The Marx Brothers movie that matters right now
It’s August 14, 1971. “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” by the Bee Gees is enjoying its second of four straight weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100, “Klute” is the number one film at the U.S. box office, and tonight St. Louis Cardinals ace Bob Gibson will hurl the first and only no-hitter of his major league career. These three things will all prove extremely interesting to me later in life; but as a five-year-old who’s just a few weeks away from entering kindergarten, I am currently completely oblivious to their existence.
I am, however, jubilantly aware that I will be going to the movies with my mom this evening. She tells me that we’ll be seeing something called “Monkey Business,” a title which immediately sets my young brain alight with images of uproarious simian antics a la “Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp,” the live-action TV show I’ve been digging every Saturday morning, and whose Colorforms play set I recently received as a birthday present.
“Who’s in it?” I ask, thinking maybe it’s another Kurt Russell vehicle along the lines of “The Barefoot Executive,” the chimp-tastic Disney film she’d taken me to see just a few months earlier.
“The Marx Brothers,” my mom replies.
This changes things. As a kid growing up in the Motown-adjacent, socially-conscious protest hotbed of Ann Arbor, Michigan, I automatically associate the word “brothers” with Black men, especially of the musical and/or revolutionary variety — and since the movie is playing at the University of Michigan’s Angell Hall, where my parents have previously taken me to see “Yellow Submarine,” I’m now imagining a musical cartoon featuring a Jackson 5-type group. Which would work just fine for me, not least because I’m intensely fascinated by the currently popular Afro hairstyle, or “big hair” as I’ve taken to calling it.
“Do the Marx Brothers have big hair?” I excitedly ask my mom.
She ponders this question for a moment. “Well,” she finally answers, “One of them does.”
And that’s pretty much the only advance information I’m armed with as we walk into Angell Hall’s Auditorium A that fateful evening. I have no idea yet that the Marx Brothers are one of the greatest and most influential comedic acts of the 20th century, or that their decades-old films are currently enjoying a massive revival, especially on the college circuit where the Brothers’ penchant for surreal wordplay and anarchic pranks (the latter played chiefly at the expense of pompous authority figures) feels surprisingly in tune with the times. Nor do I know that 1931’s “Monkey Business” is part of a whole run of classic Marx Brothers films. But almost as soon as Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo make their initial appearance — emerging from kippered herring barrels in the hold of an ocean liner that they’ve stowed away upon — I know that I have truly found my people.
Looking back at it now, the Marx Brothers were my first real pop cultural obsession. MAD magazine, war comics, horror movies, TV detective shows, Monty Python and rock music would all take turns warping my mind in due course, but the Marx Brothers got there before any of them, and “Monkey Business” was my gateway to their world of inspired absurdity. For the next few years, whenever any Marx Brothers film came to town, I would insist on being in attendance; and in 1972, when my dad gave my mom a copy of Richard J. Anobile’s “Why a Duck? Visual and Verbal Gems from the Marx Brothers Movies” for Christmas, I immediately claimed the book as my own, studiously committing every sight gag and one-liner to memory. (That copy is one of the few books from my childhood that I still own.)
As would later happen when I finally fell in love with The Beatles, I immediately picked a favorite Marx Brother, but idolized all four for different reasons. Groucho (my fave) was obviously the alpha Marx, the fast-talking brains of the outfit who exuded a ton of charisma despite sporting greasepainted eyebrows and mustache and scuttling around like a two-legged crab. Chico came off as considerably less sophisticated, but I loved his wicked way with a malaprop and found his cod-Italian accent as charming as it was silly. I likewise loved Harpo’s silent clowning, disruptive horn blasts and wild curls, and I eventually perfected his “hold my leg” move — which, let me tell you, really knocked ‘em dead in third grade. (I likewise briefly adopted Groucho’s insouciant eyebrow wiggle, hoping that it would help me charm my way out of any trouble I found myself in. Alas, it did not.) And though Zeppo had a rep for being bland and boring, I was impressed by his smooth way with the ladies, his pleasant signing voice, and how he always seemed completely cool in a crisis — an invaluable quality for anyone caught up in the Marx Brothers’ cone of insanity.
Classic pre-WWII Hollywood comedy in general was enjoying a huge revival during the early 1970s. Throughout elementary school, I regularly watched Three Stooges shorts on TV after school and Abbott & Costello features on Sunday mornings, and I got to see tons of Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, W.C. Fields and Laurel and Hardy movies thanks to the University of Michigan’s Cinema Guild and the Ann Arbor Film Co-op. But while I loved all of those comedy legends, none of them resonated with me the way the Marx Brothers did. Not that I analyzed it much at the time; it just instinctively felt like Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Zeppo and I belonged to the same tribe. I don’t think I even knew that they were New York-born Jews like myself, but their pomposity-pricking worldview and sheer love of absurdity seemed to match my own; sure, W.C. Fields and Abbott and Costello made me laugh, but I wanted to hang out with the Marx Brothers.
During the COVID pandemic, I’ve spent a lot of time re-exploring books, magazines, movies, records and TV shows I first experienced in my teen years or earlier — partly out of wanting to enjoy the company of “old friends,” but also out of a desire to connect some personal dots between the past and present before the future ominously descends. Why did I like something so much at the time? How did it influence or imprint the person I am today? And how well does it still hold up now?
