I once participated in a Marx Brothers “survivor game” on a message board (you can’t say that I waste my time) and was pleasantly surprised to see Monkey Business come in in third place. That seems about right to me, but when you’re dealing with the five pictures the boys made at Paramount, it’s kind of a case of splitting superlatives. Still, there’s something a little special about this film in that it might well be the most wholly anarchic they ever made. (It was, in fact, banned in Ireland because authorities feared it would inspire anarchy.) While most of their films had some attempt at a plot, this one really has little more than a situation. The Marxes aren’t even given character names and are simply billed as playing themselves.They’re stowaways on a ship — living in barrels meant for kippered herring. They aren’t very good stowaways either, since they draw attention to themselves by singing “Sweet Adeline” (what else would four guys in barrels do?) and send insulting notes to the captain. But then that’s the whole point of the film — they just do what they damn well please, and so does the movie. There’s a minimal story when they get mixed up with rival bootleggers, but it hardly matters because the Marxes take none of it seriously. No, this is a movie where they stop in the middle of a chase to impersonate (very badly) the ship’s orchestra (and the passengers applaud their efforts).This is a movie where all four Marx Brothers try to get off the ship by using Maurice Chevalier’s passport (Zeppo stole it) — each “proving” his authenticity by singing “You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me.” (The silent Harpo has the best approach.) All this, of course, is the genius of the thing — that and the fact that the world at large absurdly takes what they’re doing seriously. Monkey Business was the first of their films written directly for the screen and the first to be made in Hollywood rather than on the relatively cramped Long Island soundstages, and it takes advantage of both changes. The film feels more free than its two predecessors and makes no concessions to the conventions of having romantic leads. It’s all Marx Brothers all the time. And you can’t get much better than that.
The Asheville Film Society will screen Monkey Business Tuesday, Nov. 13 at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.