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?
Groucho: Am I in the closet now?
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 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. However, the former’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; 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?