About 50 years after I first saw “Monkey Business” and nearly 90 years after the film was first screened on September 19, 1931, I decided to watch it again. It’s not that I’d ever outgrown the Marx Brothers, per se; but as with many favorite albums from my youth (The Clash’s “London Calling,” for one example) I’d so fully absorbed their films into my DNA in earlier years that revisiting them felt almost unnecessary. Also, Harpo’s wonderfully life-affirming 1961 autobiography “Harpo Speaks!” (which I’d discovered and then clung to like a floatation device during a very dark time in my early forties) had kind of superseded the Marx Brothers’ filmography in my personal pantheon. But re-watching “Monkey Business” not only brought me back to the joy and excitement I’d experienced during my first Marx Brothers encounter, it gave me a new appreciation for the film.
While 1929’s “The Cocoanuts” and 1930’s “Animal Crackers” were both based on Broadway musicals that the Marx Brothers had starred in (and have the boxy, stagey feel to prove it), “Monkey Business” is a pure Hollywood creation, one which veritably explodes with the energy and creativity of a group that’s finally feeling fully at home in front of the camera. (A comparison to the aforementioned “London Calling,” which followed two more straight-ahead Clash albums, wouldn’t be entirely offbase.)
Though the film’s ocean liner scenes were most likely all shot on the Paramount lot, the sets are still realistic enough to make you believe that Groucho and the boys are actually careening wildly around an elegant, Art Deco-appointed luxury vessel. Of course, this being the Marx Brothers, all other sense of reality ends there — for example, despite causing constant chaos abovedeck and even personally mixing it up with several of the ship’s officers, the stowaway foursome manages to elude capture on the ship, and they deftly slip past customs officials even after their sure-fire plan to pretend that they’re all Maurice Chevalier somehow goes awry. And while Groucho is unquestionably charming, do we really believe that a blonde Hollywood goddess like Thelma Todd would immediately find him so irresistible?
But it doesn’t matter. Likewise, it doesn’t matter that there’s no backstory for the Marx Brothers’ characters, that we don’t even know their individual names, or that the plot is basically just a 78-minute game of hide-and-seek with a little mob-related kidnapping thrown in. All that really matters is that the script — penned by S.J. Perelman, Will B. Johnstone, the Marx Brothers themselves and reportedly as many as five or six other writers — gives Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo ample leeway to bring their personal brand of verbal, physical and conceptual chaos to bear on every situation.
Harpo, of course, is the most chaotic force of all, a Depression-era Puck who sweetly connects with all the children and animals he encounters, while making life hilarious hell for any adult who has the misfortune to cross his ragged path. Much as I loved “The Queen’s Gambit,” the scene in “Monkey Business” where Harpo and Chico kibbitz (and then upend) a chess game between passengers made me idly wish that a Harpo cameo had injected a little crazed levity into that Netflix miniseries. Which would have been impossible, of course, but then Marx Brothers films don’t exactly exist in the realm of literal possibilities. And in retrospect, I think that’s one big reason they appealed to me at such a young age; as a very literal-minded and somewhat uptight child who was always trying to “make sense” of things, I think I must have found it very appealing and exciting to be let into a world where the adult protagonists freely flout all logic, to say nothing of laws and social graces.
As an adult viewer, however, I was also taken by an element of “Monkey Business” that went completely over my head back in 1971: the theme of immigration. Though we’re given no sense of where they’re emigrating from, it’s obvious from the outset that they’re leaving life in their old country for a new one in America. (“I was going to bring along the wife and kiddies,” cracks Groucho, “But the grocer couldn’t spare another barrel.” “I was going to bring my grandfather, but there’s no room for his beard,” seconds Chico, before revealing that he’s gone ahead and sent for the beard via “hair mail”.)
Chico, with his thick accent and jumbled English, is clearly a send-up of Italian immigrant stereotypes, while Harpo’s inability to communicate with anything except honks and hand gestures certainly mirrors the frustration that a non-English speaking immigrant would feel in this country. And while all the other passengers are dressed elegantly, Zeppo is the only Marx Brother who wears a half-presentable suit — though even his clothes look indifferently tailored compared to those of the paying customers on board. They are clearly impoverished outsiders in this upscale, All-American environment; yet they exude not a single iota of shame or embarrassment about it, even when they’re running the constant risk of arrest.
There’s a particularly memorable moment when Chico and Groucho invade the ship captain’s quarters: Groucho, fed up with Chico’s constant interruptions of his description of the voyage of Christopher Columbus, looks at the camera and says, “There’s my argument — restrict immigration!” The line surely got a laugh from the xenophobes in the audience back then, but now it seems more like a sarcastic middle finger to those very same folks. The Johnson-Reed Act — which imposed this country’s first-ever permanent numerical limit on immigration, along with a national-origin quota system — had been signed into law just seven years before the film was made; and while the Marx Brothers weren’t themselves immigrants, their parents (Jews who hailed from Germany and France) most certainly were, and the Marx family certainly would have experienced all manner of racism, antisemitism and intolerance on the streets of turn-of-the-century New York City, and they would have been well aware of America’s burgeoning anti-immigration movement. Taken in that light, the line — and their characters’ sly outwitting of (and utter disrespect for) the authorities throughout the film — feels very subversive, indeed.
“Monkey Business” isn’t a perfect Marx Brothers film — it’s not quite at the brilliant level of “Duck Soup” or “Night at the Opera,” there’s no Margaret Dumont, and the crazed “barn fight” finale plays out like the writers just threw up their hands and said, “Look, fellows — we’ve gotta end this movie somehow!” But 90 years after its release, it still packs a surprising punch to both the funny bone and the gut. And 50 years after my first viewing, it still makes me want to hang out with the Marx Brothers.
Dan Epstein is the Forward’s contributing music critic.