched in the hayloft of an old barn, giving radio-style commentary on a fight as if it were a baseball game, and Zeppo will further assimilate by rescuing and marrying the bootlegger's kidnapped daughter. Four more "undesirables" have battered their way into the United States, only seven years after the Immigration Act of 1924 was supposed to make it impossible. How can you not love this movie?