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Friday, May 06, 2016

Animal Crackers

I was in need of a comedy the other night so I dug out my Marx Brothers set and popped in Animal Crackers, which I haven't written about yet. It was released in 1930, and was the Brothers second film, based on a stage play by George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind, Bert Kalman and Harry Ruby. When it was on Broadway, it of course starred the Marx Brothers, and the story goes that Kaufman was backstage having a conversation when he suddenly stopped and said something like, "Wait a minute--I just heard one of my original lines."

The film is betrayed by its stage origins, as unlike some of the later Marx Brothers films it is limited in its sets. It is at the home of Mrs. Rittenhouse, a wealthy widow played by--you guessed it--Margaret Dumont. She is holding a party for the acclaimed African explorer Captain Jeffrey (or Geoffrey, the film spells it both ways) T. (the T stands for Edgar) Spaulding, who is played by Groucho. When he enters, in a sedan chair unfortunately carried by African tribesman, wearing a pith helmet and jodhpurs, I can't help but smile. Groucho's signature song, which stayed with him up through his stint on You Bet Your Life, debuted here:

"Hurray for Captain Spaulding
The African explorer
'Did someone call me schnorrer?'
Hurray, hurray, hurray!

This is closely followed by one of my favorite bits of doggerel, that a friend of mine actually used in his letter of resignation:

"Hello, I must be going
I cannot stay I came to say
I must be going
I'll stay a week or two
I'll stay the summer through
But I am telling I must be going."

Chico and Harpo are two musicians, Ravelli and The Professor, respectively. They arrive a day early, and Chico tells Mrs. Rittenhouse they couldn't come tomorrow because that was too soon. Then he tells them that he charges more for rehearsing than playing, because they couldn't play without rehearsing. When Groucho asks how much if they don't rehearse, Chico says "You couldn't afford it."

The central action is some silly business involving a painting and two copies, which are stolen and re-stolen. But most of the film is just an occasion for gags. Some of Groucho's most famous lines are here, such as "I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I don't know." And, "We took some pictures of native girls but they weren't developed. We're going back in a few weeks." (This was a pre-code film).There's also some topical stuff parodying a play by Eugene O'Neill called Strange Interlude, in which characters gave asides telling the audience what they really think. Groucho, who is wooing two women at once, moves aside and says, " Pardon me while I have a strange interlude. Why, you couple of baboons! What makes you think I'd marry either one of you! Strange how the wind blows tonight. It has a tintity voice, reminds me of poor old Moslin. How happy I could be with either of these two if both of them just went away!"

Some lines are just so silly you can't help but snort, like when a policeman corrects Groucho and tells him he's an Inspector. "Inspect her yourself," is the reply. Or when Groucho has his secretary, Zeppo, take a letter to his lawyers, Hungerdunger, Hungerdunger, Hungerdunger, Hungerdunger, and McCormick. When Zeppo reads back the letter he lists only three Hungerdungers. Groucho says, "You left out a Hungerdunger! And the most important one!"

Harpo's bits are some of his most psychotic. He of course chases a girl throughout the picture, and gets his harp solo. But there's also a strange scene when a woman tries to stall him for time and asks him if there's someone he truly loves. He takes out a picture--of a horse. There's also the great gag when the cop shakes his hand and numerous pieces of stolen silverware come loose and fall to the floor. Groucho says, "I can't understand what's delaying that coffee pot," and then comes the pot out of Harpo's sleeve.

A quick word about the young actress who plays the romantic lead, Lillian Roth. In Animal Crackers she was twenty years old and so charming. Reading about her is not pleasant, as she became an alcoholic and married six times. She was played by Susan Hayward in a movie about her life called I'll Cry Tomorrow.

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