Skip to main content

Afraid, me? A man who’s licked his weight in wild caterpillars? You bet I’m afraid.

Monkey Business
(1931)

(SPOILERS) The Marx Brothers’ first feature possessed of a wholly original screenplay, Monkey Business is almost brazenly dismissive towards notions of coherence, just as long as it loosely supports their trademark antics. And it does so in spades, depositing them as stowaways bound for America who fall in with a couple of mutually antagonistic racketeers/ gangsters while attempting to avoid being cast in irons. There’s no Margaret Dumont this time out, but Groucho is more than matched by flirtation-interest Thelma Todd.

Groucho: Sorry, I can’t stay. The captain’s waiting to chase me around the deck.

Monkey Business was written by New Yorker staff SJ Perelman and Will B Johnstone, screen novices suggested by Groucho (both would return for Horse Feathers). Much of the preliminary larks are taken up with avoiding the first mate (Tom Kennedy), who knows there are four of them because “they was singing Sweet Adeline” (cut to the quartet harmonising in barrels); when the barrels are raised, they are revealed beneath them, engaged in activities such as preparing food or playing cards. Grouch and Chico end up in the Captain’s quarters, ordering lunch and showing open disregard for his authority, even or especially when under suspicion for being the stowaways:

Groucho: What do they look like?
Captain Corcoran: One of them goes around with a black moustache.
Groucho: So do I. If I had a choice, I’d go around with a little blonde.

Chico and Harpo naturally get up to the most destructive mischief, cutting off an officer’s moustache (“Give him a little snoop”) invading and then stealing a game of chess, chasing a frog (Harpo) and chasing girls (Harpo, of course). And, in one of the picture’s standout set pieces, Harpo takes over a Punch and Judy show, and in so doing causes maximum confusion for the first mate, accused of drinking by his captain (Ben Taggart).

Alky Briggs: I want to get a guy on this boat.
Groucho: Well, it’s too late to get him on now. You should have said something before we set sail.

Zeppo is still falling prey to nominal leading man duties, which means he gets parcelled the romance, here with Mary (Ruth Hall), the rather insipid daughter of gangster Joe Helton (Rockliffe Fellows). One might think it a complication that he and Groucho have been “hired” by competing gangster Alky Briggs (Harry Woods) to do for Joe, but since they dump their pieces in a pail as soon as they leave Briggs – although, they’re soon given more, as he seemingly has an endless supply – the seriousness with which they see their task is self-evident. The same is true of Harpo and Chico, hired by Helton for protection.

Groucho: Do you see me in the closet?
Lucille: No.
Groucho: Am I in the closet now?
Lucille: No.
Groucho: Then how do you know I was in the closet?

Woods and Todd (playing his moll Lucille) make particularly sporting foils for Groucho, who gets to know the latter by inviting her into her closet and indulging in some amusing dancing when she announces “Oh, you know what I want, I want life, I want laughter, I want gaiety. I want to ha-cha-cha-cha”. My favourite moment between them occurs later in the picture, though, when she visibly causes Groucho to corpse as she announces “I think I’d almost marry you to spite that double-crossing crook”.

Briggs: I’m wise, I’m wise.
Groucho: You’re wise, huh? What’s the capital of Nebraska? What’s the capital of the Chase National Bank? Give up? Now I’ll try you on an easy one. How many Frenchmen can’t be wrong?

Alky is nominally the villain of the piece, just as Helton is nominally the “good” gangster, but the latter’s still quite amiable and takes an obvious shine to Groucho while being continually mocked (“Just as I thought, you’re yella. Grabbing at a woman’s skirt”), not that he has many options short of plugging him.

Briggs: Oh, I see, the stowaways. Say, I can help you bozos.
Groucho: Mr Bozos to you.
Briggs: Alright, Mr Bozo.

Most of Groucho’s action revolves around these two (three), although there’s an amusing interlude where he insults Madam Swempski (Cecil Cunningham), effectively standing in for Margaret Dumont (“Is it true you’re getting a divorce as soon as your husband recovers his eyesight?”)

Groucho: I want to register a complaint.
Captain: What’s the matter.
Groucho: Matter enough. You know who sneaked into my state room at 3 o’clock this morning?
Captain: Who did that?
Groucho: Nobody, and that’s my complaint.

I’ve always thought of the customs scene as the effective climax of the picture, and the subsequent dry land episodes at Helton’s home and the barn (“Well, if you look at it, it’s a barn. If you smell it, it’s a stable”) are, if not superfluous, then treading water. Of course, the succession of Maurice Chevalier impressions at customs, culminating in Harpo’s note-perfect delivery, on account of his having a record player strapped to his back, are masterful work, so anything following will have its work cut out for it.

