It is doubtful that any film scholar would cite the 1931 comedy Monkey Business as the best Marx Brothers film, but it is my favorite of their input – if only because it was the first one I saw, via the old WNEW-TV in New York when I was 10 years old. As a kid in the 1970s, the happy shock of being introduced to these weird men creating mayhem with barbed wisecracks and zany slapstick was something of a life-changing experience – if the Marx Brothers disrupt the status quo and challenge authority, then why couldn’t anyone else (including me)?
Watching the film today, the inner 10-year-old is still delighted as the snarky siblings turn a pretentious luxury liner into an oversized playground. But as an adult with some idea of history, I can appreciate how audiences in 1931 must have loved the film. At a time when people were lucky enough to have money to see a movie, the idea of these unapologetically rude characters stowing away on an ocean cruise and crashing high society – albeit a parvenu fringe where bootlegged profits barely purchase respect and prestige – would have been a welcome escape from the Depression-era drudgery.
The characters played by the Marx Brothers never have on-screen names nor any sort of back story – we don’t even know why they’re on the ship or where they were coming from to sail to New York. And their assault on good behavior is remarkably relentless – their presence is discovered after leaving rude notes addressed to the ship’s captain and they spend the remainder of the voyage aggressively inserting themselves into settings and scenarios (the captain’s study, the ship’s barbershop, a Punch-and-Judy puppet show and into the lives of rival gangsters, the passport inspection line) where their anarchy brings about a near-total breakdown of the basic tenets of civilized behavior.
Yes, the film’s speed starts to slow in its final section when the action switches to a swanky Long Island estate, with the obligatory harp and piano solo numbers by Harpo and Chico (placed back-to-back, unfortunately) and a climactic brawl in a barn with kidnappers that is not particularly well staged. But there is still enough silliness to keep the film afloat until the closing credits.
The grand dame of the Marx universe Margaret Dumont is absent from Monkey Business, but that is fine because slinky blonde Thelma Todd is more than adequate as the tough-talking (and tango dancing!) foil to Groucho’s pre-Code innuendos. And Monkey Business is the rare chance where Zeppo functions as a near-equal to his raucous brothers – he inherits the love interest role (his first meeting with the sweet Ruth Hall is both charming and laugh-out-loud funny) and he sets into the motion the classic nonsense where all four of the brothers attempt to depart the ship by pretending to be Maurice Chevalier.
Among the film scholar elite, Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera are considered the zenith of Marx Brothers brilliance. But that’s their opinion. As for me, I will gladly sail away on the merry madness that is Monkey Business.