Animal Crackers, 1930.
Directed by Victor Heerman.
Starring Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, Zeppo Marx, Lillian Roth and Margaret Dumont.
The Marx Brothers try to recover a stolen painting during a madcap house party.
Animal Crackers is mad. It’s stark raving, piano-lid slamming, trousers-stuffed-with-cutlery mad. How is it that an 80 year old Marx Brothers film that makes next to no sense is still so utterly, uncompromisingly funny?
To start with, take Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo Marx. Confine them entirely within the walls of Rittenhouse Manor, as society lady Margaret Dumont herself hosts a party in honour of famed African explorer Groucho, hoping to unveil an art connossieur’s newly-acquired painting at the same time. This painting will get stolen for one reason or another and several duplicates will turn up, aided in no small part by stooges for hire Chico and Harpo.
Anyone who goes looking for more story than that is watching the wrong film. Animal Crackers propels itself along not on the strength of its (deliberately) flimsy plot, but on the phenomenal strength of its jokes. The Brothers go for the laugh everywhere and anywhere they can, whether it’s checking for a licence plate on a litter, dictating a letter to Hoongadoonga, Hoongadoonga, Hoongadoonga and McCormick or even a curious game of ‘contact’ bridge.
The script is electric, veering wildly between slapstick physicality and surrealistic rapid-fire exchanges. Groucho’s Captain Spaulding fires off irresistibly quotable one-liners; As the crooked Signor Ravelli, Chico winds up anyone he can get his hands on, just to see how far they can keep up with him until they reach breaking point; Harpo’s mischievous Professor is a joy to watch, his totally unpredictable one-man stunt show never short of genius; Zeppo plays Spaulding’s secretary, his understated performance serving to puncture the Captain’s massively inflated ego with nothing less than impeccable comic timing.
Scenes without the Brothers, however, feel slightly staid. Any time the film attempts to get along on the strength of the romantic leads (Lillian Roth and Hal Thompson) alone fall a bit flat. Where the Brothers’ dialogue and delivery is unerringly fresh and witty, everyone else seems apparently doomed to utter nothing but dated cliches and sweet nothings.
It’s perhaps fair to note that to our modern eyes, most ‘30s film acting appears stilted and hammed up; these actors had trained for the stage, not the screen – acting for camera was a relatively new discipline that few mastered in these early days of cinema. The Brothers themselves came up through sideshows and vaudeville, yet they seem perfectly at home acting for camera; their humour, by degrees edgy, bizarre and censor-baiting, is far ahead of its time.
The pacing is no less revolutionary, for the time. This perhaps shows up best when the Brothers have been absent from a scene for a while, then suddenly appear out of nowhere to blow the plot out of the water (often literally). Their presence is comforting in its rebelliousness; it feels like they’re invading a tedious society mystery film with the express intention of making it twenty times funnier than it was ever going to be.
They bring a uniquely joyous, nonsensical energy to each situation; a piano recital inspires as much admiration for Chico’s playing as it provokes barmy song suggestions from Groucho: Signor Ravelli’s first selection will be Somewhere My Love Lies Sleeping, with a male chorus. Similarly, Harpo switches effortlessly between grinning, whistling trickster and harp-playing prodigy, lending each a playful, quirky charm.
Animal Crackers stands alone amongst its contemporaries, and puts a good percentage of modern comedy to shame; it’s proud to be something completely different, going for the unexpected laugh, daring to subvert and exceed all expectations. Now pardon me while I have a strange interlude.
Simon Moore is a budding screenwriter, passionate about films both current and classic. He has a strong comedy leaning with an inexplicable affection for 80s montages and movies that you can’t quite work out on the first viewing.
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