The Marx Brothers’ second film is a somewhat smoother ride than their first (1929’s The Cocoanuts), but it is still an adaptation of one of their Brodway shows and was shot at Paramount’s Astoria Studios on Long Island. That means it’s still on the stagebound side and hemmed in by the (often lesser) technical prowess of the Long Island studio. For years it was also the one Marx Brothers picture you couldn’t see. Somehow the rights to the property had reverted to the estate of playwright George S. Kaufman, whose heirs were convinced it was worth more than the owners of the film (by this time, Universal) were willing to pony up.
You could read about it — and in great detail — but you couldn’t see it for yourself — unless you came across and were willing to shell out for a bootleg 16mm print. I did and I was willing to (the process was complicated beyond imagining, and not worth recounting here), and that was how I first saw it — in a 16mm dupe of less than sparkling quality. Truth to tell, no print known to exist is exactly sparkling, but this was worse — not that I complained, nor did my friends, nor the film class I allowed to show it. No, we all just felt very lucky — and pretty fancy — to have seen it at all. We didn’t even know that the scene where the lights go out wasn’t supposed to be so dark that you were looking at a black screen for a couple minutes — and truthfully there was an advantage to that, since you couldn’t see that whoever is supposed to be Groucho in that scene quite clearly isn’t, something that was pretty obvious on a better print. (By late 1974, the rights were straightened out and the film even reissued theatrically, despite the fact that most theaters were ill-equipped to deal with a movie this tall. In other words, heads were frequently lopped off.)
The film has little in the way of plot, which is fine, because it exists solely for the Marx Brothers to run wild at a classy weekend party being given by Long Island socialite Mrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont, of course) in honor of the “great” African explorer, Captain Geoffrey T. (it stands for Edgar) Spaulding (Groucho). Providing the entertainment are two musicians, Signor Emanuel Ravelli (Chico) and The Professor (Harpo), who mostly seem to be intererested in card-sharping and petty larceny (especially, since the rest of the orchestra seems to be non-existent). Poor Zeppo — as usual — has little to as Groucho’s secretary, Jamison. Apart from introducing his employer’s arrival and a scene where he takes dictation from Groucho, he mostly disappears from the film.
Oh, yes, there’s what passes for a story concerning a stolen painting and a romance between Mrs. Rittenhouse’s daughter (Lillian Roth) and a penniless artist (Hal Thompson), but none of this matters much. What matters is the array of great comedy routines — the ersatz Gilbert and Sullivan opening (copied in Duck Soup), the word play, the parody of Eugene O’Neill’s play Strange Interlude, the “seven cent nickel” theory, the bridge game, the piano recital that never ends, and on and on. The very fact that there is no earthly reason to believe that Captain Spaulding actually is a great explorer or has ever set foot in Africa is part of the joke. That it never occurs to anyone to doubt him makes it even better, but the fact that he goes out of his way to say things that make his legitimacy even more suspect makes it a kind of genius. What fraud would not only claim to have encountered a polar bear in Africa, and then defend the claim by saying, “This bear was anemic and couldn’t stand the cold climate. He was a rich bear and could afford to go away for the winter”? (It’s not only ridiculous, but it takes a jab at the well-heeled crowd honoring him.) There may be — no, there are — better Marx Brothers movies, but perhaps none is so rich in classic material.
The Asheville Film Society will screen Animal Crackers Tuesday, July 15 , at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.