There may be no more perfect comedy configuration on film than the Marx Brothers. I have had some dark days in my life–as have us all–and despite any hardship or emotional upset, I can turn on a Marx Brothers movie and it lifts my soul completely. The three main components of this merry band of absurd men–Groucho, Harpo, and Chico–play off of each other like only three brothers could, having an innate timing and understanding of each other’s strengths and perspectives that created a perfect storm of comedy. While their movies may look old-fashioned to modern audiences, there was nothing ever before or since like the Marx Brothers. They’re The Beatles of comedy, and no matter how much time passes, their work continues to ring true throughout the ages.
Of all of the films I covered in this Perfect Movies project, choosing a Marx Brothers movie as a “perfect” one was difficult: A Night At The Opera, Horse Feathers, and Duck Soup were all considered, and they are all brilliant comedies on their own. But for my money, maybe nothing captures the chaos, the anarchy, and the sheer absurdity of the Marx Brothers like their 1931 film Monkey Business.
A pre-Hays Code comedy, it’s one of the more risque Marx Brothers films and a great success at the time of its release. Written by the now-classic humorist S.J. Perelman and the first appearance of their first female foil Thelma Todd (who died just a few years after appearing in their next film Horse Feathers and was subsequently replaced in later Marx Brothers films by the stalwart Margaret Dumont), every frame of the film is jam-packed with every entertaining notion that Perelman and the Marx Brothers could summon. It’s also a wildly unhinged film in its own right, as the four brothers (Zeppo is in this one as the romantic lead) stow away on a transatlantic ship and create chaos on-board as a result. Although initially pressed into service for some gangsters, the Brothers never take their assignments seriously and end up in the right when they assist in the rescue of a rival gangster’s daughter.
There’s no actual plot, of course: it’s just a series of setups for the Marx Brothers to unleash their particularly wonderful brand of madness upon everyone around them. A charming, whimsical, fast-paced bit of escapism, there has been nothing quite like Monkey Business, no matter how hard many have since tried to imitate its particular brand of high-velocity screwball comedy.
While later Marx Brothers films have garnered more critical acclaim and follow a more substantial plot, there’s something satisfying about watching order being upended by these maniacs. Never cruel and only out for fun and thumbing their nose at convention, the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business portrays them at the height of their powers. It’s for this reason, and many more, that I find it to be a perfect movie.
Monkey Business – A Perfect Movie
We are introduced to our favorite stowaways as they harmonize “Sweet Adeline” while hiding in separate pickle barrels; they are never given actual names in the film but the viewer knows exactly who they are. The ship’s crew are aware of their presence thanks to the insulting notes they’re leaving about for the captain and they are hunted. They pop out of the barrels for just long enough to crack wise and knock some puns around before going back into hiding when the crew shows up, but the barrels are lifted over their heads and they’re discovered–oddly enough, with a full tea and dinnerware set already laid out among themselves like they were getting ready to have breakfast together despite being separated by the barrels.
Anyway, they are soon running around the ship playing music, hiding from the crew, and in general creating mayhem and merriment wherever they go. Harpo just has to make eyes at a passing girl and she starts running; Chico drops behind a piano and begins to play effortlessly; and Groucho ingratiates himself to any person that may offer him a free meal–or be a potential meal ticket.
There are so many double entendres and risque jokes throughout it’s shocking that it was produced so long ago. Of course, this was just before the Hays Code was enforced and as such the Brothers were free to be as saucy as they pleased in their wordplay. Maybe that’s why this film still holds up: the fast-talking innuendos seem out of place in the time it was produced, and most films made after this one were heavily censored so the sexual puns and innuendos would never make it into the final product. It also so happens that most films produced at this time weren’t as witty as the Marx Brothers were making: already far ahead of their time, their ability to skirt around serious censorship in this case only adds to the film’s timelessness. Not that any of it is crass: it’s just far more mature than films made in this time period.
Groucho has maybe the best attitude towards life I’ve ever seen, which is to treat everything like it’s a joke–largely because it is. Whip-smart and largely unconcerned with the trivialities of authority, social conventions, and sense itself, Groucho is every smart-ass’s idol: he rambles through life mouthing off to people who try to impose their rules on him, seeks out fun and the sweet life wherever he goes, and plays word games with his compatriots. While hated by straight society, he and his brothers are loved by the fellow like-minded, lighthearted people they come across, as they remind these stuff shirts that life should be mostly a party with nothing taken too seriously.
The wild amount of talent the Brothers display throughout this film is more than a dozen comedians could produce combined: between their obvious comedic talents, both spoken and physical, their musical ability and the charisma they exude offers nary a moment in Monkey Business that isn’t completely entertaining.
Perhaps the most innovative element of the film is the surreal comedy on display. Harpo can produce a fake leg out of nowhere as he makes his escape; the quick-change shape shifting that the Marx Brothers almost depend on in order to keep ahead of the crew, whether it’s the gang suddenly dropping in as an ad hoc band on deck, or Harpo posing as a puppet, or he and Chico donning barber costumes, the Marx Brothers are neither bound by reality or sense itself to continue their fleeting existence.
And maybe that’s my favorite part about the Marx Brothers as a whole and Monkey Business in particular: they’re just wandering through their lives reacting to the situations they find themselves in and make hay while the sun still shines. It may be nonsense but it’s also a reaction to the overall absurdity of life itself. If only we were all as brave and bold as the Marx Brothers in our own lives, tossing off social propriety, conformity, and order along the way, we’d probably have a lot more fun in it.
Ultimately, what makes the film so fun is how completely bonkers all of it is: Harpo chases women (and a frog) around, Groucho pokes through reality like he knows he’s in a movie, and Chico chisels away looking for his next free lunch. They are absurd characters that I could endlessly watch. Although they made many fine films in their career, nothing ever really matched the madness that was Monkey Business. It’s the best representation of the comedic anarchy that the Marx Brothers embraced and for this reason and many others, I think it’s a perfect movie.