by Kathie Smith
It’s hard to remove Animal Crackers and the Marx Brothers from a certain amount of nostalgia attached to a bygone era. The handful of comedies that survive today from this sweet spot between the dawn of the talkies, in the late 20s, and the enforcement of the puritanical Hayes Code, in the early 30s, have a sort of wild abandon of innocence and innovation. This is certainly the case with Animal Crackers which, despite the paltry production and lame supporting performances, crackles non-stop with the spry verbal and physical acrobatics of Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and even Zeppo.
The Heights Theater
March 3, 2013
Director: Victor Heerman
Writer: George Kaufman (musical), Morrie Ryskind, Pierre Collings
Cinematographer: George J. Folsey
Music: Bert Klamar, Harry Ruby
Cast: Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, Zeppo Marx, Lillian Roth, Margaret Dumont, Robert Grieg
US Theatrical Release: August 28, 1930
US Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Borrowed and transcribed to the screen from a successful 1928 Broadway musical, also starring the Marx Brothers, Animal Crackers has a modest plot to accommodate the barrage of punchy one-liners and abstract visual gags. East Coast socialite Mrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont) is hosting a grand party in honor of explorer Captain Spalding (Groucho) who has recently returned from Africa. As an added bourgeois bonus, Mrs. Rittenhouse has also arranged for a special exhibition of the famous pastoral French painting, “After the Hunt.”
It takes a surprisingly long six minutes before a Marx appears, but once Captain Spalding’s field secretary (Zeppo) arrives to announce the Captain’s arrival, there’s hardly a pause in the rapid-fire who’s-on-first style dialogue. Chico and Harpo aren’t far behind playing musicians Emanuel Ravelli and the Professor. (The professor of what, we don’t know, but given Harpo’s silent debauchery, maybe we don’t want to know.) The somewhat unnecessary fracas that propels the plot appears when two guests independently hatch a plan to replace the valuable painting with a copy to, in one case, play a joke, and, in another, prove the artistic prowess of the boyfriend of Arabella Rittenhouse (Lillian Roth.)
The influence and talent of the Marx Brothers can’t be overstated, and it is all on display in Animal Crackers. Groucho works as a one-man show, tossing insults and oddities faster than you can possibly process them and breaking the forth wall by talking to the camera in clever asides. But it’s the comedic chemistry of Chico and Harpo that continues to feel fresh and strange 8o years on. In one scene, the two men are continually trying to place their legs in the hands of the people they are talking to. Why? Who knows, but it’s irresistibly hilarious. As is Harpo’s confusion (and our own) to Chico’s request for “a flash.” Harpo produces a fish, a flask, a flute, a flit and a flush from his bottomless supply of bric-a-brac from his coat before realizing what Chico wants is a flashlight. Vaudeville in nature, here lies the comedy sketch at its most brilliant.
Animal Crackers won’t be the tawdriest pre-code film you will see, but it certainly has moments that would not have made it past the censors a mere four years later. Groucho’s proposal that he and two women all get married would likely be seen as sexual promiscuity (“We three would make an ideal couple!”), and the overacting involved in Chico gut punching Mrs. Rittenhouse would no doubt get the red pen for implied violence. Far from offensive, such scenes are instead an example of the Marx Brother’s full embrace of absurdity with some mild 1930s boys-will-be-boys rambunctiousness attached. Stage-like in its production and slightly less polished that their later works, the Marx’s Animal Crackers is nothing short of essential viewing for its ingenious play with language, action and cinematic form that will, to paraphrase Groucho Marx, “Sweep you off my feet.”