Animal Crackers (1930)
Written by Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, George S. Kaufman, and Morrie Ryskind
Directed by Victor Heerman
Who were the Marx Brothers? Zeppo. Chico. Harpo. Groucho. Gummo. They were the children of French/German Jewish immigrants born into a family of artists and performers. Each brother mastered multiple instruments, and Groucho and Zeppo became accomplished singers. They became a Vaudeville act thanks to their uncle and began traveling the circuit, making money, and laughs. As time went on each brother honed their stage persona, Groucho became the de facto leader with his sharp, caustic comedy. When World War I struck, the Marx mother learned that farmers were exempt from the draft, so she bought a chicken farm in Illinois, but the boys found agrarian life was not their style.
By this time, Groucho and Harpo were the most fully formed in what film audiences would one day see. Groucho wore his greasepaint mustache while chomping on a cigar while Harpo wore a red fright wig and went mute. By the 1920s, the Marx Brothers had become a national sensation in the theater, bringing their brand of high energy improvisational comedy to cities and towns around the country. This led to their long tenure on Broadway, where they spent the decade. The evolution of silent film into “talkies” came right as the Marx Brothers were soaring in popularity to a jump to movies seemed like a natural fit.
Animal Crackers is an adaptation of the Brothers’ hugely successful Broadway show of the same name. It follows a very familiar stock plot of the era with a contrived mystery and a side plot featuring a young couple swooning over each other. What makes the movie stand out from the fare of its time is the energy the Marx Brothers bring. You could easily argue that this is a story built around the incorporation of Vaudeville bits they did on stage. If you come to the film looking for an intricately detailed plot with arcs and twists, then you are in the wrong place. If you showed up to laugh and enjoy something absurdly silly, then you’ll have fun.
Mrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont) is getting ready to host the return of famed explorer and adventurer Captain Spaulding (Groucho). She is also showcasing the unveiling of a valuable painting the following evening. Spaulding arrives and sizes up the soiree as a little too hoity-toity for his tastes and aims to leave, but gets pulled back in. Rittenhouse’s hired musicians come soon after, Ravelli and the Professor (Chico and Harpo, respectively), and they begin to cause no end of chaos in the household. The painting gets stolen and swapped out, which provides the bulk of the plot, but along the way, we get many hilarious side distractions.
There is a potpourri of comedic styles presented in this film to the point that it can be a little overwhelming. Chico has an ongoing bit where his accent gets in the way of his pronunciations, so you get punny jokes. Then you have Groucho with his lighting fast barbs and double entendres. Harpo is all about manic physical comedy and gage. Even Zeppo gets some beautiful bits playing off of Groucho. Beyond that, there’s a sequence where Groucho is parodying Eugene O’Neill with continuous asides while in the middle of a conversation with high society women. Then you have the musical comedy that blends everything all together. With contemporary comedy, there is usually a set tone or style so the audience can anticipate the type of humor they will encounter. With the Marx Brothers, it’s a roller coaster; you just have to strap in and enjoy.
The Brothers had a knack for being inserted into high society situations and wreaking havoc, something we’ll see a lot more of later in A Night at the Opera. Margaret Dumont, who plays Mrs. Rittenhouse was a comic foil to the quarter in seven of their movies, having perfected the persona of an elite person aghast at the insanity of these four interlopers. The film does feel incredibly stagy, on the verge of merely being a filmed play. It would take their next film, Horse Feathers, for the Brothers to begin to make features that took advantage of the conceits of cinema.