Unnecessary Movie Review: Animal Crackers (1930)

In which I finally watch a DVD I’ve owned for years, long after doing so could have any meaning.

Why’d I Buy It?

In late 2009 (probably) I paid $7 to see a double feature of Marx Brothers movies at the New Beverly Cinema and I laughed almost continuously for 3 hours, in the middle of a packed house of maybe 200 people all laughing almost continuously. A few months later I went back when they showed a third Marx Brothers movie. I’d never seen any of their movies before, and they were amazing! In March 2010, Amazon discounted a Marx Brothers box set to $26 (I think it was a Gold Box deal) so I jumped. Animal Crackers is in the set.

Why’d I Never Watch It?

The titles of their movies have nothing to do with the movies. There were no ducks or soups in Duck Soup, nary a feather in Horse Feathers. (Nor a horse.) As a result, I didn’t really track the titles, and the first movie I tried to watch from the box set turned out to be one I’d seen. And it turned out to be not as funny as it had been in the theater. I wasn’t taken by surprise by the dizzying wordplay or silly stunts or sly mugging. And it bummed me out to suspect that maybe a good part of my enjoyment had depended on sitting with 200 laughing people. Let’s face it, some movies are a very different experience on a big screen, with a big audience sharing the reactions – maybe these DVDs needed to be a social occasion.

In the theater, it was this all around me:

So I decided I’d let the box set sit. Maybe there’d come a night I was in the right mood; I’d forget the jokes; maybe one of my friends would finally say, “Yes, let’s watch a movie from 1930.” That was hopeless, though. People don’t want to watch a thing from 1930. “Movies didn’t get good until 1984!”—people. “Footloose! Cocktail! The Last Starfighter!”—as they keep talking. My friends are the worst. Anyway this is a prehistoric film that a lot of people have not felt motivated to see, including me.

Now, thanks to artdorkgirl telling me to Stop, Drop, [Eat a] Roll, I know what I’ve been missing.

First, there is no plot. There is an incident! The police are called! But the Marx Brothers are never in jeopardy, and never want anything. I think those are two requirements for a plot? To some extent, characters do interact – but more accurately, what we’ve got here is a supporting cast that clutches its pearls as the Marx Brothers careen through their mansion. There is a love story between two supporting players, but it’s so peripheral the Marx Brothers aren’t even aware of it. Plot, pshaw – the whole movie exists just to let us watch the MBs mess around for 97 minutes. It opens with a song.

The song is sung by a troupe of butlers setting up for a party. The main butler, Hives, sings to them to do their best because the party’s in honor of a great man arriving soon. The troupe sings back, “We’ll make sure he gets what he deserves!” It’s pretty cheeky and it neatly sets the butlers up to be a source of comedic interaction with the great man (Groucho, Explorer of Africa). But oops, here’s what actually happens: nothing. At no point is this song followed up on. The butler troupe never appears again, and Hives never undermines Groucho. Turns out the movie just liked the funny lyric so it got included. Movie, that kind of chaos is only going to take you so far.

But movie does not heed my warning. Don’t expect it to hang together! Don’t hope any dots will be connected. It is just lots of one-offs. Usually funny! But it wore me down how nonsequitery it all is: Groucho makes his big entrance and sings a song called “Hello, I Must Be Going.” It’s a charming song. But… does it have anything to do with the plot, or his character (Captain Spaulding, explorer of Africa)? It DOES give him a chance to do a silly dance. It’s fun, and then we’re moving on, so shut up, me.

Ah, before we move on, let’s take a gander at Groucho’s actual entrance. Captain Spaulding’s, that is, arriving from Africa. So, naturally:

Miraculously, he saves it: when the litter stops, he gets out and says to one of the carriers, “What do I owe you?” Then protests: “From Africa to here, $1.85!? That’s an outrage! I told you not to take me through Australia… You should have come right up Lincoln Boulevard!” So that’s a laugh, and the litter carrier gets treated approximately like everyone else who is not a Marx Brother.

After Groucho’s song, Chico enters. His character is musician Emanuel Revelli, here to play the party. Chico’s persona (you are perhaps aware) is a fake Italian accent. If his career today was built on, say, a fake Mexican accent, it might be offensive!  But forget it, Jake, it’s 1930town.  He’s likeable, and he gets into nice banter with Groucho right away:

Finally, Hives the Butler announces the arrival of “The Professor”…

Harpo, of course, steals a page from the Penn & Teller playbook and never speaks. That should get old, but it works because he somehow keeps topping himself. EXAMPLE: The butler takes his cape, and he’s got nothing but underwear on under it.  I did not see that coming. Pandemonium erupts!  (Evidently in 1930, seeing shorts was a real shocker.) THEN what?? He grabs a gun from Captain Spaulding’s gun rack and starts firing into the crowd. Everyone scatters, screaming. Trust me when I tell you this is funny.

