The year was 1931 and the four Marx Brothers (Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo) had by now had three hit Broadway shows and two smash movies: The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930)- behind them. Both The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers were simply filmed versions of their Broadway shows. Both films had been shot in nearby Astoria Studios in Long Island, New York.
The Marxes, now being official 24-karat movie stars, decided to pull up stakes and move to the only residence befitting motion picture celebrities- Hollywood. Their third film would be their first with an official Hollywood screenplay.
The working title of their tertiary film was Pineapples, but was soon changed to Monkey Business. Written by S.J. Perelman and Will B. Johnstone with a screenplay by Arthur Sheekman, Monkey Business was directed by Norman Z. McLeod
Monkey Business was to be the only Marx Brothers film in which none of the brothers have a character name. Because they played four stowaways on a passenger ship, they were simply referred to as “the stowaways.” (in the film’s end credits, they are credited by their names, i.e. Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo Marx.)
What little plot there is involves the boys stowing away on a ship, being pursued by the captain of the ship and his underlings, meeting rival gangsters on board and getting involved with them, leaving the ship and thwarting an attempted kidnapping of one of the gangster’s daughters.
Another switch from the team’s previous two films was the absence of the boys’ female foil, perennial dowager Margaret Dumont. In her stead as the female lead is the always delightful blonde bombshell, Thelma Todd. According to the studio’s reasoning, Dumont “was not sexy enough for the part.”
According to Robert Osborne of Turner Classic Movies, on the first day of shooting, the four Marx Brothers reported to the set, each wearing each other’s wardrobe and imitating that respective brother. (We feel sympathy for the poor brother who had to dress as and imitate Zeppo- how much fun could that have been?)
Monkey Business, like every Marx Brothers film, has several delightful musical numbers.
The movie opens with the four brothers, hiding out in four barrels, beneath the deck, singing “Sweet Adeline.” To this day, a Marx Brothers rumor exists which states that mute Harpo is actually singing the song, hidden from sight inside his barrel, along with his three speaking brothers. Neither Harpo himself, nor any of his brothers, ever acknowledged whether or not the perennially silent sibling did, indeed, harmonize, while within his barrel in this scene. Whether true or not that Harpo was stealthily singing, we must be resigned to the fact that Harpo (and presumably his brothers) each went to his grave with the secret intact and unrevealed.
Interestingly, Monkey Business is the the only Marx Brothers film where one of the brothers composed the film’s theme song. It opens with the Chico Marx-composed song “I’m Daffy Over You.” Chico had originally played “I’m Daffy Over You” as his piano solo in Animal Crackers. A very catchy, breezy tune, “I’m Daffy Over You.” is often wrongly thought to be the 1950’s hit “Sugartime.”
Although the song was written by Chico (and Sol Violinsky), no screen credit was given to the eldest Marx brother. One wonders if Chico received any extra money for them using his composition, or was the satisfaction of having his tune featured as the main song in one of his movies payment enough. In the film itself, Chico’s piano spot features him playing a different song- “When I Take My Sugar to Tea.”
Another interesting Monkey Business first, we see Groucho strumming (albeit just a few comical notes) his musical instrument of choice, the guitar. Few but Marx Brothers aficionados are aware of the fact that Groucho was actually a very fine and devoted guitar player in his real life, much as Harpo and Chico were on their harp and piano, respectively. Groucho was to accompany himself while he, again, teamed with Thelma Todd in a scene in the boys’ follow-up film Horse Feathers the next year. After these two brief guitar excursions, nothing more was ever heard in a Marx Brothers film of Groucho and his instrument of choice.
On a sadder note, during one of Groucho’s scenes with the beauteous Todd, he also says a few lines which would be an eerie precursor of the tragic blonde’s all-too-soon future. Groucho says to Thelma: “You’re a woman who’s been getting nothing but dirty breaks. Well, we can clean and tighten your brakes, but you’ll have to stay in the garage all night.”
On December 16, 1935, Thelma Todd’s dead body was discovered in a car in her garage- the cause of death was carbon monoxide poisoning. Thelma’s death has been one of Hollywood’s great unsolved mysteries for the past eight decades- arguments persist to this day as to whether her demise was a suicide, an accident or murder.
Sam “Frenchie” Marx, the father of the boys, made his motion picture debut, as an extra, in <>Monkey Business. In the scene on the pier, after the ship has docked, we catch a brief glimpse of a smiling Frenchie, sitting on a crate, amongst the waving crowd- in reality undoubtedly proud of his four famous sons.
Like many Marx Brothers films, several Monkey Business lines had to be changed (i.e. censored) because of sexual innuendo. Also missing from the film’s final version is a scene (captured for posterity only in production stills) of Harpo, dressed as a nurse, holding a baby Billy Barty in his arms. We can only imagine how funny this scene must have been.
Monkey Business premiered on September 19, 1931. It was not only a bonanza at the box office, but also garnered unanimous happy and pleased reviews.
Mourdant Hall of The New York Times: “Whether it is really as funny as Animal Crackers is a matter of opinion. Suffice it to say that few persons will be able to go to the Rivoli (Theater) and keep a straight face.”
Variety: “The usual Marx madhouse and plenty of laughs.”
Film Daily: “Crammed all the way with laughs and there’s never a dead spot.”
John Mosher of The New Yorker: “The best this family has given us.”
A follow-up Marx Brothers film to Monkey Business, continuing with the gangster main theme, was originally planned. Sadly and unfortunately, famed aviator Charles Lindbergh’s baby son was kidnapped and murdered, ostensibly by gangsters, and the idea was dropped like a hot potato. Monkey Business was banned in some countries because censors feared it would encourage anarchic tendencies.
The American Film Institute placed Monkey Business at number 73 on its list of the funniest movies of all-time (AFI’s 100 years…..100 laughs).
Monkey Business gives us perhaps our first real glimpse of vintage Marx Brothers- the four madcap zanies at their cinematic peak- wisecracking, punning, running around, leering, flirting, singing, playing and chasing blondes.
Even the ever-wooden Zeppo gets a great gag in this film. As so often happened, Zeppo has to carry the film’s obligatory romantic interest, this time with gangster Joe Helton’s daughter, played by Ruth Hall. In his big scene, Zeppo tries to pick up on Ruth, who coquettishly flirts. Zeppo earnestly and romantically proclaims to her- “I’ll never leave you, before he immediately bolts off, being chased around the ship’s decks by the authorities.
Chico gets off perhaps his most clever pun in Monkey Business. As the brothers go to the abandoned barn to rescue the kidnapped daughter (Ruth Hall), one of her kidnappers yells down at Groucho and Chico, “Keep out of this loft!”
Chico responds with, “Well, it’s better to have loft and lost than never to have loft at all.”
Groucho shakes his brother’s hand (with possibly an ad-lib of genuine admiration) and says, “Nice work.”
All four brothers give wonderful, memorable performances in Monkey Business. Both The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers are wonderful and very amusing movies, but the prehistoric filming techniques of the time slightly diminish them for modern viewers. With Monkey Business we really capture the four Marx Brothers, on film, in all their glory. And that is some glory indeed.