[To read Part One of this essay, click here. For Part Two, here, and for Part Three, here.]
The Marx Brothers Go To Hollywood
Even before the movie version of Animal Crackers was in theaters, the Marx Brothers began searching for writers for their next project, be it a new play, a radio show or another movie, finally settling on S.J. Perelman, Will B. Johnstone and Nat Perrin. Johnstone, you may recall, was the author of the Brothers' first Broadway play, I'll Say She Is! Perelman was a humorist who wrote for the New Yorker magazine. He had been a Marx Brothers fan since their vaudeville days and his first collection of stories, Dawn Ginsbergh's Revenge, published in 1928, carried on its dust jacket Groucho's famous endorsement: "From the moment I picked up your book until I laid it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Some day I intend reading it."
The third writer, Nat Perrin, was a law student who had bluffed his way into a writing job with the Brothers with a forged letter of introduction from playwright Moss Hart.
"You'll rue the day you ever took the assignment," producer Herman J. Mankiewicz told Perelman, warning him that the Brothers were notoriously difficult to work with. "This is an ordeal by fire. Make sure you wear asbestos pants."
The team kicked around a couple of ideas, one placing the Brothers on an ocean liner as stowaways, the with Groucho playing the president of a university. Both ideas allegedly came from Bert Granet, a lifelong pal of Groucho's, who went on to become a staff writer at RKO and later the producer of such television shows as The Untouchables and The Twilight Zone.
It was Groucho who suggested the team flesh out the stowaway idea.
The writers set to work on the screenplay while the Brothers were in London fulfilling an obligation to British stage impresario C.B. Cochran. On their return, the writers brought the finished draft to a hotel room where they met the four Marx Brothers, the Brothers' wives (the unmarried Harpo brought not one but two "girlfriends") and Zeppo's recently-acquired Afghan hounds. Perelman read the draft aloud to the Brothers who listened in silence.
"It stinks," said Groucho when Perelman was done.
For the second draft, Mankiewicz brought in writer Arthur J. Sheekman, who along with Perelman, wrote the bulk of the screenplay. The Brothers recent trip to England inspired several scenes, such as one based on a Punch-and-Judy show Harpo had seen in London—
—and another based on Groucho's own run-in with a customs agent in New York, which began when Groucho listed his occupation as "smuggler." (The subsequent investigation led to the discovery of unreported duty items, which in turn led to a stiff fine.)
The Brothers also resurrected the opening scenes from I'll Say She Is! where they pretend to be a famous stage personality, here Maurice Chevalier who had recently starred in two Ernst Lubitsch musicals, The Love Parade and The Smiling Lieutenant.
The final screenwriting credits read "by S.J. Perelman and Will B. Johnstone; additional dialogue by Arthur Sheekman," but, in fact, gags came from all sorts of sources—vaudeville veteran Solly Volinsky, cartoonist J. Carver Pusey, singer turned movie star Eddie Cantor, the Marx Brothers' uncle Al Shean, legendary screenwriter Ben Hecht, English playwright Roland Pertwee, producer Mankiewicz (when he wasn't napping in his office) and the Marx Brothers themselves. Nat Perrin's lone contribution—a barber shop scene that featured a disastrous shoeshine—was substantially rewritten and he did not received a screen credit (he later wrote Duck Soup and The Big Store).
Perelman later described the process as "five months of drudgery and Homeric quarrels, ambuscades, and intrigues that would have shamed the Borgias."
For his part, Groucho felt Perelman's work, on both Monkey Business and Horse Feathers, was too literary and despite his on-going friendship with the young writer, was quite critical of him, both privately and publicly. "The trouble is the barber in Peru [Indiana] won't get it." Years later, though, Groucho allowed that Perelman was "a great writer with a brilliant comic mind that didn't always mesh well with the lunacies of the Marx Brothers."
Production began on Monkey Business in the summer of 1931. With no Broadway commitment to keep the Brothers in New York, Paramount insisted that they film Monkey Business at the studio's Hollywood facilities, which were undeniably superior to the sound stage in Queens they had used for their first two films. This was the first of their movies filmed in Hollywood, and the first written directly for the screen
It was also the first film that did not boast the supporting work of Margaret Dumont. Feeling the part of a gangster's moll needed a sexier actress, the studio cast Thelma Todd, a veteran of dozens of Hal Roach comedy shorts featuring Laurel and Hardy and Charley Chase. She's around for two scenes with Groucho, one where she finds him hiding in her stateroom closet, the second where the flirt on the veranda at a party.
"Mrs. Briggs," he tells her, "I've known and respected your husband for years—and what's good enough for him is good enough for me!"
For the romantic lead, the studio finally got the rather obvious idea of cutting out the middle man and casting Zeppo. I can't say he's great as he chases the girl (Ruth Hall), but he's better than either Oscar Shaw or Hal Thompson who performed the same thankless chores in The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, respectively.
The expanded role didn't stop Zeppo from leaving the set in mid-production to vacation in San Francisco.
Although this was Norman Z. McLeod's first directorial effort, he quickly learned to leave the camera rolling, finding that the Brothers' ad libs were often funnier than the scripted material.
Even for a Marx Brothers' movie, the story is tissue thin. Four stowaways wreak havoc on an ocean liner, meet a couple of gangsters, go to work for them and wind up thwarting a kidnapping plot.
"How do you know there are four of them?"
"They were singing 'Sweet Adeline.'"
The shipboard setting is merely an excuse to move the Brothers from one comic situation to another, with each gag barely linked to the other. Not that this hurt the comedy any. By shedding the trappings of the Broadway musical, the Brothers' actions become even more deliciously transgressive, tormenting authority not for plot-driven reasons but simply because they can, an approach they built on to great effect in their next two movies, Horse Feathers and Duck Soup.
In fact, the forty-five minutes the Brothers spend on the boat is some of the best work of their careers. But then they finally make it through customs and something unfortunate happens—the plot kicks in. The final two reels revolve around rival gangsters, a swanky dinner party and the aforementioned kidnapping, and presumably writers Perelman and Sheekman wanted to spoof the gangster movies that were then all the rage, but very little comedy arises from this set-up and ultimately the storyline feels grafted on.
Too, there's something a little off about the gangsters finding the Marx Brothers funny—the Brothers are best when they are a threat to authority, subverting the established order, and it's a little sad to see them reduced to the role of court jesters—but until then, it's a great movie and even this last act has its moments. (Harpo disguised as the bustle of a woman's dress is particularly inspired).
Monkey Business premiered on September 19, 1931, to favorable reviews, with Mourdant Hall of the New York Times favorably comparing the film to Chaplin's The Gold Rush. The movie turned a profit at the box office, but despite the praise of the critics, it failed to crack the list of the year's top ten grossing films.
This pattern of decreasing box office revenue would be repeated with the Brothers' next two pictures.
Trivia: In the scene where the Brothers finally escape the near-sighted ship's officer and wave to him from the dock, the onlooker sitting on a crate in the background is none other than Sam "Frenchy" Marx, father of the Marx Brothers. He earned $12.50 for two days' work.
To continue to Part Five, click here.