Butch: Keep out of this loft!
Chico: Well, it’s better to have loft and lost than never to have loft at all.
Groucho: Nice work.

Still, there are some inspired moments at the party, in particular Harpo emerging from an enormous wreath on the cue of “And now, I want you to meet the sweetest little thing in the whole wide world”. And Groucho procuring a drink with the promise of a cash (“You see this? Come back in a half hour and I’ll give you another look at it”). Chico, naturally, plays some piano, and Harpo, naturally, plays the harp.

Groucho: Oh, I know it’s a penny here and a penny there, but look at me. I worked myself up from nothing to a state of extreme poverty.

And then they all head to the barn, where Butch (Constanine Romanoff) provides a good value ugly heavy before Harpo rams him with a pitchfork and Zeppo steam rollers in to punch his lights out. Because they’ve remembered he ought to do something heroic if he’s to earn that leading man status. Ostensibly, the brothers bring order to bear in the final scene and justice triumphs, making it ironic that Monkey Business was banned in Ireland on the grounds that it might encourage anarchic tendencies.

A smattering of other memorable lines, mainly courtesy of you know who:

Captain: Stockholders, huh. Well, you look like a couple of stowaways to me.
Groucho: Don’t forget, my fine fellow, the stockholder of yesterday is the stowaway of tomorrow.

Manicurist: You want your nails trimmed long?
Chico: Oh, about an hour and a half. I’ve got nothing to do.

Groucho: I’d like to ask you one question.
Briggs: Go ahead.
Groucho: Do you think that girls think less of a boy who lets himself be kissed? Don’t you think that although girls go out with boys like me… they always marry the other kind?


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Popular posts from this blog

The Illumi-what-i?

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) (SPOILERS) In which Sam Raimi proves that he can stand proudly with the best – or worst – of them as a good little foot soldier of the woke apocalypse. You’d expect the wilfully anarchic – and Republican – Raimi to choke on the woke, but instead, he’s sucked it up, grinned and bore it. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is so slavishly a production-line Marvel movie, both in plotting and character, and in nu-Feige progressive sensibilities, there was no chance of Sam staggering out from beneath its suffocating demands with anything more than a few scraps of stylistic flourish intact.

What’s so bad about being small? You’re not going to be small forever.

Innerspace (1987) There’s no doubt that Innerspace is a flawed movie. Joe Dante finds himself pulling in different directions, his instincts for comic subversion tempered by the need to play the romance plot straight. He tacitly acknowledges this on the DVD commentary for the film, where he notes Pauline Kael’s criticism that he was attempting to make a mainstream movie; and he was. But, as ever with Dante, it never quite turns out that way. Whereas his kids’ movies treat their protagonists earnestly, this doesn’t come so naturally with adults. I’m a bona fide devotee of Innerspace , but I can’t help but be conscious of its problems. For the most part Dante papers over the cracks; the movie hits certain keynotes of standard Hollywood prescription scripting. But his sensibility inevitably suffuses it. That, and human cartoon Martin Short (an ideal “leading man” for the director) ensure what is, at first glance just another “ Steven Spielberg Presents ” sci-fi/fantas

This risotto is shmackin’, dude.

Stranger Things Season 4: Part I (SPOILERS) I haven’t had cause, or the urge, to revisit earlier seasons of Stranger Things , but I’m fairly certain my (relatively) positive takes on the first two sequel seasons would adjust down somewhat if I did (a Soviet base under Hawkins? DUMB soft disclosure or not, it’s pretty dumb). In my Season Three review, I called the show “ Netflix’s best-packaged junk food. It knows not to outstay its welcome, doesn’t cause bloat and is disposable in mostly good ways ” I fairly certain the Duffer’s weren’t reading, but it’s as if they decided, as a rebuke, that bloat was the only way to go for Season Four. Hence episodes approaching (or exceeding) twice the standard length. So while the other points – that it wouldn’t stray from its cosy identity and seasons tend to merge in the memory – hold fast, you can feel the ambition of an expansive canvas faltering at the hurdle of Stranger Things ’ essential, curated, nostalgia-appeal inconsequentiality.

Is this supposed to be me? It’s grotesque.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022) (SPOILERS) I didn’t hold out much hope for The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent being more than moderately tolerable. Not so much because its relatively untested director and his co-writer are mostly known in the TV sphere (and not so much for anything anyone is raving about). Although, it has to be admitted, the finished movie flourishes a degree of digital flatness typical of small-screen productions (it’s fine, but nothing more). Rather, due to the already over-tapped meta-strain of celebs showing they’re good sports about themselves. When Spike Jonze did it with John Malkovich, it was weird and different. By the time we had JCVD , not so much. And both of them are pre-dated by Arnie in Last Action Hero (“ You brought me nothing but pain ” he is told by Jack Slater). Plus, it isn’t as if Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten have much in the way of an angle on Nic; the movie’s basically there to glorify “him”, give or take a few foibles, do

Whacking. I'm hell at whacking.