Now we’ve met our MBs (Zeppo is in this, but he doesn’t have a persona. He’s just kind of a guy). So, on with it!  Well, like I said, we are pretty thin on plot. There is not much on with it.  Captain Spaulding is here to be feted by the wealthy Mrs. Rittenhouse, who also will be unveiling a priceless painting by the master Beaugard. We briefly meet two socialites who used to employ Hives, and one of them is a former art student who decides to prank Mrs. Rittenhouse by asking Hives to swap out the priceless Beaugard for a copy she made in her arty days. This is the whole plot! We spend two minutes on it, and then cut to Groucho creeping on Mrs. Rittenhouse.

He proposes marriage, insincerely, and when another woman interrupts, he proposes to include her. His proposal goes on for six enjoyable minutes. “You girls have got everything. You’re tall and short and slim and stout, and blonde and brunette, and that’s just the kind of girl I crave. We three would make an ideal couple.” In the middle of it he steps toward the camera and delivers several fake Eugene O’Neill monologues – I think? I mean, he says “If I were Eugene O’Neill I could tell you what I really think!” and then he does the first one, all fake-serious O’Neillian drama. It gets surreal. It is amazing, and it ends with Mrs. Rittenhouse cluelessly warbling the platitude, “I think marriage is a very noble institution!” to which Groucho straight up right to her face whinnies like a horse.

That is kind of… dark?  Mrs. Rittenhouse is such a dud, though.  Groucho has made some innuendo-y dirty jokes in his proposal, I think — but I can’t be sure that isn’t just my own filthy, awful mind imagining them, because her reactions are no help.  They are the worst grab-bag of awkward poses and silent-movie eyerolls and approving chuckles. It seems to go beyond her character being the kind of nitwit who’d warble “noble institution”; it edges into maybe the actress didn’t really get this scene. He finishes his skewering proposal,  leaves her for younger women, and she actually exclaims “Isn’t he so charming!”  What did we just watch?  It is probably the best scene in the movie and it’s a mess.

Meanwhile what that guy is flabbergasted by is some good stuff: “The nickel today is not what it was 15 years ago. Do you know what this country needs? A seven-cent nickel. Yessiree, we’ve been using the five-cent nickel in this country since 1492. Now that’s pretty near 100 years, daylight savings. Why not give the seven-cent nickel a chance? If it works out, next year we can have an eight-cent nickel. Think what that would mean! You could go to a newsstand, buy a three-cent newspaper, and get the same nickel back as change. One nickel, carefully used, would last a family a lifetime.” He rattles this off so fast you almost miss it.

But the movie is all him rattling along and everyone around him turning to the audience looking consternated. A lot of the speeches are objectively funny (I don’t care who you are). But again and again his routine falls on comedy partners not equal to it.  And that makes the routine somehow exhausting.

Not helping: none of it ties into anything. They wrote a funny speech about a nickel so they had him deliver it, that’s all. He could have said it in any scene to any character, or in a different movie. It’s not tied to anything.

We’re about an hour in, and there’s been no songs since “Hello, I Must Be Going.” So it’s not really a musical, it’s chaos with a song in it. But now here’s a musical interlude: Chico plays piano at the party. We watch him play for 5 minutes. There’s a closeup on his hands for one minute and it might genuinely be the most charming part of the movie. It is also really necessary — I needed a break from all the reaction-faces.

Eventually we circle back to the plot. The Beaugard painting is unveiled and it is the fake put up by Hives. But when Hives goes to fetch the original, it’s missing. Oh—there’s also a struggling artist, and Harpo put his copy of the Beaugard in the frame. So there’s two fakes and one real painting.

Then we cut away from the plot to watch Harpo play the harp, because this movie isn’t really about paintings.  It’s about giving the Marx Brothers the stage.

Post-harp we get back to the plot. Sorta.

Some of the banter is working so hard. There’s an endless sequence that depends on Chico asking for a flashlight and mispronouncing it “flesh,” but no one ever called a flashlight a flash, so what he should be saying is “fleshlight,” but he’s not, because then no endless sequence of Harpo handing him a fish, etc. (“Fleshlight” would be a legit comedy choice today; I wonder how Madame Reaction Faces would handle that.) Then there’s the scene where Groucho is upset he lost a horse, and “also the bit you lent me.” So Frau Reactions says “I’ll get you another bit,” enabling Groucho to zing, “That’ll be two bits I owe you.” Lie down, movie, and just think about your life for a minute.

