It’s not exactly “Ripped from the headlines!” as some older, more dramatic film ads would sometimes claim, but the Marx Brothers’ 1931 “Monkey Business” does begin with them trying to sneak into the U.S. illegally as stowaways on an ocean liner.
And Harpo’s aggressive pursuit of multiple young women would also probably grab a headline these days. In any case, you can check out the Marx Brothers’ transgressive comedy when The News-Gazette Film Series presents “Monkey Business” at 1 and 7 p.m. Saturday at the Virginia Theatre in downtown Champaign.
The Virginia Theatre may actually have witnessed a major development in Marx Brothers history. Their careers began in Vaudeville (as a musical act), and that took them on tours to the Virginia itself. Harpo later claimed it was in Champaign that he stopped speaking on stage, so that very likely occurred at the Virginia (the Orpheum just a few blocks away would be the other possibility).
In any case, their Vaudeville success (in comedy more than music) led to Broadway, and their first couple of movies (“The Cocoanuts” and “Animal Crackers”) adapted their Broadway revues. “Monkey Business” was their first film not to be based on one of their stage shows, as well as their first to be made in Hollywood.
Paramount hired major comedy writers for the film. S.J. Perelman was famous for his humorous short pieces (often appearing in “The New Yorker”), and Will B. Johnstone was a newspaper cartoonist, lyricist and playwright who had written the 1924 Marx Brothers revue “I’ll Say She Is.” They would go on to write the next Marx Brothers film, “Horse Feathers,” as well.
Or at least they received the screen credit for the writing. Groucho hated Perelman’s script and thought him too intellectual and condescending; Perelman hated working with Groucho, too. The brothers kept changing the scripts as they filmed and brought in bits that they had developed in their Vaudeville days. Director Norman Z. McLeod and producer Herman J. Mankiewicz also helped with the script, and McLeod later said in an interview that around a dozen writers worked on it over five months.
Still, “Monkey Business” has less of a plot than any other Marx Brothers film, and their characters here have no names and no back stories. They are identified by their professional names in the opening credit sequence, but otherwise they are simply referred to as “the stowaways.”
The first half of the film has them dodging the ship’s crew and annoying various passengers. They improbably become involved with retired racketeer Joe Helton (Rockliffe Fellowes) and his would-be successor Alky Briggs (Harry Woods), who variously hire them as bodyguards and hitmen. Zeppo falls for Helton’s daughter Mary (Ruth Hall), while Groucho makes passes at Briggs’ neglected wife, Lucille (Thelma Todd).
Once ashore, Helton throws a gala party for high society where Harpo plays the harp and Chico, the piano (both a little later in the film than they usually do). Briggs kidnaps Mary to force her father to acknowledge him as his successor, and the boys go to her rescue. That’s it.
The film was a big success both critically and at the box office. And it ranks 73rd on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 top American comedies. But it did run into censorship problems in several locales when it was first released. In fact, the Irish government banned it because they feared it might encourage “anarchic tendencies,” with the ban lifted only in 2000.
The funniest extended bit here occurs when the liner docks and the Marx Brothers try to get past the immigration inspectors. French actor/singer Maurice Chevalier (another Paramount performer) is also on board (though we never see him), and Zeppo (!) swipes his passport. Of course, no Marx looks — or sounds — like the Gallic star, but each in succession, wearing Chevalier’s trademark straw hat and waving his passport, attempts to sing “You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me” — a 1930 Chevalier hit song — to prove his identity. It’s a reworking of a bit they did in more than one of their stage productions (including “I’ll Say She Is”).
That, of course, would be more of a challenge for Harpo, but he surmounts it — almost. Nevertheless, we perhaps do hear him sing — at least in theory. When the First Officer tells the Captain of the liner that there are four stowaways hiding in the hold but no one has seen them, the Captain asks how he knows there are four. The officer explains he heard them singing “Sweet Adeline” (which means four-part harmony). Next we see the four barrels concealing the Marx Brothers in the hold and hear the song, so presumably Harpo’s character must also be joining in here. And the studio had no reason to hear four other singers to supply the voices.
Note: What are the odds that two classic film comedies directed by former World War I pilots would have the same title? Pretty good, apparently — just consider “Monkey Business” (1931), directed by Norman Z. McLeod and starring the Marx Brothers, and “Monkey Business” (1952), directed by Howard Hawks and starring Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers and Marilyn Monroe. And McLeod wrote the screenplay for Hawks’ 1928 “The Air Circus,” the first flying film with spoken dialogue.