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"Monkey Business" (1931)

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Lobby card for the Marx Brothers' 1931 classic, "Monkey Business."

Lobby card for the Marx Brothers' 1931 classic, "Monkey Business."

A Marx Brothers Classic

Monkey Business is the third Marx Brothers movie released by Paramount Pictures, following The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930). Where those two movies were based on Broadway musicals, Monkey Business was the first film to pair Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo with an original screenplay.

Cruise Ship Hijinx

The movie opens on a cruise ship where the Marx Brothers are stowaways. They are discovered because they keep singing "Sweet Adeline" in four-part harmony (possibly three-part, as Harpo normally doesn't speak or sing in the movies and there is some debate over whether his voice is included).

As the brothers evade capture by the ship's officers they run into the story's other characters. Groucho meets a gangster named Alky and his wife, Lucille. Groucho and Lucille take a liking to one another, and Alky likes him because he makes jokes in the face of death.

Harpo cutting up during the famous Punch and Judy scene.

Harpo cutting up during the famous Punch and Judy scene.

Movie Turns Into Gangster Comedy

Zeppo runs into a girl (Mary) who we later find out is the daughter of a retiring mob boss (Big Joe Helton). The gangster wants the boss to make him leader of all the gangs, or he intends to kill him. Groucho and Zeppo end up working for Alky while Chico and Harpo get hired by Big Joe. Of course, none of the brothers are serious about their job, which was kind of the point of the movie.

Meanwhile, the ship's crew are still trying to catch the stowaways.

Harpo at His Best

This is probably Harpo's best performance as he steals a number of scenes: the Punch & Judy show, chasing the bullfrog, he and Chico showing Joe Helton how tough they are, and even the obligatory harp-playing sequence.

Groucho and Zeppo both get love interests, and Zeppo even seems to get the girl in the end. In fact, Zeppo is basically the romantic lead in Monkey Business, except there's so much going on with each character it's hard to say anyone is the lead.

Marx Brothers Test Production Code

Groucho gets a lot of one-liners, some of them dirty enough that it's almost a surprise to see the movie got Code approval. He even does a bit where he "plays gay," joking like he is in a relationship with Alky. Pretty daring for the 1930s. (FYI, though Monkey Business was made before the Hays Code went into effect in 1934, when the movie was re-released after '34 it had to meet Code standards.)

Thelma Todd held her own with Groucho in "Monkey Business."

Thelma Todd held her own with Groucho in "Monkey Business."

When the cruise comes to an end and the brothers leave the boat it feels like a complete movie. In fact, as the brothers get off the boat, they turn around and wave at the first officer. That's their father, Sam Marx, who was 72 at the time, and making his motion picture debut.

Racial Jokes Haven't Aged Well

Watching Monkey Business now with a heightened sensitivity to racial issues, there's a few cringe moments with jokes made about minorities. As much as I love old movies, they were made during a more unenlightened time and have moments that you have to wince and get through. That said, Monkey Business has more than enough redeeming qualities, despite its outdated views on race.

Thelma Todd Success

This was the first Marx Brothers movie without Margaret Dumont, who was replaced by Thelma Todd. Dumont was a great foil for Groucho, no doubt, but I love Todd's willingness to be just as silly as Groucho. She dances and mugs as well as the Brothers, and she's a lot of fun.

She was only in one other Marx Brothers movie (Horse Feathers, 1932), but tragically (and suspiciously) passed away not long after. Which brings up the most grim piece of trivia. At one point Groucho says to Todd's character, "You're a woman who's been getting nothing but dirty breaks. Well, we can clean and tighten your brakes, but you'll have to stay in the garage all night."

Thelma Todd Tragedy

Thelma Todd was found dead in her lover's garage from carbon monoxide poisoning after he locked her out of the house on a cold night. Supposedly, she spent the night in her car, and left her car running in the garage to stay warm. She was only 29.

Chico setting up Harpo, who's about to dazzle us with his harp mastery.

Chico setting up Harpo, who's about to dazzle us with his harp mastery.

I wish Thelma Todd could have been in more Marx Brothers movies, and I wish they had kept making movies like this. A Night At The Opera may be their masterpiece, and I love it, but for my money it doesn't come close to the comedy highs of this film.

Underrated Marx Brothers

The only movie with better Harpo bits is Duck Soup. The only movie with better Groucho quips is arguably Animal Crackers, and I'm on the fence about that. Admittedly, it's not Chico's best movie, but he's still great in it and gets to show off his amazing piano playing. If he hadn't been a vaudeville and movie comedian, I'm convinced he could have been a concert pianist.

If you haven't seen Monkey Business, do yourself a favor and watch it below in its entirety. Then follow it up with the other four Paramount films: Animal Crackers, The Cocoanuts, Horse Feathers, and Duck Soup. You can thank me later.

© 2022 Gracchus Gruad