Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Guest Review: Animal Crackers (1930)

by ScottDS

“Zany” is not a word I use often (or ever) but it’s probably the best word to describe the Marx Brothers. Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo got their start on the vaudeville stage, found success on Broadway, and later transitioned to movies. 1930’s Animal Crackers was their second film, based on the 1928 play written by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind with songs by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. Oh, and it’s also hilarious!

Rich widow Mrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont, who else?) is throwing a lavish party at her Long Island mansion. Groucho plays the guest of honor: Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding (the “T” is for Edgar), a famous explorer who has just arrived from Africa. Zeppo plays Jamison, his secretary. Chico plays Ravelli, a musician who haggles with Spaulding over how much it’d cost not to play. Harpo shows up simply as “The Professor” (of what?). Also in attendance is art snob Roscoe W. Chandler (Louis Sorin) who will be exhibiting a famous painting, Beaugard’s After the Hunt. Mrs. Rittenhouse’s jealous neighbor Mrs. Whitehead (Margaret Irving) hatches a scheme with her friend Grace (Kathryn Reece): assisted by Mrs. Rittenhouse’s butler Hives (Robert Greig), they will replace the painting with Grace’s art school forgery, thus making a fool of Mrs. Rittenhouse. Meanwhile, Mrs. Rittenhouse’s daughter Arabella (Lillian Roth) is in love with starving artist John Parker (Hal Thompson) and they come up with an idea: replace the painting with a copy he made in Paris. Chandler will pay him a large commission after seeing how talented he is, and John and Arabella can be “married and divorced in no time.”
Most of these plot details are meaningless – it’s just an excuse to let the Marx Brothers run wild with their dexterous wordplay, physical gags, and all-around anarchy. This was their second of five movies made for Paramount. Once they moved to MGM, studio guru Irving Thalberg made them include more traditional tropes like “romantic subplots” and “sympathetic characters.” But here, it’s all fun and games, with the painting acting as the MacGuffin. Groucho’s future theme song “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” makes its debut here, as does Harpo’s blonde wig (he wore a red one in their previous film, The Cocoanuts) and Chico’s signature tune “I’m Daffy Over You.” As per usual, Chico is obsessed with food: his first line is “Where’s the dining room?” and during a bridge game when Mrs. Rittenhouse says they play for “small stakes,” Chico asks, “And French-fried potatoes?” Harpo is often seen chasing after an attractive blonde and frequently offers up his own leg to people as a salutation. Zeppo, who only made five films with his older brothers, is the straight man. He doesn’t get the girl but he does get a classic scene wherein he writes a letter dictated by Groucho. (More on this later).

I’m not the guy to analyze these movies for their serious themes and socio-political subtext. I’ll leave that to the armchair deconstructionists! For me, the Marx Brothers represented pure id: they say what they mean, they don’t care about social conventions, and they always come out on top, usually in spite of themselves. They’re not mean-spirited and, for the most part, they only pick on people who deserve it. I once showed a friend Duck Soup wherein Chico and Harpo make life miserable for a lemonade vendor. This guy didn’t do anything and my friend was right to label Chico and Harpo “sociopaths.” But in this movie, their target is Chandler, the pompous art patron who has some secrets of his own. Chico says Chandler looks familiar, and then accuses him of being a fish peddler named Abe Kabibble. (This name is based on a comic strip character, Abie the Agent, and was the source of James Bond producer Albert R. Broccoli’s nickname “Cubby.”) Groucho also gets a scene with Chandler, which gets more absurd as it goes on. At one point, Chandler accidentally refers to Captain Spaulding as “Captain Chandler,” causing Groucho to break the fourth wall and ask for a program.
Andrew and I once discussed why too many characters in comedies today aren’t as sympathetic as the characters played by Bill Murray and his cohorts 30 years ago. Aside from acting skills, the characters in those comedies were usually upwardly mobile. They had a plan: make money, get married, etc. The Blues Brothers wanted to save their orphanage, Peter Venkman wanted to see his new ghost-busting business succeed, etc. A lot of characters today are content to sit around and do nothing, blaming society for their failings. Or they buck the system and succeed with no consequences. In these films, the Marx Brothers usually recognized who needed their help – the lovelorn couple, for instance – and who deserved their scorn – the pompous, the phony, and the hypocritical. But they were pro-active and as much as they winked at the camera, they were also sincere. To a point anyway. Groucho might profess his love for Dumont but at least he’ll admit he’s in it for the money!

