Saturday, January 18, 2014

Stubs – Animal Crackers

Animal Crackers (1930) Starring: Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, Zeppo Marx, Margaret Dumont, Lillian Roth. Directed by Victor Heerman. Screenplay by Morrie Ryskind, Based on a Musical Play by George S. Kaufman, Bert Kalmar, Morrie Ryskind and Harry Ruby,  Run Time: 97 minutes. U.S.  Black and White. Comedy

Like the Marx Brothers’ first film, The Cocoanuts (1929), Animal Crackers was based on a Broadway musical the Brothers had starred in for 191 performances. The original production of Animal Crackers in October 1928 was filmed two years later in Paramount’s Astoria Studios in New York. After this film, the Brothers would move to Hollywood.

The Four Marx Brothers: Chico, Groucho, Harpo and Zeppo.

While Horse Feathers moved along at a brisk clip, Animal Crackers has more plot and more characters which means the Brothers are not on screen as much as they were in Horse Feathers. A Marx Brothers film without the Marx Brothers on screen suffers without them.

In Animal Crackers, Captain Spaulding (Groucho Marx), a famous African explorer, is the houseguest of Mrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont), a rich Long Island widow. But in addition to Spaulding and his personal secretary Horatio Jamison (Zeppo Marx), Mrs. Rittenhouse is showcasing a famous painting, Out for The Hunt, owned by art connoisseur Roscoe W. Chandler (Louis Sorin) to impress her many guests.

Captain Spaulding (Groucho Marx) makes his entrance at Mrs. Rittenhouse's (Margaret Dumont) house.

The musicians Mrs. Rittenhouse has hired for her soiree, Emanuel Ravelli (Chico Marx) and the Professor (Harpo Marx), arrive a day early. And apparently it is cheaper to let them play than pay them not to; they charge either way.

Emanuel Ravelli (Chico Marx) and the Professor (Harpo Marx) are hired as musicians.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Rittenhouse’s daughter, Arabella (Lillian Roth) is in love with John Parker (Hal Thompson), an unknown artist. He can’t afford to marry her on what little he makes selling his paintings. It turns out he made his own copy of the painting while he was student. Arabella hatches the idea of switching John’s painting for the original as a way to showcase his work to Chandler. Arabella gets Ravelli and the Professor to help with her scheme.

But they aren’t the only two who think of making a switch-a-roo. A rival society matron, Mrs. Whitehead (Margaret Irving), whose daughter Grace (Kathryn Reece) had also made a copy of the painting. They get the idea of showing up Mrs. Rittenhouse by replacing Grace’s painting for the original. Mrs. Whitehead convinces Mrs. Rittenhouse’s butler Hives (Robert Greig), who used to work for the Whitehead household, to help her.
Ravelli and the Professor recognize Chandler as a former fish peddler. Chandler denies it, but Ravelli and the Professor find a tell-tale birthmark. Ravelli blackmails Chandler to keep his true identity from the high society crowd he’s been trying to fit in with. Chandler escapes but not before Ravelli manages to steal Chandler’s tie and the Professor his birthmark.

The Professor and Ravelli recognize Roscoe Chandler (Louis Sorin) as a former fish peddler.

During a thunderstorm, the musicians steal the original and replace it with John Parker’s copy. Later, Hives, working on Mrs. Whitehead’s behalf, replaces that one with Grace’s copy. The rouse is discovered as soon as the painting is unveiled following Spaulding’s lecture and Ravelli’s piano interlude with an assist from the Professor on the horse shoes.

Ravelli and The Professor get involved in switching paintings.

Chandler is naturally appalled to find that his painting has been replaced with a rank imitation. But when the lights go out, even the rank imitation goes missing. Mrs. Whitehead and daughter are very pleased that they have disrupted Mrs. Rittenhouse’s party, but Hives is nervous that the police will be called, as it turns out he has a record. Mrs. Whitehead offers to take the painting, but when Hives goes to retrieve it, he finds that it is gone as well. Mrs, Whitehead is convinced that the Professor is the thief. Hives suggests they use chloroform to subdue the Professor and the three set out to find him.

John and Arabella have their own post-heist conversation. Arabella is glad that John’s painting was taken rather than the real one. John is at first upset, but they quickly make up and break into song, “Why Am I So Romantic?” which Harpo continues on the harp.

The next morning, Arabella tells Ravelli that he needs to put the painting back before the police arrive. But when he goes to get it from the chest of drawers he put it in, they find that it is also missing. Ravelli suspects that Chandler has taken it and they go looking for him.

When Captain Spaulding finds out the police are here, he has Jamison take a letter to be sent to his lawyer, Charles H. Hungadunger at Hungadunger, Hungadunger, Hungadunger, Hungadunger and McCormick. Typically it is a rambling nonsense letter, which Jamison edits down.

Jamison (Zeppo Marx) takes a letter to Hungadunger, Hungadunger, Hungadunger, Hugnadunger and McCormick.

The police arrive in the form of Inspector Hennessey (Edward Metcalf). At Mrs. Rittenhouse’s request, Jamison takes the police to the scene of the crime. Mrs. Rittenhouse tries to appease Captain Spaulding for having disrupted his weekend, but he won’t hear any of it and storms off.