The last 20 minutes feel so tired. Please end. I don’t care how. Groucho tries to figure out who’s stolen the painting by listening to Chico talk nonsense, they wedge in 20 seconds of singing, silly costumes for zero reason, the cops decide to arrest Struggling Artist, Harpo intervenes and hands over the original painting (which he’s had all along). Everyone is pleased. Then lunatic Harpo pulls out a pesticide-sprayer filled with knockout gas and knocks out the whole cast. He’s sneaking away when he sees a pretty girl knocked out. So he sprays himself and passes out in her passed-out arms.

Closing Argument

There was a real chance I would love this.  But here’s my controversial, unnecessary opinion: This is not a great movie. This is a bunch of routines – some of which are great — strung together and facilitated by a thankless supporting cast of setter-uppers and eye-rollers and pearl-clutchers. Hives I liked, and Struggling Artist’s fiancee; but Madame Reactions, give me a break! And Zeppo phones it in. Being a Marx Brother is just not his thing. Well, that’s okay. Even these guys, near the end, look sick of it:

Gavel Bang! Rank It!

Duck Soup, my favorite Marx Brothers movie because of the mirror sequence, is DVD #159. I should rewatch that – it might move up. But this one probably won’t. I’d rewatch two or three amazing sequences — but the space between them is not 100% compelling.  Animal Crackers moves onto the Ranked DVDs list at #256. That’s just under the surprisingly soft-hearted Howard Stern comedy Private Parts, which has a fairly dated fixation on lesbians, and just above historic indie sex, lies, and videotape, which is sometimes engrossing, sometimes tedious, and overall dated. I give this movie One animal cracker, because if I don’t, it won’t have any.

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About hotspur

hotspur is the videogum name of Luke Rooney, who usually makes the Kessel Run in 17 or 18 parsecs because, like, what is the rush? We will get to Kessel when we get to Kessel, just sit down and enjoy the run for chrissakes.
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30 Responses to Unnecessary Movie Review: Animal Crackers (1930)

  1. Casey says:

    Even thought it tired you out, this makes me want to watch some Marx Bros movies. I guess I should start with Duck Soup? I don’t really know.

    Also, I lurve the New Beverly Cinema, although I haven’t been there since it was renovated, so I dunno if the “hey, cool, this whole theater is turning into mold around me” charm is still intact or not.

  2. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the name of the movie I’m about to describe, but: a few years ago, my mom and I were hanging out and watching TV and we stumbled across this very old movie (definitely 30s or earlier) about a woman who…does…er, stuff. Okay, so I can’t remember the plot either. But I do remember that it was HILARIOUS. We laughed so hard. And I’m not going to go all nostalgia on everyone’s ass and say that movies were funnier before the trend began to turn towards cruder humor, because I’m definitely not above enjoying pervy or gross jokes on occasion. But it did definitely seem like the jokes, including the visual gags, were more creative than a lot of what you see in movies now on account of them not being able to coast on the “edgy” factor.

    ANYWAY, that is only tangentially related to this, which sounds meh. I never knew that Harpo actually played the harp, either.

    • Casey says:

      Now I must also know what this stuff-doing-woman movie was called. Are there any other clues? A particular zinger that stuck in your head and could be googled?

      • I just googled the details I did remember, and I think this might be it: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0025493/ I’m not 100% sure, though. I do remember one scene where the woman perks up and changes all her dreary black clothing/furnishings to white ones, including exchanging her little black dog for a little white dog, which doesn’t sound that funny but the way it was done had us literally wheezing.

        • Casey says:

          I hope that’s it, because just the idea of the dog-switching scene made me laugh in real life just now.

        • The more I’m reading about it, the more I’m convinced that this is the one. Sites keep mentioning a notable waltz scene and I definitely remember a really beautifully choreographed waltz sequence.

        • hotspur says:

          Ohhh, if that IS it, I saw one by the same director — Trouble In Paradise. It’s a romance between jewel thieves and in my memory it has the greatest dialog of any movie I’ve ever seen. It was so good, I’m kind of afraid to rewatch it and be wrong.

          Maybe I’ll try your Merry Widow instead.

        • I know, now that I’ve talked it up I’m worried to watch it again and find out it’s not as good as I remembered!

        • catweazle says:

          I seem to remember Trouble in Paradise being my favorite of the black and white movies we watched in my Intro to Film class.

    • flanny says:

      Oh, tangentially related to your tangent. A few years ago for a class I watched My Man Godfrey (1936), and it was very funny and enjoyable. But somewhere, either on YouTube or maybe on the DVD, I found the outtakes, and they were more enjoyable because the actors would drop the weird oddly stiff and formal way they all had on camera back then and be real people for a second. I remember in particular Carole Lombard delivering her lines in that very fast Katherine Hepburn way and then getting her tongue all twisted up and she just exclaimed “SHIT!” and laughed like a normal person while people scurried around to get everything back in place in the scene. Delightful!

