THE MADDEST COMICS OF THEM ALL!
The Marx Brothers. Some of the funniest and most enduring comedy stars ever. A thoroughly gifted family, particularly in music, they quickly found their way to the stage and became a very successful vaudeville act. Like others who had achieved great success on the stage, Hollywood came calling, with Paramount snatching them up for the new turn of “talkies” that was sweeping the industry. Their first two feature projects (a short called Humor Risk was filmed but never released and is believed to now be lost) were adaptations of plays that had been Broadway successes. The first was The Cocoanuts, released in 1929. The second came a year later - Animal Crackers.
Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding (Groucho Marx), the famous explorer, returns from Africa and is invited to attend a gala party held by Mrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont), during which a famous painting will be displayed. During the party, the painting is stolen, so Mrs. Rittenhouse turns to Spaulding for help to find it and save her reputation.
I love the Marx Brothers, I truly do. Growing up watching their movies, seeing Groucho deliver his rapid-fire one-liners to an utterly bewildered Margaret Dumont, ended up having something of an effect on the way I talk to some people. It’s like him, just nowhere near as funny. I say all this because it’s important to me that you understand that I’m a big fan of these guys. And it’s with that in mind that I say that Animal Crackers, despite the success at the time and the classic status it holds today, is actually not that good…
I know, I know. It’s a controversial position to take. I wish for it to be clear that I don’t consider this a fault of anyone on screen that much. They all give what they can. The real problem comes from two things: a weak script and lousy direction.
I can’t speak for the original Broadway play, but the script here is appallingly bad. The major conflict of the film rests on the disappearance of a very valuable painting. You see, Mrs. Rittenhouse’s daughter’s boyfriend is a talented artist, and he is convinced to swap the real painting for a copy he made to show off his skills as an artist and become famous… I’m not sure that’s the smartest of plans. On top of this, two of the party guests, one of whom is also an artists, but a bad one, decide to swap the real painting for their own copy, really just because they think it will be funny. They manage to convince Mrs. Rittenhouse’s head butler to do it, because… it would seem he used to be that guest’s old butler and they asked a favour… what? Never mind the ridiculously convoluted nature of this whole thing, what kind of weak motivations are these for all this? It doesn’t even have the good sense to devolve into a hilarious comedy of errors, with each party trying to figure out which painting is real or not before the police arrive. Honestly, by the end, you won’t care. Plus, is it just me or does whole bit about a famous explorer being invited to a swanky society party to regale the guests with hunter’s tales before having to save the reputation of the hostess from plans of two scheming guests sound a bit familiar? In fact, it sounds quite close to the rough premise of Harold Lloyd’s 1921 short Among Those Present, which I talked about last week. Weird.
The other real bad spot of the film is the direction from Victor Heerman. Heerman was more regarded as a writer in Hollywood. Either as part of a team or on his own, he is credited with writing Golden Boy in 1939, Magnificent Obsession in 1935 and Little Women in 1933, for which he won an Oscar. He was also a director, but going by Animal Crackers, this is not where his skills lay, at least not with comedy. He has absolutely no sense of any kind of visual style on show, so the camera is just aimed at the actors and left running in the hopes of catching something. The fact that the project was originally a play, with predominantly the same cast, has clearly factored into Heerman’s thinking, so it feels like someone has just filmed the stage show, rather than made a film out of it. This has a catastrophic effect on how the film unfolds. The play clearly got laughs in theatres, and so the actors would leave the occasional pause before they continue. These pauses are still there, as if their playing to an audience that isn’t there, so there are dozens of times when a joke is followed by a rather awkward silence before the action continues. As such, there is a dreadful lack of energy and pace to the whole project, so it also feels very slow. One of the most fondly remembered scenes is one where Chico and Harpo play Bridge with Dumont and Margaret Irving… good God, it’s slow, made worse by the fact that it’s mostly done in a single, long, unedited take. I’m sorry, but it’s just not funny.
There are numerous technical issues with the film, too, although many of these are a product of a studio still trying to come to terms with the new technology being used. Sound films had really only been around for four years at this point, and many still felt a little resistance to this new way of making films. Microphone positioning was clearly still an issue, with the sounds of footsteps clomping around occasionally competing with dialogue. Also, the editing is rather choppy. Honestly, these would actually be rather mild concerns, easily overlooked if other aspects of the filmmaking weren’t so poor.
However, this is still a Marx Brothers film, so there is still some enjoyment here. There are still some cracking lines from Groucho (“One morning I shot an elephant in my pyjamas. How he got in my pyjamas, I don’t know” is still a classic); Harpo’s physical work is still great (a moment at the end when he’s discovered stealing silverware is absolute gold, no pun intended); and the musical interludes from Chico and Harpo are still very impressive. It also contains several instances of Groucho talking directly into the camera, breaking the fourth wall before they even had a chance to build it. (A bit of me suspects that the reason he did this was because Groucho could feel the lack of energy because of the lack of audience, so decided to fill the gap in the only way he knew how, by playing to them even though they weren’t there.)
There is another thing that rather bothers me about Animal Crackers. It could be a sign of how times have changed, but the film is, probably unintentionally, kind of racist. It’s more likely that it’s just them trying to make jokes without thinking too much about it, but by modern standards, it cuts really close to the bone on a few occasions. When Groucho makes his big entrance, he’s being carried in a sedan by four African men. Okay, so he’s just making a joke that this is like an African taxi and no malice was intended, I guess. Then, there’s a later line, “I wish I was back in the jungle, where men are monkeys.” Again, he’s probably just making an unfortunately worded joke, but still… and then there’s another line, “Africa is God’s country, and he can have it.”… again, I honestly don’t think he’s being consciously mean-spirited with any of this, and maybe few people would have questioned any of this back then. Nevertheless, it’s a little bit uncomfortable nowadays.
Despite holding some of Groucho’s most famous jokes, Animal Crackers is not a particularly good film, largely because the central story is so weakly written and the direction is so painfully lacklustre. The Marx Brothers do give what they can, and they still wring some laughs in this, but it remains something to get through rather than something to really enjoy as intended.