Saturday, February 13, 2010

Wretched Refuse: The Marx Brothers and Monkey Business

(If you followed the link posted by the Siren, you may have already read a version of this from May 2008. If so, as Groucho might say, you may want to step into the lobby until this all blows over. I was invited -- all right, I pleaded for the chance -- to write about Monkey Business because it is my favorite of the Marx Brothers movies; as far as I know, it is not currently a candidate for restoration. For the sake of the many irreplaceable films which are, you should follow the link I will attempt to embed and donate to the National Film Preservation Foundation. If my link doesn't work, you can get there from anyplace else in this blogathon. Don't forget.)

Marx Brothers connoisseurs generally regard their first five films, for Paramount, as superior to the later and more lavish MGM productions, more anarchic, less hobbled by romantic subplots. Most of them can be summarized, if not exactly described, in a sentence: The Coconuts deals with the Florida real estate bubble of the 1920s. Animal Crackers exposes some of the poseurs at a Gatsby-like Long Island house party. Horse Feathers explores the over-emphasis on college sports, already a concern in 1932, it seems. And Duck Soup is an anti-war satire set in a certain European dictatorship. The least financially successful of the five, Duck Soup has become the most admired for its seeming prescience: it was produced in the year Hitler came to power. (According to Harpo, they listened to his rants on radio during breaks in the filming.)

That leaves the middle film, Monkey Business (1931), at first glance just zany behavior on an ocean liner. Maybe this is why it has received relatively little attention. I would suggest it is in fact a surreal look at the immigrant experience, which was part of the collective memory of the first- and second-generation Americans working in Hollywood in the 1930s. This is never spelled out, but why else would these four men be crossing the ocean?

Monkey Business was the first of the brothers' films not based on a stage show, and the first to be co-written by S.J. Perelman. His verbal fingerprints are all over the script -- the puns, the exploded cliches, the doubles entendres. Groucho in later years tried to downplay Perelman's influence on his own verbal style by saying, "He was not a constructionist" for the screen, but Perelman would go on to win an Academy Award for his screenplay of Around the World In Eighty Days. Here he collaborated with Will B. Johnstone (according to the IMDB Ben Hecht and Herman J. Mankiewicz also worked on the script, without credit), so it's difficult to say who wrote what. They all had to accommodate the fast-talking wisecracker, the mute and the quasi-Italian familiar from the earlier films and the vaudeville act before them.

For perhaps the only time, Groucho does not occupy a position of authority or prominence; in fact, none of the brothers -- if they are brothers -- has a name. Thousands of immigrants left their names behind at Ellis Island, voluntarily or not, or changed them later to something that seemed more "American." (Harpo's personal response to Hitler was to legally change his name from Adolph to Arthur.) Our four heroes are not even steerage passengers, like Charlie Chaplin in The Immigrant; they are stowaways. Of course, this does not keep them from writing insulting notes to the captain and generally running amok -- probably anarchists, too. (Alien ideas like socialism and anarchism were frequently invoked by opponents of immigration, who had achieved a victory with the 1924 Immigration Act, placing severe quotas on people from southern and eastern Europe. Their real goal, as President Coolidge acknowledged, was to keep America "white.")

Still at sea, the brothers are offered employment in organized crime, which was the best hope many new Americans had for climbing out of poverty and gaining respect. There are two rival bootleggers on board, Joe Helton and Alky Briggs, and they both, improbably, try to recruit the guys as bodyguards. In one lovely moment, Briggs hands loaded guns to newly-hired 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 pail of water. Zeppo, the most clean-cut and "American" of the four, strikes up a romance with Helton's daughter Mary, while Groucho homes in on Alky's neglected wife.

If the energy level of this film seems a little higher than usual, it may be because Margaret Dumont has missed the boat. She is replaced by Thelma Todd as the object of Groucho's attention. Though hardly remembered today, "Hot Toddie" was a serious rival to two other blonde comediennes who died young, Jean Harlow and Carole Lombard. In an eerie parallel to her role here, she may have been killed on orders from Lucky Luciano, her business associate and sometime lover. Todd's eyes tell us she can handle Groucho; maybe no other actress could until he met up with Eve Arden in At the Circus. Where Groucho bounced off Dumont, he melds with Todd, popping in and out of her closet, dancing a frenetic tango, and peppering her with Perelman zingers. In their next film, Horse Feathers, she takes on all four of the brothers. Todd had stamina.

