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Monkey Business

Monkey Business was the third film by the Marx Brothers and one of the best. For me only Duck Soup is better. It's a lot like that movie, in that there isn't much plot and it really just focuses on the chaos of the brothers running around and making a mess of everything. They don't even bother to give their characters names. The musical sequences are much shorter than in the previous films, although I really enjoy watching Chico play the piano so I don't mind these scenes as much as others seem to. That the plot wasn't paramount is illustrated by the fact that we get well into the movie before we even begin to see what it is.

What we do get right away is that the four Marx Brothers (Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo) are stowaways on a cruise ship. They are discovered because they keep singing Sweet Adeline in four part harmony (possibly 3 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 other characters of the story. Groucho meets a gangster, 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 after being caught by the gangster trying to make time with his wife.

Zeppo runs into a girl (Mary) who we later find out is the daughter of a retiring mob boss (Big Joe). The gangster wants the boss to make him leader of all the ganga, 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 them are very serious about their job. All the while the ship's crew are trying to catch the stowaways. This is probably Harpo's bestmovie as he gets a lot to do and it doesn't seem to be the same routines he does in every movie, though a few of those show up as well.

Groucho and Zeppo both get love interests, and Zeppo even seems to get the girl in the end. In fact, Zeppo almost fits the type of romantic lead in this film, except there's so much going on with each character it's hard to say anyone is the lead. Groucho gets lots of great gags and one liners, some of them dirty enough that it's almost a surprise to see the movie got a code approval. He even does a bit where he "plays gay", joking like he is in a relationship with Alky. Pretty daring for the 1930's. When the cruise comes to an end and the brothers leave the boat it feels like a complete movie right there, but there's more.

Having been unsuccessful in killing Big Joe on the boat, Alky decides to kidnap Mary at a party her father is throwing for her. Of course all four brothers manage to crash the affair, and end up coming to the rescue. This is part of the movie slows down a bit, but it's still wildly enjoyable. Watching it now with our heightened sensibility to racial issues, you do have a few cringe moments as there are a few insensitive jokes made about minorities. As much as I love ole movies, they were made during a more unenlightened time and unfortunately a lot of them have these moments that you kind of have to wince and just get through. This movie, in my opinion has more than enough redeeming qualities to make it watchable despite some outdated views on race.

A few notes on the movie, the Marx patriarch can be seen after boys have gotten off the boat and are waving back at the ship's first officer. He was 72 at the time, and this was his movie debut. This was the first Marx Brothers movie written specifically for the screen instead of being adapted from a stage show. It was also the first to not have Margaret Dumont. Thelma Todd was in it instead, and while Dumont is a great foil for Groucho, I love Todd's willingness to be just as silly as Groucho. She dances and mugs just as well as the Brothers, and she's a lot of fun. She was only in one other Marx Brothers movie (Horse Feathers) and unfortunately 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 was found dead in her lover's garage from carbon monoxide poisoning after being locked out and having to spend the night in her car, which she left running to stay warm. 

I wish Todd could have been in more Marx Brothers movies. I wish they had kept making movies like this. A Night At The Opera may be considered their masterpiece, and I do love it, but for my money it doesn't come close to the comedy highs of this film. The only movie to have better Harpo bits is Duck Soup. The only movie to have 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 famous as a concert pianist. If you haven't seen this, do yourself a favor and watch it now. Then follow it up with the other 4 Paramount Marx Brothers movies, Animal Crackers, The Cocoanuts, Horse Feathers and Duck Soup. You can thank me later.


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