(WARNING: Major spoilers ahead!)
Animal Crackers, besides being about a ton funnier than its predecessor The Cocoanuts, is quite elucidating on the matter of what constituted a hit Broadway show in the 1920’s. From singing butlers to unmemorable tunes warbled by equally unmemorable love interests, it feels like this movie version of the stage show did not leave a darned…thing…out.
History tells us that the Marx Brothers were such a sensation, in their previous shows as well as this one, that the “straight” leads, and loads of exposition, were needed to offset their dynamic effect. Film-buff viewing, on the other hand, tells us that the Marxes ought to arrive on-screen a whole lot sooner than they do here.
The movie’s “straight” story is that Mrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont), a rich Long Island dame, is hosting a big shindig to both honor an African explorer named Geoffrey Spaulding (Groucho–and it’s spelled “Geoffrey” right in the opening scene, not “Jeffrey”) and to unveil a famous and valuable painting she has acquired. Unfortunately for Mrs. R., the painting gets stolen before the opening, and nearly everyone in the movie gets involved in trying to find it.
Of course, hindsight has its benefits. Still, I don’t know of anyone who watches Animal Crackers nowadays and says afterwards, “Wow, how about that mystery about the painting? I was on the edge of my seat waiting for them to get it back!” I’m not so sure anybody really cared about it 85 years ago, either. For one thing, when you’ve got a Marx Brother (Harpo) who can steal a man’s birthmark right off his arm, who cares about the theft of such an Earthly thing as a painting?
(Harpo also gives us a glimpse into his unique love life. When a woman asks if there’s anything he really loves, Harpo produces a photo of a horse. It must have been a pretty steady and serious relationship; he kisses the horse two years later in Horse Feathers and sleeps with her in Duck Soup a year after that. No word on whether they broke up after she saw Harpo riding another horse in A Day at the Races.)
Funny thing about that painting, too. Even though it’s said to be immensely valuable, the thieves and others carry it around with all the finesse of someone shoving a Post-It note in his pocket. Curators at the Louvre must have been flipping out when they saw how this “priceless” work of art was being manhandled.
So much for the plot–let’s get to the good stuff. Groucho’s a hoot. He carries on and on to anyone who will listen to tales about his fearless adventures, even though he faints in front of everyone when he discovers that a caterpillar has crawled onto his sleeve. And Margaret Dumont is the most straight-faced straightman (sorry, straight-person) you’ll ever see. Whenever she’s confronted with one of Groucho’s ever-increasing anti-social behaviors, she just clucks it off and shakes her head, as though Groucho was just some poor guy with Tourette’s Syndrome who couldn’t help himself.
Chico and Harpo are a delight, too. After seeing their first burglary attempt turn out completely laughless in The Cocoanuts, it’s a relief to find that their attempt in this movie to steal the painting is so hysterical that they repeated the motif in later movies. When they’re trying to steal the painting in the dark, and Chico keeps asking Harpo for “the flash” (flashlight), Harpo reaches into that ethereal jacket of his and pulls out everything but the flash. (Speaking of flash, Harpo has an opening scene that’s one for the books.)
And Zeppo, for all of his maligned place in the annals of Marx history, has a great scene with Groucho dictating a letter to him. He’s probably the only guy on the planet who could destroy Groucho’s letter, paragraph by paragraph, and not come out of it skinned alive.
Animal Crackers is the kind of movie for which the term “photographed stage play” was invented. Still, it’s a heartily funny photographed stage play.