Also, too many comedies today – especially those awful ____ Movie spoofs – mistake pop culture references for jokes. The Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team had a name for this: “Knocking Down the Posts.” In other words, “It's not enough to set up a parody, you have to do the jokes. In Airplane!, mere recognition that the girl chasing the plane was a spoof of a particular movie (Since You Went Away) was not in itself funny. The laughs came only when she began Knocking Down the Posts.” One of the most bizarre scenes in Animal Crackers features Captain Spaulding flirting with Mrs. Rittenhouse and Mrs. Whitehead. He then proceeds to have a “strange interlude” in which he recites a serious monologue that ends with stock quotes. This is a parody of Eugene O’Neill’s 1928 play Strange Interlude which featured the same device. There are also lighting-fast references to The Beggar’s Opera, Fuller brushes, vaudeville actor Chic Sale, and a then-controversial book titled The Companionate Marriage. These references work in context and are rarely acknowledged as gags – they’re simply part of the conversation.

The gang gets in some great physical schtick as well. Groucho faints when Chandler points out a caterpillar on his lapel. Harpo starts shooting at the guests as soon as he arrives. Harpo and Chico play bridge with Mrs. Rittenhouse and Mrs. Whitehead wherein Hives attempts to set up a card table but Harpo keeps kicking its legs up, Chico and Harpo contort themselves on a couch, and Harpo repeatedly punches Mrs. Rittenhouse in the stomach! Chico’s reply: “He thought it was contact bridge.” In yet another case of Chico mangling the English language, he reminds Harpo to “scrumble” up the cards. Chico also gets some time in at the piano. As he plays, he admits that he forgets how the song ends, then realizes he went past the ending, then boasts that he once kept this up for three days. Harpo also gets in on the piano (and harp). He spins the piano seat and sits, waiting for the seat to reach him. Chico plays The Anvil Chorus which causes Harpo to go crazy and Groucho to use a woman’s leg for musical accompaniment. One note about Chico: while his Italian accent was obviously fake (and even questioned by Chandler), Italians loved him – they enjoyed seeing “one of their own” get the better of his WASPy superiors.
Groucho delivers one of his most famous monologues in this scene, featuring the now-classic joke, “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don’t know.” His next lines are, in my opinion, equally funny: “We tried to remove the tusks but they were embedded so firmly, we couldn’t budge them. Of course, in Alabama the tusk-a-loosa. But that’s entirely irr-elephant to what I was talking about.” He follows up with a line that I’m surprised made it past the censors: “We took some pictures of the native girls but they weren’t developed. But we’re going back again in a couple weeks!” Groucho later has Zeppo take down a letter to his lawyers: the Honorable Hungerdunger, Hungerdunger, Hungerdunger, and McCormick. The letter is full of out-of-context business jargon (“i.e., to wit, e.g., in lieu”). Ultimately, in a typical sign of Marx logic, Groucho tells Zeppo to make a carbon copy and throw the original away, then to throw the carbon copy away and just send a stamp. The joke has now closed in on itself.

