Where Men Are Empty Overcoats (Business Without Monkeys)

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Like HORSE FEATHERS, MONKEY BUSINESS has no Margaret Dumont, but it does have Thelma Todd and it is one of the Marx Bros’ best films. While even the sublime DUCK SOUP spends long minutes (about four, maybe?) setting up its insubstantial plot (“and waiting for Groucho is agony”), this one gets to the brothers after a few seconds of stuffed-shirt exposition, and then we have to wait twenty minutes for anything resembling a plot at all to show its bashful face. This makes my life hard since I have sworn to write about the Marx Bros films while avoiding mentioning the Marx Bros, and this film has precious little non-Marxian action to speak of.

Fortunately it has Zeppo, who is an honorary non-Marx Bros on account of not being funny. While most of his roles cast him as a secretary or son to Groucho (which speaks of some kind of CHINATOWNesque family relations), here he’s an equal partner as stowaway, which means we can’t have the fun of Groucho mistreating him shamefully at every turn. Indeed Groucho and Chico get on pretty well too, partners in crime rather than competitors as is often the case. Even half of the brothers being hired as bodyguards and half as hitmen doesn’t cause any internecine disagreeableness.

That’s the plot out the way, but I was going to say that this film has Zeppo’s one funny moment on screen, swearing with a completely straight face that he is Maurice Chevalier, despire all evidence to the contrary. Apart from his unobtrusive good timing with Groucho, this may be the one bit of genetic evidence we have that Zeppo wasn’t swapped at birth. Of course, Zeppo could have been a great comedian but he never had anything to work with — no schtick of his own, and no gags — so we’ll never know.

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Kudos to Davison Clark as the customs official in one of Fiona’s favourite scenes (the others all involve Thelma Todd). Clark was able to jump from Marx Bros madness (he’s a finance minister in DUCK SOUP too) to the more rarified insanity of Von Sternberg melos, signifying a flexible, tolerant spirit.

The IMDb doesn’t seem to have identified the stuntman who does the great fall on the ship’s deck, but I wonder if he’s there because he’s also doubling for Chico? I can’t believe this is really Chico. If I were Chico, I wouldn’t be Chico for this shot.

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The movie has two rival gangsters, who aren’t very interesting, and two romantic interests, or three if we count the calf Harpo befriends in the final scene.

Speaking of the climax, this guy’s terrible, I think. He knows he’s in a comedy and is playing up to it. The best Marxian stooges are able to project an air of obliviousness so powerful that, in Margaret Dumont’s case, Grouch was able to claim it as genuine.

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Ruth Hall is cute, though her extremely tight marcel wave crenellations did give Fiona eyestrain. She gets a perfunctory romance with Zeppo, which fortunately wastes little screen time. Hall married cinematographer Lee Garmes and lived to be 93, and I say good for her.

Thelma Todd — beautiful, funny, tragic — is a delight as always, and seems to be enjoying the hell out of her scenes with Groucho They both independently announce their desire to ha-cha-cha-cha, so they are evidently soul-mates. Too bad she’s not in on the climax, but as she’s married to the bad guy there’s some uncertainty about what to do with her, I think. I want her to have a happy ending. I want her to ha-cha-cha-cha.

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16 Responses to “Where Men Are Empty Overcoats (Business Without Monkeys)”

  1. Briggs: Is there anything you’ve got to say before I drill you?

    Groucho: Yes, I’d like to ask you one question.

    Briggs: Go ahead.

    Groucho: Do you think that girls think less of a boy if he lets himself be kissed? I mean, don’t you think that although girls go out with boys like me — they always marry the other kind?

    —It doesn’t get any better than that.

  2. Groucho was certainly in touch with his feminine side (like Bugs, later). There’s more of it in this film, too, since he’s put up against contrasting tough guys a lot, and he seizes upon campery, correctly, as the best way to baffle and infuriate them.

  3. Delving in to Paramount’s pre-code output brings in all these Marx Bros, connections — I find the Sternberg stuff particularly amusing, not just the specific reference to An American Tragedy in Horse Feathers, but Charles Middleton’s appearance in Duck Soup which seems like “in” casting.

  4. For an interesting look at Zeppo, who many considered to be the funniest of the brothers in person, check out Victoria Wilson’s 2013 book “A Life of Barbara Stanwyck volume 1 Steel-true 1907 – 1940”. He became her agent, and close friend, in the mid 1930s after he left performing. Turns out he was a bit of a outlaw before his mother asked him to join the brothers on stage after the fifth one, Gummo, left the act. He says it probably saved his live. Look how he handles the gun that is handed him in this movie.

  5. revelator60 Says:

    Zeppo’s other funny moment onscreen is in Animal Crackers, when he’s taking dictation from Groucho and tells him “Now, uh… you said a lot of things here that I didn’t think were important, so I just omitted them.” Zeppo apparently doubled for Groucho in the stage version a few times, and according to Groucho was terrific.

    As for Monkey Business, the two bits I treasure most are Harpo stamping the Customs Officer’s head (we all want to do that at the aiport) and Groucho’s “I’m spying on youuuuu!” They exemplify the spirit of play that overrides everything else in the best Marx Brothers movies.

  6. Fiona pointed out that Harpo’s wild flinging of paperwork in the air at customs exactly matches that of the chimpanzee in the end credits of a Joe Dante-directed episode of Police Squad!

    At around 2.30
    The funniest thing ever.

  7. Note at the very end of the movie, Zeppo and the girl get her father’s blessing, and he hustles her off like a party crasher so Groucho and Chico can do the closing gag. One wonders why they didn’t make the last gag a different shot, or at least a camera move to dispose of the lovers more tidily.

  8. The last gag is pretty weak, but then Duck Soup exemplifies the principle that Marx Bros films do not so much end as stop.

  9. There’s a story I’ve seen in many Marxian reference books (practically all of which I read during my teenaged Marx-obsessive phase) about Zeppo having to understudy for Groucho during the original Broadway run of “The Cocoanuts.”

    It’s said that not only did most audience members not notice the difference, but also that Groucho stayed out an extra week or two just to give Zep a chance to show his stuff and have some fun.

  10. Groucho’s daughter, I think, tells a story about missing a performance on the one night Groucho and Chico played each other’s roles just to amuse themselves. “Did you notice?” Groucho asked, and she didn’t know what he meant, and then she was guilt-stricken at having missing this unique event.

  11. There was a television biographywhere one of the kids told a slightly different version: Prior to filming “Day at the Races”, the brothers went out with a stage revue featuring the main comic set pieces in order to time and fine-tune them (repeating a system that had been applied to “Night at the Opera”). She and a cousin or two skipped a matinee and went out for ice cream. When she got back, Groucho and Harpo wanted to know if they’d noticed the switch (the audience didn’t).

  12. One of my favorite things EVER.

  13. What a tetrrible article! I bet the book’s good, but jeez. The line about Groucho being able to find a cloud in every silver lining appears TWICE. And the idea of a writer encountering the Marxes essentially without knowing much about them, and responding freshly, is appealing, but it doesn’t play out as particularly interesting here.

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