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.
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.