After a brief conversation with Mrs. Rittenhouse, Mrs. Whitehead talks with Hives, who has not been able to get back the painting because the Professor never slept in his room. But they immediately spy the Professor sleeping on a bench, using the painting as a blanket and one of the copies as a pillow. When Hives and Mrs. Whitehead knock him out and search him, they take one of the copies. But the Professor, a notorious skirt chaser, is only out until an unidentified party guest walks by. He chases her until she locks herself in a room. Planning on waiting her out, the Professor overhears John and Arabella talking about the painting. John tells her that he just found a copy of the painting out on the terrace. He doesn’t know it, but he’s found Grace’s copy. But the Professor beats John to his room and takes the copy back.

While Arabella is relating John’s story to Spaulding, John tells her that the painting he’d found is now missing. A red hair Spaulding finds points to the Professor and Spaulding tells Hennessy to find the Professor. But the parade of police includes a uniformed Professor who drops the purloined painting as he passes. Ravelli happens by and he offers to help Spaulding to solve the mystery, before sending John to take the copy back to his room.

And the police find the forgery in John’s room which disappoints Chandler. While the police go to find John, the Professor finds the chloroform and puts it in a sprayer, which will come up later.

In the film’s finale, with all the partygoers gathered, the police are about to arrest John, when everyone, including the Professor, confess to their involvement with the stolen painting. The Professor has both John’s forgery and the real painting on him. Never mind where he gets them. Chandler is over joyed to get back his painting, but also to discover John’s talent and hires him on the spot to paint his portrait.

Chandler gets back his painting and discovers John Parker's (Hal Thompson) artistic talent.

As Spaulding is convincing Hennessy not to arrest the Professor, Mrs. Rittenhouse’s silverware starts to fall out of the Professor’s sleeve. A few pieces at first, then a shower of knives, spoons and forks and then finally serving pieces fall from his coat. Hennessy is now convinced he has to arrest the Professor, but before he can take him in, the Professor takes out his sprayer of chloroform and knocks everyone out, including himself, but making sure he lands in the arms of a beautiful houseguest.

While Animal Crackers has the witty and fast paced dialogue you’d expect from a Marx Brother’s movie, it seems more like a stage production. The plot, with its three paintings, is a little convoluted and sort of slows down the normally frenetic action of the Brothers.

There are several memorable songs and scenes in the film. We actually get to see Zeppo play more than his usual straight man as he holds his own with Groucho in the Hungadunger letter writing scene. Two songs from the film “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” and “I Must Be Going” are classics. While “Hooray” came from the stage musical, “I Must Be Going” was written for the film. Both are written by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, a songwriting team responsible for songs in Horse Feathers and Duck Soup. In addition to their work with the Marx Brothers, Kalmar and Ruby wrote such early hits as “Who’s Sorry Now?” (1923), “I Wanna Be Loved by You” (1928) and “Three Little Words” (1930).

Besides the Marx Brothers, Louis Sorin (Roscoe W. Chandler), Robert Greig (Hives) and Margaret Dumont (Mrs. Rittenhouse) reprised their roles from the Broadway stage in the film.  Animal Crackers was Greig’s first appearance on film and he would later appear with the Brothers in Horse Feathers (1932). Greig would also appear in a trio of Preston Sturges films: The Lady Eve (1941), Sullivan’s Travels (1941), The Palm Beach Story (1942); as well as The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945).

Margaret Dumont was a staple in Marx Brothers productions on both stage and screen. She had already been an actress in Vaudeville and on Broadway when writer George S. Kaufman hired her to appear as Mrs. Potter in the stage production of The Cocoanuts in 1925. She would also appear in the movie version in 1929. She also appeared in Duck Soup (1933), A Night at the Opera (1935), A Day at the Races (1937), At the Circus (1939) and The Big Store (1941). She played Groucho’s wealthy and regal sponsor and/or love interest in most of these films. Watching her on screen, she appears that she doesn’t know what’s about to happen, but of all people she must have been used to Groucho’s improvisations and being the butt of his jokes and on-screen insults. So important was she to the Marx Brothers, that when Groucho was presented an honorary Oscar, he mentioned her and not Zeppo in his acceptance speech.

Margaret Dumont (r) was a staple in Marx Brothers stage plays and movies.

Dumont would also play a similar character with other comedians, such as W.C. Fields, Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, Red Skelton and Jack Benny. Her final screen appearance was as Shirley MacLaine’s mother in What a Way to Go! (1964), but she is best remembered for her work with the Marx Brothers. Her final appearance on TV was taped just eight days before her death in 1965. She appeared and performed an adaptation of the opening sequence from Animal Crackers on The Hollywood Palace opposite Groucho, who was the guest host for that week’s show. She died of a heart attack in March, 1965.

Everything we come to love about a Marx Brothers film is here. Groucho’s quick witted double entendre laced dialogue, Harpo’s silent but sound and prop enhanced humor and Chico’s scheming confidence man routine are all on full display here. So is the musical talents of Chico on piano and Harpo on, well, harp.

While there is much to love about the film, at over 90 minutes, it seems a little long. And it drags whenever the Brothers aren’t on screen for more than a few minutes. While this is not my favorite Marx Brothers movie, it is definitely worth watching a time or two or three.

The Marx Brothers always try to entertain.

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