Animal Crackers (1930)

“Now then, Captain, I think between the two of us we can solve the mystery of the stolen painting — especially if you go home.”

Synopsis:
A world-renowned African explorer (Groucho Marx) is feted by a society woman (Margaret Dumond), who is eager to show off a valuable painting which various people — including her own daughter (Lillian Roth) — are intent on replacing with a forgery.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Animal Crackers was the Marx Brothers’ second movie, and — like their debut film, The Cocoanuts — also a filmed version of one of their hit Broadway musicals.
Peary notes that when it was re-released in 1974 “amid great fanfare” (Paramount had allowed its licenses to expire, so it hadn’t been shown in theaters since the 1950s), “critics were so happy to see another Marx Brothers picture that they overpraised it”. He argues (and I agree) that “overall it’s a disappointing film, where the innocuous art-theft plot gets in the way of the comedy”. With that said, I disagree with Peary that the film “come[s] to a dead halt when Chico plays the piano” (I’m actually tickled by Groucho and Dumont’s reactions to his repetitive rendition of his theme song, “I’m Daffy Over You”); or when “romantic leads Hal Thompson and Lillian Roth… sing a duet” (Thompson IS instantly forgettable, but Roth — “the pretty actress-singer who’d become an alcoholic” and was later portrayed by Susan Hayward in 1955’s I’ll Cry Tomorrow — is positively infectious, and well worth waiting for whenever she appears on-screen).

In the remainder of his review, Peary calls out numerous “comedic highlights”, including “Groucho leading the guests in a rousing ‘Hooray for Captain Spaulding’, which would become his television theme song” (though all I could think about during this ditty was how much it sounds like it belongs in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta), and “Groucho recalling his trip to Africa” (‘The first morning saw us up at six, breakfasted, and back in bed at seven — this was our routine for the first three months’)”. While Peary notes that it’s “a nice change of pace watching Dumont play scenes with Harpo and Chico, and not just Groucho”, I’ll admit I’m less a fan of their particular routines here — though it is a delight to see the finale of the infamous bridge scene, in which it’s revealed that Harpo has stolen Margaret Irving’s heels (nb: he shows up wearing a dress later on as well). Pun lovers, by the way, will be in absolute heaven while watching Animal Crackers; just wait until you hear the one about removing tusks in Tuscaloosa…

Note: See the “Re-Release” section of Wikipedia’s article to read more about the film’s celebrated emergence from obscurity.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Plenty of appealingly surreal scenarios
  • Groucho dictating a letter to Zeppo
  • Chico playing his trademark song, “I’m Daffy Over You”
  • Margaret Dumont as Mrs. Rittenhouse
  • Lillian Roth as Arabella
  • Seemingly endless amusing puns and clever wordplay:

    Capt. Spaulding: How much would you charge to run into an open manhole?
    Ravelli: Just the cover charge.
    Capt. Spaulding: Well, drop in sometime.
    Ravelli: Sewer.
    Capt. Spaulding: Well, we cleaned that up pretty well.

  • Capt. Spaulding: One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don’t know.

Must See?
Yes — as one among many “must-see” early Marx Brothers classics.

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One Response to “Animal Crackers (1930)”

  1. A once-must, for the parts that work.

    First viewing.

    I’ll admit to not being wildly enthusiastic about this film. But I will also admit that a considerable amount of it is successful enough to merit a viewing. The cast seems to be having fun, which allows for a certain freshness in the air. As well, Victor Heerman’s direction keeps things moving at a brisk pace.

    Of course, too much of the humor (most of which is referred to as ‘puns’) is just old and that’s disappointing. (Groucho, at one point, faces the audience and states, “Well, all of the jokes can’t be good. You have to expect that once in a while.”) But it’s balanced with a fair amount of genuinely funny cracks along the way and a good deal of the visual jokes deliver.

    The opening ‘Hooray for Captain Spaulding’ number (including Groucho’s segue into ‘Hello, I Must Be Going’) does start things off at an effective beat. And the remaining musical bits are charming as well (with Chico and Harpo performing on piano and harp respectively, of course, and a very game Roth in fine voice).

    All told, though, this is very thin stuff indeed – and some of the performances smack of low-level community theater. But even if it isn’t particularly inspired lunacy as a whole piece, the fun parts make a viewing enjoyable.

    Fave bit: Groucho’s parody of the inner monologues in Eugene O’Neill’s ‘Strange Interlude’.

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