      • hotspur says:

        My Man Godfrey is a good one! I’ll have to look for the outtakes. I watched that at this same theater AAAnd bought the DVD (#134). I don’t know enough film history to be sure, but I like to think Carole Lombard invents the Manic Pixie Dream Girl in that movie.

      • Ooh, I’ll have to look those up! I’ve often wondered about old movie bloopers.

  3. Simon Spidermonk says:

    I totally agree about these movies needing to be watched with a crowd to really “get it.” I read a biography of Groucho Marx a long time ago and found him so interesting that I watched a whole bunch of Marx Brothers movies in a very short time. Duck Soup and A Night At The Opera for sure, and a few other ones. Probably this one but I forget. For a while I’d sit there with a big idiot grin on my face – never actually laughing out loud, but definitely entertained – and then exhaustion would set in. By the end of Duck Soup – their masterwork – I felt like I was watching a toddler bang pots and pans together. I just wanted it to go to bed. And what made it worse was that I could imagine how this would have played in a theatre of the 1930s, with the audience laughing so hard as shit got crazier and crazier that they would have been giddy from oxygen deprivation as much as anything else. Which made me feel isolated. So now whenever I think of the Marx Brothers I get a bit bummed out.

    Also, your one typo – “5 yeats” instead of “5 years” – made me smile as I imagined what unit of time a yeat would be. I decided that it’s the time it takes the rough beast to travel one mile as it slouches towards Bethlehem. (Thanks, English major!)

    • hotspur says:

      RELATED: “Give me five bees for a quarter, you’d say.”

      • Simon Spidermonk says:

        Took me longer to get this than it should have, considering that Grandpa Simpson is my favourite Simpson.

        • hotspur says:

          Probably just got too loud in your glade to think straight. (It doesn’t help that I have a habit of being pointlessly obscure.)

          Meanwhile, I’ve been planning to reply a second time to your post, just to say that it is True. Yes.

      • Commentatrix says:

        BEADS!

        Hahaha, this would have KILLED yesterday!

  4. When I’m not so busy at work I will read this. I love the Marx Brothers a lot, way more than the Three Stooges. Haven’t seen this movie in years but I think it was my favorite. Or maybe Coconuts? They’re all great.

  5. Sota says:

    I love the Marx Brothers. Duck Soup is clearly the best one. I would totally have watched this dvd with you and laughed even though it’s weak on plot. HOORAY FOR CAPTAIN SPALDING THE AFRICAN EXPLORER! DID SOMEONE CALL ME SNORER? HOORAY HOORAY HOORAY. (Are those the words? Thats the way I always say it.)

    I might just have a thing for dad jokes. The one about shooting an elephant in his pajamas is good. Oh and how “we were up and had breakfast by 7:30, it got so we were back in bed by 8″…whatever that actual dialogue is great. (I butchered all of that…I know.)

    • hotspur says:

      Your memory is TIGHT. And the breakfast joke was one of my actual LOLs.

      The elephant in the pajamas is a huge classic so it got more a reaction of “Ohhhh, that line’s in this movie!”

      • Sota says:

        Is the line about “$500 for ice? For $500 ill buy an eskimo and make my own ice” from this one. I think I need to rewatch these. I used to watch them with my Dad as a kid.

        • hotspur says:

          I will guess Horse Feathers for that line. (HF has a scene in a speakeasy, so I’m playing the odds w/r/t presence of ice.)

  6. artdorkgirl says:

    Going to throw in my two cents and strongly suggest you all check out The Thin Man series (at least the first 3). William Powell! Myrna Loy!! A dog that eats clues! They are fab and are pretty much my favorite movies.

    Also! Glad you sort of enjoyed this one Hotspur! Sorry it couldn’t rise above Howard Stern…

    • The Thin Man movies are so great!

    • hotspur says:

      William Powell was excellent in Godfrey. Myrna Loy I don’t know anything about except there used to be a statue of her in front of Venice High, which played Rydell High in Grease (so she is also excellent?). I will investigate these Thin Men. (Thin Mans?)

    • mrsberesford says:

      I love The Thin Man! I’m also going to throw in a good word for The Lady Eve, in which saucy card shark Barbara Stanwyck accidentally falls in love with snake researcher Henry Fonda while trying to scam him. Hijinks ensue!

  7. old man fatima says:

    I discovered the Marx brothers when I was 14 and Punk Rock and honestly thought I was getting an VHS from the library on communism, which I thought was the same as anarchism. ANYWAY, I’m a bit afraid to watch any now because I have such fond memories of them and I don’t want to find out it was just because I was all “artsy” and disenfranchised or whatever, like “I only watch comedies made before 1936”

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