Oh, in case you were wondering about the plot, Chandler encounters both art forgeries and decides that John Parker’s work is excellent. A happy ending for the young couple! The film itself is rather anti-climactic… disappointing considering the stage version ended with a lavish costume ball. The brothers walk into the scene singing “My Old Kentucky Home.” Police Inspector Hennessey (Edward Metcalf) tries to arrest Harpo for stealing the original painting (he and Chico had swapped the paintings earlier), but Harpo pulls out a Flit can and renders everyone unconscious. He then sees the blonde he was chasing earlier and knocks himself out, landing in her arms.
The Marx Brothers are not for everyone, but anyone who wants to go into the comedy business would be wise to study them: don’t treat your audience like idiots, don’t be mean-spirited unless there’s a point to it, inactivity is anathema to good storytelling, and either every cow is sacred or none of them are. (Said the graphic design student with no comedy experience, save for improv classes!)

As a child, I thought of this movie as “the boring one” but watching it as an adult, it’s one of my favorites. (Here’s a cool annotated guide!) It’s actually one of the longer Marx Brothers movies (at 97 minutes – only A Day at the Races with its interminable water ballet sequence is longer) but it really flies by, despite its stilted, stage-bound direction. I will now close with a question Spaulding asks Chandler after pummeling him with another rambling speech:

“Now, uh, you tell me what you know.”

17 comments:

Tennessee Jed said...

a really nice piece, Scott. There is no question when they are on their game (which they usually are, you are going to get a lot of laughs. I admit to not being as enamored with the genre as some others. That said, I always like the Marx Brothers the best; certainly I preferred them to the Stooges. You do some great analysis here :)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Of my three favorite Marx Brothers films, this is the third, after Night At the Opera and then Duck Soup. I think all three are brilliant.

I'll have more to say in the morning. :)

Backthrow said...

Great piece, Scott.

Unfortunately, I'm one of those 'they're not for everyone' types. I appreciate the Marx Bros' talent and cleverness, and characters like Margaret Dumont are perfect foils for them, but they've never made me laugh out loud. Never. Closest thing was some ad-libs the older, more laid-back Groucho would come up with common-folk contestants much later on YOU BET YOUR LIFE.

A few years ago, TCM had a festival of all their major films, and I watched them again, trying to give them the full opportunity to tickle my funny bone (especially DUCK SOUP), but nope... nothing. I don't really know why, other than that they come on a little too strong and manic for my tastes... "Hey everybody, look at how zany we are! Aren't we a panic?". Which is odd, in a way, because I love the brash & zany flavor of the classic Looney Tunes shorts (especially those directed by the wildest/craziest of them all, Bob Clampett), which borrowed a lot from the Marx Bros, and Groucho was a model for Bugs Bunny, in particular. I also like the Three Stooges (to an extent), so go figure.

Anyway, as far as 1930s movie comedians go, W.C. Fields is more my speed.

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

Those are my three favorites as well, though I'm also partial to 1931's Monkey Business (the one where they're stowaways on a passenger ship).

After 1:00, I'm going to be out of the house but I'll do my best to check in!

ScottDS said...

Jed -

Thanks! One of the reasons I was hesitant to cover such an old movie is that it's been done to death. The Marx Brothers (and their contemporaries) have had volumes written about them so what could we possibly add to the discussion?

I'm not even sure what you'd call this "genre" of comedy. It's not exactly screwball comedy - it's apples and oranges to compare this to something like Bringing Up Baby (which I hated). Maybe "anarchic comedy" is a better term...?

They were usually on, and even in their "lesser" movies (like A Night in Casablanca), there's gold to be found. I'm also fond of their last "official" movie: 1949's Love Happy, which was initially intended as a solo Harpo film. There are some great gags in it, along with a fun chase along the rooftops of Times Square.

ScottDS said...

Backthrow -

I love the Three Stooges and I've seen a couple of W.C. Fields' movies over the years and enjoyed them (It's a Gift and The Bank Dick). I also like Laurel and Hardy.

Oddly, the team I have NOT been able to get into is Abbott & Costello - go figure!! The "Who's on first?" routine...? I'll take the mirror scene in Duck Soup or the "Why a duck?" scene in The Cocoanuts over that any day!