Meanwhile, Harpo has discovered another gateway for immigrants, show business -- he impersonates a puppet in a Punch & Judy performance for the ship's children. In quieter moments, he and Chico hijack a chess game from a couple of important-looking passengers before they know what is happening. The new Americans will succeed through guile, talent and moxie, literally beating the "native-born" Americans at their own game.

When the ship reaches New York, the four try to sneak off with a passport they have stolen from Maurice Chevalier. (Foreign celebrities are always welcome -- it's the huddled masses who get chased down and deported.) Their renditions of "You Brought a New Kind of Love To Me" fail to convince the authorities, despite Harpo's use of an actual Chevalier record. Fortunately, a passenger faints, giving Groucho a chance to impersonate a doctor ("I can't do anything for this man, he's fainted. What he needs is an ocean voyage"). Harpo takes the opportunity to scatter the customs documents and rubber-stamp everything and everyone within reach in a demented parody of officialdom, and they're away.

Joe Helton is throwing a costume party for his daughter, back from school in Europe, and naturally our heroes are there. After inviting Todd to "Lodge with my fleas in the hills...I mean flee to my lodge in the hills," Groucho gets to deliver the line every immigrant must have longed to say. Confronting an objectionable guest, he snaps, "If you don't like our country, why don't you go back where you came from?" To make the absurdity perfect, the guest is dressed as a Plains Indian. "Indians!" yells Groucho, snatching off another man's toupe. "Put your scalp in your pocket!" At about this point, Mary is kidnapped by Alky's gang, and the scene shifts to an old barn. While Zeppo fights the Briggs henchman, Groucho perches in a hayloft and offers a running commentary. After a short time here, he has mastered the lingo of the national game, baseball. Of course, he is using it to describe a fistfight, but so what? We are left with a sense that Zeppo, the least eccentric of the illegals, will marry the bootlegger's daughter -- American royalty, in a sense -- while his three companions make America their own and make it a much more interesting place. Isn't that what newcomers have always done?


Blogger Quacko said...

I am going to get this again to watch. Have been watching nothing but Turner Classic Movie channel. I do not want to deal with any of the world right now. Before work the other morning- Murder, Inc..

9:45 PM  
Blogger D Cairns said...

Terrific piece, with a nice slant on the film. Next time I run it I'll definitely be thinking of your reading: everything in the plot does seem to link up with the immigration issue.

Incidentally, I never believed Thelma Todd's tragic early death was murder: gangsters don't usually stage their killings to look like suicide.

6:50 AM  
Blogger Marilyn said...

This is a terrific post! It has been a very long time since I saw this movie, and you make me want to run out and find it pronto! All the Marx Bros. output should be restored, including this. Thanks so much for participating in the blogathon.

8:41 AM  
Blogger DavidEhrenstein said...

Thelma Todd's death is a giant question mark hanging over Hollywood history. It has been suggested that her lover, the beyond-brilliant director Roland West (The Bat Whispers is his masterpiece) may have done the deed. But he gave up filmmaking not long afterwards, married Lola Lane and vanished from public view. I strongly suspect that Luciano had threatened them both and did Todd in.

She made a series of ramshackle comedies with Patsy Kelly that deserve a second look. And I love her turn in Wyler's film of Elmer Rice's Counselor-at-Law -- as a gold-digger stopping by the law offices to check on her "breach of promise" suit.

Her Marx Brothers work is indeed peerless, and quite a contrast with the great Margret Dumont in that Todd was sexually desirable to the max.

And I for one take every opportunity to put "We'll lodge with my fleas in the hills" into casual conversation.

9:24 AM  
Blogger Joe Thompson said...

Thank you for the interesting angle on the immigrant experience. I wish I had seen this with my grandfather. In any event, my daughter pulled out the dvd just the other week and we watched it together. The Chevalier scene is our favorite.

10:36 AM  
Blogger Mindless Meanderings Theory of the Day said...

Excellent post, I enjoyed it immensely. Monkey Business is one of my all time favorites in general. It brought back wonderful memories of viewing this many years ago.

7:25 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

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8:34 AM  

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