The Marx Brothers’ second feature, and like The Cocoanuts, adapted from their stage musical. Also like its predecessor, Animal Crackers very much wears its origins, unadorned, on its sleeve, but that barely matters when the japes, wit and reigning anarchy are as unfettered and firing on all cylinders as they are here.
Spaulding: One morning I shot an elephant in my pyjamas. How he got in my pyjamas, I don’t know.
The musical was written by George S Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind, Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, the former two also credited for The Cocoanuts, with Ryskind adapting both for the screen; all four would have multiple other screen credits on later Marx Brothers films. One might accuse them of sticking to a successfully-established formula here, which would be fair, albeit Animal Crackers has an even more tenuous (ie absurd) premise than The Cocoanuts, with Mrs Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont) putting on a party for explorer Captain Jeffrey Spaulding (Groucho), returning from an expedition to Africa. Simultaneously, she is hosting the display of a Beaugard painting, courtesy of art buff Roscoe W Chandler (Louis Sorin). You get the idea; last time it was her necklace that was desirable; now it’s a painting.
Spaulding: What do you say girls? Are we all going to get married?
Mrs Whitehead: All of us?
Spaulding: All of us.
Mrs Whitehead: But that’s bigamy.
Spaulding: Yes, and it’s big o’ me too. It’s big of all of us. Let’s be big for a change. I’m sick of these conventional marriages.
Albeit, surprisingly, no one actually wants to purloin it (and yet, neither Chico nor Hives the butler – Robert Greig – ask any obvious questions in this regard, having been given the separate tasks); painter John (Hal Thompson) wants to marry Mrs Rittenhouse’s daughter Arabella (Lillian Roth – she was not a fan of the brothers) and their wheeze involves swapping out the original Beaugard with his in order to impress Chandler with a perfect copy and thus command his services. Meanwhile, Mrs Whitehead (Margaret Irving) wants payback against Mrs Rittenhouse by humiliating her, so wishes to replace the painting with the copy completed by her pal Grace (Kathryn Reece). Naturally, both have their copies to hand, and naturally, with three versions flying around, involved mix ups occur.
Spaulding: Play that song about the Irish chiropodist.
Ravelli: Irish chiropodist?
Spaulding: “My Fate Is In Your Hands”.
The lead couple are very forgettable, Thompson especially so. And there simply isn’t enough of Mrs Whitehead or Grace for them to make an impression, barring a very funny, very peculiar scene in which the former attempts to get the painting back from Harpo’s Professor (who has previously been referred to as “the fellow in the woodpile”) by sitting on a bench next to him and telling him “I like little boys like you”. And, upon learning he is “five years old”, she responds “Why, you’re just a baby, aren’t you?” This follows her being chased around by Harpo and slapped on the behind with a rolled-up paper after telling him “Show me the others” (papers he has).
Mrs Rittenhouse: I refuse to play any longer. You’re nothing but a couple of cardsharps.
Harpo is at perhaps his zenith of unruliness, from the moment he arrives (surprisingly, Chico’s Signor Emanuel Ravelli and the Professor are there legitimately this time, providing musical entertainment). Hives, told to take the Professor’s hat and coat, manages to come away with everything but his vest and underwear. Harpo then begins taking pot-shots with Spaulding’s pistol (a couple of statues shoot back).
Spaulding: How much would you charge to run into an open manhole?
Ravelli: Just the cover charge.
Spaulding: Well, drop in sometime.
Spaulding: Well, we cleaned that up pretty well.
Prior to a game of bridge with Mrs Rittenhouse, Whitehead and Chico, he succeeds in stealing off Mrs Whitehead’s slip with his teeth before beating up Mrs Rittenhouse, as if in a boxing match. He and Chico then proceed to cheat very obviously throughout the game. The movie ends with him spraying knockout gas at the guests and gassing himself in order to collapse next to the unconscious blonde party guest he has been chasing since he arrived. It’s like a deranged, self-induced Rohypnol fantasy.
Spaulding: You know, you two girls have everything. You’re tall and short and slim and stout and blonde and brunette. And that’s just the kind of girl I crave.