Witness (1985) (SPOILERS) Witness saw the advent of a relatively brief period – just over half a decade –during which Harrison Ford was willing to use his star power in an attempt to branch out. The results were mixed, and abruptly concluded when his typically too late to go where Daniel Day Lewis, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro had gone before (with at bare minimum Oscar-nominated results) – but not “ full retard ” – ended in derision with Regarding Henry . He retreated to the world of Tom Clancy, and it’s the point where his cachet began to crumble. There had always been a stolid quality beneath even his more colourful characters, but now it came to the fore. You can see something of that as John Book in Witness – despite his sole Oscar nom, it might be one of Ford’s least interesting performances of the 80s – but it scarcely matters, or that the screenplay (which won) is by turns nostalgic, reactionary, wistful and formulaic, as director Peter Weir, in his Hollywood debu

Are you telling me that I should take my daughter to a witch doctor?

The Exorcist (1973) (SPOILERS) Vast swathes have been written on The Exorcist , duly reflective of its cultural impact. In a significant respect, it’s the first blockbuster – forget Jaws – and also the first of a new kind of special-effects movie. It provoked controversy across all levels of the socio-political spectrum, for explicit content and religious content, both hailed and denounced for the same. William Friedkin, director of William Peter Blatty’s screenplay based on Blatty’s 1971 novel, would have us believe The Exorcist is “ a film about the mystery of faith ”, but it’s evidently much more – and less – than that. There’s a strong argument to be made that movies having the kind of seismic shock on the landscape this one did aren’t simply designed to provoke rumination (or exultation); they’re there to profoundly influence society, even if largely by osmosis, and when one looks at this picture’s architects, such an assessment only gains in credibility.

That, my lad, was a dragon.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) (SPOILERS) It’s alarming how quickly Peter Jackson sabotaged all the goodwill he amassed in the wake of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. A guy who started out directing deliciously deranged homemade horror movies ended up taking home the Oscar for a fantasy movie, of all genres. And then he blew it. He went from a filmmaker whose naysayers were the exception to one whose remaining cheerleaders are considered slightly maladjusted. The Desolation of Smaug recovers some of the territory Jackson has lost over the last decade, but he may be too far-gone to ever regain his crown. Perhaps in years to come The Lord of the Rings trilogy will be seen as an aberration in his filmography. There’s a cartoonishness to the gleeful, twisted anarchy on display in his earlierr work that may be more attuned to the less verimilitudinous aspects of King Kong and The Hobbit s. The exceptions are his female-centric character dramas, Heavenly Creat

Gizmo caca!

Gremlins (1984) I didn’t get to see Gremlins at the cinema. I wanted to, as I had worked myself into a state of great anticipation. There was a six-month gap between its (unseasonal) US release and arrival in the UK, so I had plenty of time to devour clips of cute Gizmo on Film ’84 (the only reason ever to catch Barry Norman was a tantalising glimpse of a much awaited movie, rather than his drab, colourless, reviews) and Gremlins trading cards that came with bubble gum attached (or was it the other way round?). But Gremlins ’ immediate fate for many an eager youngster in Britain was sealed when, after much deliberation, the BBFC granted it a 15 certificate. I had just turned 12, and at that time an attempt to sneak in to see it wouldn’t even have crossed my mind. I’d just have to wait for the video. I didn’t realise it then (because I didn’t know who he was as a filmmaker), but Joe Dante’s irrepressible anarchic wit would have a far stronger effect on me than the un

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls… dyin’ time’s here!

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) Time was kind to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome . As in, it was such a long time since I’d seen the “final chapter” of the trilogy, it had dwindled in my memory to the status of an “alright but not great” sequel. I’d half-expected to have positive things to say along the lines of it being misunderstood, or being able to see what it was trying for but perhaps failing to quite achieve. Instead, I re-discovered a massive turkey that is really a Mad Max movie in name only (appropriately, since Max was an afterthought). This is the kind of picture fans of beloved series tend to loathe; when a favourite character returns but without the qualities or tone that made them adored in the first place (see Indiana Jones in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull , or John McClane in the last two Die Hard s). Thunderdome stinks even more than the methane fuelling Bartertown. I hadn’t been aware of the origins of Thunderdome until recently, mainly because I was