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Mondays with The Marx Brothers: Monkey Business (1931)

This series on The Marx Brothers has turned into (this wasn’t planned by the way) a reverse, chronological examination of the legendary comedians’ work. Even though their films together only spanned twenty years, the team moved through a number of different phases. They developed and evolved as performers and ultimately, just a month long study of their filmography isn’t going to do The Marx Brothers justice. However, let’s continue on with an examination of their Paramount period with a look at Monkey Business.

Monkey Business stars The Marx Brothers…this time complete with Zeppo!… as stowaways on a luxury ocean liner. In typical Marx Brothers fashion, they wreck general havoc, cause trouble and find themselves involved in some relatively thin romances and tame mob storylines. The Brothers co-star with Thelma Todd, Harry Woods, Ruth Hall and Tom Kennedy. Norman Z. McLeod directs the film from a script by S.J. Perelman, Will B. Johnstone and Arthur Sheekman.

Monkey Business came relatively early in the Brother’s film career, hitting theaters in 1931. The movie was preceded only by Animal Crackers and The Cocoanuts. In fact, Monkey Business stands as their real arrival in Hollywood. It was not only their first original feature film (their previous two were adapted from their stage material), but it was also reportedly their first work shot in Hollywood.

I would certainly be remiss if we didn’t discuss the one major shift between this movie and previous write-ups on A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races… Zeppo. The youngest of the brothers, Zeppo was born in 1901 and appeared in their first five films. He had (per Marx Brothers lore) joined the act after the departure of his older brother Gummo.

Zeppo would depart the act after their next film Horse Feathers. The New York Times quotes a reported resignation letter he sent Groucho in Zeppo’s 1979 obituary:

I’m sick and tired of being a stooge… You know that anybody else would have done as well as I in the act. When the chance came for me to get into the business world, I jumped at it. I have only stayed in the act until now because I knew that you, Chico and Harpo wanted me to.

The New York Times also quotes Groucho, who speaks about his baby brother in his traditionally blunt manner:

Handsome, wooden, slightly obtuse…. His character brought logic to a basically illogical story and he was often an intrusion. In real life, the wittiest of men and a scrapper. 

After stepping away from the act, Zeppo established himself as a renaissance man outside the shadow of his charismatic brothers. He is chiefly known as an agent, but is also recognized as an inventor. His New York Times obituary mentions his work in the manufacturing of airplane parts and he is also credited with inventing what is described as “an electronic wristwatch that monitors the wearer’s heartbeat and emits an alarm if the beat is too slow or too fast”.

Zeppo passed away in 1979. 

Another interesting bit of casting, is the inclusion of Thelma Todd in the film as Lucille. She steps into the narrative as the primary female lead replacing their usual foil Margaret Dumont. Todd would also appear again in their next film Horse Feathers. Ultimately, Todd’s role is not a meaty one. She’s a woman in a Marx Brothers movie after all. When examining Thelma Todd through a contemporary perspective, her persona (outside of serious film history circles) is heavily defined (if she’s known at all) by her mysterious and premature death in 1935, just four years after this film was released.

Todd was not a screen newcomer when she made Monkey Business. Despite her young age (she was twenty-six at this point), she was an experienced and savvy actress. She is credited on more than one hundred films between her screen debut (cited on IMDB as 1926) through her death less than ten years later.

It must also be discussed that Thelma Todd was of course a comedy legend in her own right… despite largely being a foil for Groucho in her two pairings with the Marx’s. Todd worked extensively with Hal Roach, not only as part of a team with the equally legendary Zasu Pitts, but also with Patsy Kelly. Truthfully, each of these women should be far better known as comedians… not simply as the foils pop culture often depicts them as. While these women are remembered by historians as legends in film history circles, they should be as well known and respected as the many titans of comedy whose names are still on the tip of the pop culture tongue.

When looking at the cast, ultimately Thelma Todd is probably the biggest name outside of The Marx Brothers. The cast is of course filled with working performers with careers in their own right, but this film recently passed its 90th anniversary. It is conceivable that some of these performers could have been bigger stars at the time of the film’s release, but many of these ensemble parts are thankless. Ultimately, I say this to make a point: this is throughly and completely a Marx Brothers vehicle. The story revolves around them and many of these other characters exist only to bounce off jokes.

While Monkey Business is certainly a comedy delight, I am of the belief the MGM decision to beef up the supporting characters and give the Marx’s some emotional stakes to play towards was a good move. In its dime a dozen characters (which I honestly have to Google their names because they’re so unmemorable) a film like Monkey Business might be funny, but it lacks the all-around narrative strength of the MGM films and as such, struggles.

Monkey Business is an amazing example of the Marx Brothers comedy with a touch of evolution. It’s already been mentioned that this was their first fully ‘Hollywood’ movie. Reviews of the time use words like ‘madcap’, ‘zany’ and ‘uproarious’ and these descriptions are apt. The differences in pacing between these earlier films and the later MGM films are noticeable in that the Paramount movies are unrelenting. They’re loud, they’re brash, but these films (Monkey Business through Duck Soup) show the Brothers cresting the peak of their initial popularity. Now, Monkey Business doesn’t get talked about as much as Duck Soup, but I find this one just as entertaining. There is of course the sheer physicality of their humor (which is admittedly restrained a bit in the MGM years), but the vocal comedy between Groucho and Chico is equally as strong. Heck, this isn’t discussing the standard Marx music numbers. Rewatching this film, I had actually forgotten how much I enjoyed Chico and Harpo’s musicality this time around.

So, in case you haven’t figured this out already, there really isn’t a Marx Brothers film that I haven’t liked in this deep-dive. When examining the comedians’ work during their years at Paramount, Duck Soup is of course heralded as an all-time classic (and one of the funniest movies to come out of Hollywood) however, each of these movies were delightful in their own right and shows The Marx Brothers growing, developing and ultimately honing the skills that would go on to endear them to generations of film fans.

Come back next week as we close out our Marx Brothers tribute with a look at their first film, The Cocoanuts.

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