Now, inevitably, a number of these elements simply wouldn’t be deemed appropriate in a modern movie (or indeed a few years later, following the implementation of the Hayes Code, hence Harpo’s sanitisation under the auspices of MGM). But as I suggested of The Cocoanuts, the nature of this kind of comedy, disconnected as it is from any coherent narrative sense and reliant on skits and self-awareness of the movie’s artifice, while imbued with a free-form anarchy that’s all-inclusive or all-offensive, means there’s scant sense that it relates to anything in reality that would demand a note of responsibility. Indeed, one might add that the period form fosters a sense of non-sexual ambivalence towards the “sexual” pursuits and innuendos, such that they’re simultaneously lascivious and innocent. Similarly, Harpo beating up Mrs Rittenhouse is at once shocking and entirely absurd.
Spaulding: What do you get an hour?
Ravelli: For playing, we get $10 an hour.
Spaulding: And for not playing?
Ravelli: $12 an hour.
Spaulding: Clip me off a piece of that.
Ravelli: For rehearsing, we make a special rate. $15 an hour.
Spaulding: For rehearsing? And for not rehearsing?
Ravelli: You couldn’t afford it.
Christina Newland (in the Blu-ray release’s essay) characterised Animal Crackers as flourishing a “low, ribald humour”, but it’s equal-parts sophistication when it comes to Groucho. Whether it’s an aside on grammar (“I should say you are untidy. I was using the subjunctive instead of the past tense”), or Chico lecturing him on supply-and-demand economics (“And what do you get for not playing?”), or accentuating the preposterousness of the material, ribaldry is merely a part of the recipe. Not everything works – “Pardon me while I have a strange interlude” falls rather flat without a direct line on the Eugene O’Neill conceit that inspired it – but so much does, from the continual introductions (“Hooray for Captain Spaulding…”) to impugning his own masculinity (“If I were a man, you’d resent that!”) to his tales of Africa (“This morning I shot…”) to deft or sometimes less-so wordplay (“Of course, in Alabama, the tusks are looser”). On the other hand, nothing works quite as well as Chico bursting out laughing when asked “Does anything strike you as very funny about this picture?”
Spaulding: Why, your one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen. And that’s not saying much for you.
Of course, Groucho is also equal-parts straight deplorable, insulting Mrs Rittenhouse with abandon (“Mrs Rittenhouse, ever since I’ve met you, I’ve swept you off my feet”) and coming up with all manner of innuendo, from suggesting a threesome (“Yes, and that’s big a me too”) and sowing a couple of wild oats, to doubting Lois Sorin’s Chandler’s purity of mind (“What do you think of the traffic problem? What do you think of the marriage problem? What do you think of at night before you go to bed, you beast?”), to complimenting Mrs Rittenhouse (“This magnificent chest”), to dodgy jailbait jokes (“We took some pictures of the native girls, but they weren’t developed. We’re going back there in a couple of weeks…”)
Ravelli: How did you get to be Roscoe W Chandler?
Chandler: Say, how did you get to be an Italian?
Ravelli: Never mind that, whose confession is this?
Dumont is an absolute treasure throughout; it’s her mock alarm that lets you know the brother’s anarchic exploits don’t cross the line. Greig seems to be doing his best to announce that he’s acting (perhaps he was just repeating his approach from the stage performance), and is sportingly subjected to various insults (“You haven’t lost any weight yourself”; “I’d like to see you crawl out of a rumble seat”) and gags (Harpo closing the games table’s legs as he opens them). Sorin makes for a fine straight man, revealed as Abe the fish peddler (“Did mother invite a fish peddler here?”)
Spaulding: Signor Ravelli’s first selection will be “Somewhere My Love Lies Sleeping” with a male chorus.
Even the musical interludes aren’t too taxing; the first (“Hello, I must be going”) is genuinely very good, “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” is simply genius, and yes, there’s a seven-minute interlude of singing/harping halfway through, but it elicits Pauline Kael’s favourite line in the picture (above). Also of note, it’s rare to hear anything good about Zeppo (Jameson the secretary) and he completely fluffs the opening lyrics through under-pitching himself, but his response when asked to read back Groucho’s long-winded, nonsensical dictation is just sublime: “Now, uh… you said a lot of things I didn’t think were important, so I just omitted them”.