‘Animal Crackers’ (1930) dir. Victor Heerman
I love the Marx Brothers. Huge fan going way back. When I was in middle school I was OBSESSED with these guys. I used to dress up like Harpo Marx with the over sized trench coat, wig – all of it. I’m not lying. I must have looked like an idiot and while that phase of my life came to an end by the 9th grade, I still adore them and believe they are absolute masters of the form.
I chose this film of theirs because for many years it was my personal favorite. Even had the poster hung up in my dorm room in college. Objectively I believe ‘A Night At The Opera’ is their best work but this is certainly a classic as well and one that really shows off their range and intelligence. For those that don’t know, the Marx Brothers have a phenomenal track record. They appear in FIVE universally recognized classics: ‘Animal Crackers’ (1930), ‘Horse Feathers’ (1932) , Duck Soup (1933) ‘A Night At The Opera’ (1935) and ‘ Day At The Races (1936). Nothing to snort at.
‘Animal Crackers’ is their second feature and follows the formula of their other early films in that the Marx Brothers themselves are more or less the protagonists. They are harmless grifters in some way, shape or form. Groucho plays one of his most legendary characters, the rakish and wise cracking Captain Spaulding and performs the classic ‘Hello, I Must Be Going’ number as well as other famous routines in this picture. The humor bounces frenetically from surreal visual gags to word play, Eugene O’ Neil references and musical bits. A Broadway hit for them before becoming a movie, the gags were well worn before filming began and they deliver them with an effortless confidence. One must give credit to the writers that backed them up on this – Morrie Ryskind, George S. Kaufman, Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. This film also contains some of the finest work between Groucho and his best sparring partner, Margaret Dumont. Her and Groucho are magic on the screen together while Harpo and Chico define themselves as the bumbling co-conspirators they would remain in subsequent films. Oh. And Zeppo is Zeppo.
In my opinion, ‘Animal Crackers’ is the best application of the early Marx Brothers format. One that lead to them breaking the boundaries of comedy, which is what they did successfully in films like this, ‘Horse Feathers’ and the imaginatively chaotic ‘Duck Soup’. However, as they are not fully developed characters but rather walking and talking gimmicks, this formula does not always lend itself to full bodied narratives and it can sometimes grow tiresome as in their films ‘The Cocoanuts’ (1929) and ‘Monkey Business’ (1931).
In 1935 under the mentorship of Iriving Thalberg at MGM the brothers became supporting characters in storylines involving young love sick couples in some sort of distress. This was a shrewd move as it provided central straight characters (made purposefully lame) for The Marx Brothers to bounce jokes off of and a linear narrative that could inspire even more jokes. This proved to be a very effective anchor for them. Gone was the anarchy but also the peril of Marx Brothers burn out. Aesthetic advantages aside – this was also a more commercial turn and it produced two bona fide classics with super box office smashes ‘A Night at The Opera’ and a ‘A Day At The Races’. After Thalberg’s passing and an unsuccessful attempt at adapting a stage play (1938’s ‘Room Service’) they returned to this formula for the very good ‘At The Circus’ in 1939 before getting bogged down by it in lesser efforts like ‘Go West’ (1940) and ‘The Big Store’ (1941). They would balance things out with their final film (I don’t count 1949’s ‘Love Happy’) the good but not great ‘A Night In Casablanca’ in 1946.
‘Animal Crackers’ is 87 years old and does not need to be watched as a historical reference piece. It is a truly hilarious kick ass comedy as it stands right now and is a testament to the legendary talents of the Marx Brothers. Watch it and laugh…