Monkey Business (1931)

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Out of all the genres of fiction, I think that comedy is the hardest to cross cultural boundaries. It also doesn’t help this film’s case that while the Marx Brothers are well-known in the US, I don’t believe that they are quite so established internationally, compared to say Charlie Chaplin or even the Three Stooges. For my part, I knew next to nothing about them save that they exist and that the iconic Groucho glasses disguise comes from one of them.

Monkey Business, the next film on the course’s watch list, is apparently considered one of the better of the brothers’ thirteen feature films. There is next to no plot and the four brothers, Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo, simply play their on-stage personas. They are stowaways on board a ship travelling to American and spend most of the movie evading the ship’s incompetent crew while interfering in a feud between two gangsters. Naturally they cause plenty of havoc doing so, hopefully entertaining the audience in the process.

Whether or not you like this movie entirely depends on whether or not you like the brothers’ brand of humor. The interesting thing is that the three brothers who dominate the movie each has his own distinctive style, with Zeppo having only a minor role as a straight man. Harpo’s act is easiest to understand, being simply a clown who never speaks, complete with props like a horn and a frog. Chico is the fake Italian conman who tries to be smarter than he really is. The movie also showcases the musical talents of the two, Harpo with the harp and Chico with the piano.

Groucho though is indisputably the brothers’ frontman and his fast-talking comedy is more of an acquired taste. I never really find puns funny at the best of times and his patter is just full of them. Plus even though I consider my English excellent, I suspect I missed most of the innuendo in his dialogue. It’s still pretty amazing to watch him strut into a scene and take full control of it, befuddling everyone around him with his inanity even if this doesn’t do much for plot plausibility.

There are some excellent scenes. I actually enjoyed the bit in which each of them tries to get past immigration by pretending to be Maurice Chevalier. I guess Zeppo must have been a better singer than a comedian. I found Harpo’s Punch and Judy skit to be more amusing than funny because it’s so old-fashioned. But in general all of their antics are nothing I haven’t seen before in a more polished form in many other movies and this movie is really just a loose framework for them to work in their routines.

So this makes Monkey Business another pick that I didn’t really enjoy on its own merits. I can appreciate the immense comedic talent that the brothers have and how much effort they put into creating their on-stage personas. I can even see how they’ve influenced subsequent comedians. But their act is just too dated to be funny to me and I’d really like a movie to be something more substantial than a collection of skits.

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