The Trylon and Heights Theater’s Ain’t We Got Fun?: Pre-Code Hollywood series comes to a riotous close with a double-feature (two for the price of one!) of the Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers and the insane Girls About Town, directed by George Cukor. Don’t miss it!
Review of Animal Crackers by Trylon volunteer Michael Popham.
Animal Crackers, the Marx Brothers’ second feature, is proof that in show business, timing is everything. Not just comic timing – that was a given for these guys – but the kind of timing that gets you and Fate and Destiny all singing from the same hymnal. The advent of the talkies did two things that benefited the Marx Brothers tremendously: it brought vaudeville to an end and it created a brand-new showcase for their unique mix of slapstick and clever wordplay.
Not that the Marx Brothers’ success was just dumb luck. They paid their dues in show business and then some. As kids they worked as musicians and singers, appearing in all sorts of venues (Groucho spent much of his childhood performing as a boy soprano; Harpo’s first jobs were as piano player in nickelodeons and brothels). Later they spent years on the various hardscrabble vaudeville theater circuits that snaked across the eastern half of the United States. Over time they played in just about every little berg that had a vaudeville stage, and by the mid-1920s had worked their way up to being a headline act in E.F. Albee’s theaters. Albee was the best there was, the very pinnacle of vaudeville, but it didn’t last. When the brothers quibbled over some minor items in their contract they were not only fired, but blacklisted from the entire vaudeville universe.
This turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Though few knew it at the time, vaudeville’s days were numbered, as it began to dawn on theater owners that the talking pictures made live acts redundant. Meanwhile, the brothers distilled their act into a musical comedy and packaged it as a Broadway show called I’ll Say She Is. That show was a smash hit and the brothers followed up with two more shows, The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers.
Animal Crackers was released in cinemas in 1930. No real effort was made to hide its stage origins; the movie looks as though we’re watching the Broadway show just as it was originally presented. It’s a hodgepodge of bits and gags, songs and wisecracks and put-downs. None of it really makes sense, but somehow, deliriously, it all works.
The title is a non-sequiter, as the Marx Brothers’ early titles tended to be. The plot, such as it is, involves the unveiling of a famous painting owned by the wealthy Mrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont) and the efforts of two parties to replace the painting with a fake, for wildly different reasons. The unveiling coincides with the return to America of the famous African explorer Captain Spaulding (Groucho Marx). Brought in to play at the event are two eccentric musicians, Signor Emanuel Ravelli (Chico Marx) and his associate the Professor (Harpo Marx).
The Marx Brothers’ humor was pretty clean even for its time, and most of the jokes are quite family friendly (“I shot an elephant in my pajamas,” Groucho tells his listeners at one point. “How he got in my pajamas, I don’t know.”) But the Hays office did recommend cuts for the movie’s re-release, and most viewers today will be able to spot them easily. (“Signor Ravelli’s first selection,” Groucho announces, “will be ‘Somewhere My Love Lies Sleeping’ with a male chorus.”) The racier lines were usually delivered fast enough that by the time the joke registered they were on to something else. In-between we have some classic bits with Chico and Harpo, and the usual saucy exchanges between Groucho and the long suffering Margaret Dumont. As an added bonus, watch for Zeppo Marx playing Captain Spaulding during the blackout scene; Zeppo was known to do a dead-on impersonation of Groucho, and filled in on a day when his older brother wasn’t on the set.
Michael Popham toils by day in the Membership department of Minnesota Public Radio. By night he writes about film at The Horror Incorporated Project.
Animal Crackers screens at 7:30pm Monday night at the Heights, followed at 9:30 by Girls About Town. Purchase tickets here.