The Four Marx Bros. in “Animal Crackers”

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The Internet is an amazing thing. When memories fail, it can sometimes help us recover the facts with a clarity that startles. For example, I now know that July 21, 1979 was the first time I ever saw a Marx Brothers movie. That was the day when, several rights issues having been cleared, Animal Crackers was screened on television (CBS) for the first time. I was 13.

I think most people would agree that there can be no greater introduction to the Marx Brothers than Animal Crackers, which was released on this date in 1930. Based on their 1928 Broadway stage hit, with a book by Kaufman and Ryskind and songs by Kalmar and Ruby, the film version was directed by Mack Sennett veteran Victor Heerman who insisted on a highly beneficial pre-production cutting of the script, wrestling it into a shape that not only makes a better movie than The Cocoanuts, but a better Marx Brothers comedy. The technical issues that bogged down The Cocoanuts were much less of a factor here, as well, and while still more stage-bound than their subsequent vehicles, the script is so breath-taking in its insanity, so focused and fast-moving, that only the most obsessive-compulsive of cine-creeps could possibly care.

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The plot here is a virtual remake of The Cocoanuts. Instead of the “Potter millions” it’s now Mrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont); instead of jewels getting stolen, it’s a painting; instead of a starving architect as the juvenile, it’s a starving painter, and instead of Florida, it’s the mansions of Long Island. Zeppo is once again a secretary named Jamison, whom apparently has treacherously just left his former employer Mr. Hammer in the lurch at the Hotel de Cocoanut. While the lines that all the other characters speak are literary embarrassments, Groucho and Chico are like vomiting volcanoes of punning, quipping nonsense-spouting vaudevillia, with Harpo contributing some of his most bizarre, surreal physical business ever (favorite moment: when he shoots at a statue with a gun and it springs to life and shoots back.)

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Groucho (in jodphurs and pith helmet) is permanently ensconced in our memories as Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding (the “T” stands for Edgar), the African explorer who arrives at a society weekend party with the sort of fanfare usually accorded only to heads of state, preceded by his secretary Jamison and some musicians (Harpo and Chico) whom, for some reason, are announced at the party as though they themselves are guests. Some of the Marx Brothers most famous jokes are drawn from this film, including the one about the elephant and the pajamas. So too is Groucho’s fourth-wall breaking Strange Interlude parody, and Groucho and Chico’s “left-handed moths” exhange, a virtual reprise of the “viaduct” scene in Cocoanuts.

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While Animal Crackers is one of Groucho’s best vehicles (and the rapid-fire Kaufman and Ryskind script, it must be conceded, is a huge contributing factor), the element that pushes it over the edge into magic is the musical presence of songwriters Kalmar and Ruby. You will always find their names attached to the Marx Brothers’ best vehicles. Any producer who didn’t understand that (which seems to have been most of them) ought to have had his head examined. “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” of course became Groucho’s theme song, and “Hello, I Must Be Going” ranks with it near the top of the canon. Even the lover’s duet “Why Am I So Romantic?” is peppier and less insipid than these moments usually are in Marx Brothers films.

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The film also benefits from one of the Marx Brothers’ best supporting casts, including in addition to Dumont; Lillian Roth, easily the most engaging ingenue in any Marx film; rotund Englishman Robert Grieg as Hives, the Butler; and Louis Sorin as the fraudulent art dealer Roscoe W. Chandler a.k.a “Abie, the Fish Man.”

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Animal Crackers set a very high bar for all future Marxdom. All of their all-excellent next three Paramount vehicles, Horse Feathers and Duck Soup would cleave to its formula the closest, casting Groucho as an inexplicable man of of eminence, introduced to us at the top of each film with grandiose and crazy musical fanfare and then proceeding to pummel the hypocrites and lickspittles around him like the tackle dummies they are. That is the whole point of Groucho, and the engine of the Marx Brothers’ best comedy. Later producers would deviate from the Animal Crackers formula strictly at their peril.

For more on comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc

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