Comedy is subjective to say the least - I was exposed to the Marx Brothers at such a young age... they just "imprinted" themselves on my brain. Would I be a fan if I watched them today for the first time? I don't know.

Patriot said...

ScottDS.....I remember trying to watch these at an earlier age (10-14) and just did not get the humor. I always thought it was comedy (cartoons) for adults, and as I wasn't an adult, I didn't, and couldn't get the jokes. Their references to topical events meant nothing to me.

About the only thing I thought was funny at the time, was the physical humor of the brothers Marx. Groucho's leering, bending over walk....Harpo's silence and musical ability. The other two were just straight men to those two it seemed to me.

Maybe I'll go back and watch these clowns again as an adult and see what I think of them now, now that I am an adult of a certain age!

Excellent review...as usual. You guys on this site blow me away with what you can find in a movie. All I look for usually is the "entertainment" value.

AndrewPrice said...

Busy day... Scott, I am a big fan of the Marx Brothers, but interesting, I don't watch their films very often. I think they are clever and witty and funny, but they don't hold a lot of repeat viewability for me. I do think, however, that there are a lot of lessons in what they do that could be translated into modern comedies. In particular, I think the key they have is timing. That is something you just don't see anymore, where the comedy team really has excellent timing. Great timing always makes a routine better, but it seems to be a lot art. It's like they think, "Oh, we can just edit it together," but that never works.

Koshcat said...

I've never seen the movies but watched some of your clips. I just don't really get the appeal. To each his own...

ScottDS said...

Patriot -

I'm totally the same - as a kid, I enjoyed the physical schtick, and even Groucho (simply by virtue of how crazy he was), but the references went completely over my head.

This movie is the best example of it - it was "the boring one" and now it's one of my favorites.

Definitely check them out again at your leisure. :-)

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

Busy day here, too. I'm gonna be out of the house for a while but I'll try to check in when I can.

Re: timing, I've noticed a lot of comedies today (especially where the actors do long improvised takes) don't know when to get out of the joke. And a lot of DVDs have seemingly hours and hours of outtakes and unused lines of dialogue. It's one thing to have options; but it's another thing to have no vision and hope you stumble across something later.

And of course, the Marx Brothers tested their material on stage so they knew what was funny.

ScottDS said...

Koshcat -

Sometimes I think it takes a somewhat demented mind to enjoy this stuff... which explains a lot in my case. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Not only that, but I mean the lightening back and forth that makes the comedy feel "special." The really good comedies often have people either talking at the same time or literally a millisecond after the first person stops. But modern comedies all provide this huge break between lines, like they think their audience is so stupid they need time to digest the dialog.

As for your point, I totally agree with that too. A film like Bridesmaids drags jokes out to the point that they become painfully unfunny.

Kenn Christenson said...

- perhaps those breaks are so the audience can laugh without missing something. I've actually been asked to add space "for laughter," which, considering some of the material I have to edit, was pretty optimistic. :)

AndrewPrice said...

Kenn, LOL! "optimistic" Nice!

Actually, what I'm talking about is the kind of back and forth you saw with people like Bogart and Becall or the Marx Brothers where they ran their dialog together beautifully to give you sense of energy and a sense that they really were talking to each other in a very emotional way rather than just reading lines. When it was time to laugh, they did give a break, but when they wanted to make a scene really hit a high note, they used the speed of their dialog to make your heart race.

Today's films rarely (if ever) have that kind of interaction between the actors. I think it's a lost art.

ScottDS said...

Kenn (and Andrew) -

That's true. Often times, filmmakers purposely add space between the jokes based on a test screening where the laughter (which isn't always expected) made it impossible to hear the next line.

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

I think that art has been lost, partly because of the foreign market where complicated dialogue scenes aren't quite successful.

And I'd hate to judge screenwriters - most of them are treated like shit anyway. But it goes back to something I said recently. The people who wrote those films may have had better education and knowledge of classic literature, whereas many creative people today were raised on, what else, movies and TV. (Including myself).

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