Proof That It’s Pre-Code:
- Jokes about bigamy, underage nudity, booze, and wild sex.
- Going between a trunk and a woman: “This magnificent chest… no, this magnificent chest– no this magnificent chest!”
- “We took some pictures of the native girls, but they weren’t developed, so we’re going back again in a couple of weeks!”
Any review of a Marx Brothers film threatens to turn into a long list of quotes, and, by god, I’m already getting there. Groucho Marx himself complained that critics tended to list the best jokes and then turn in a negative review; I come to try and do neither of these.
I should definitely assert something here early on, just in case anyone in the audience is allergic to gushing: of the thousands of films I’ve seen in my life, Animal Crackers is one of my absolute favorites. It oftentimes in appears the top five favorite films of mine that I’ll list off when such a demand arises.
Animal Crackers is based on a Broadway play the four Marxes had crafted and starred in, much like their debut film, The Cocoanuts. This is the second film of the four brothers; for those of you completely among the unawares, we have:
From the top down:
- Chico, whose pseudo-Italian mannerisms are so exaggerated that I once read someone posit that it’s less an Italian caricature but rather simply an outright parody of bad Italian stereotypes.
- Harpo, the silent one who mostly communicates with his face and honking horn. He’s also a big fan of the ladies.
- Groucho, whose grease paint eyebrows and mustache inspired an entire gag glasses industry. He’s the wisecracker of the group.
- Zeppo, the unfunny one, whose good looks and sweet demeanor made him the bridge across the gap between the world’s insanity and that of his brothers.
They play characters in this film, though any character a Marx Brother plays is just a Marx Brother. Groucho’s Captain Spaulding is just Groucho with an excuse to tell explorer jokes. The rest don’t even get that much, but the shticks each bring to the film are transcendental enough to be inconsequential.
It’s been often noted that the Brothers are at their best when playing against high society types, and we get that in spades for this one. Captain Spaulding has just returned from an expedition (“Africa is God’s country, and he can keep it!”), and he arrives at a gala thrown for him by the uptight Ms. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont, a staple of these films). Through rather silly complications, a famous painting is stolen, and only Spaulding has the wits (or lack thereof) to try and untangle the goofy mystery.
For all of my love for the film, it does have its flaws. Animal Crackers is based on a Broadway play, and its direction in the hands of Victor Heerman is incontrovertibly stagy. There’s no fluid or style to the film, which isn’t especially surprising considering the film came from 1930 and was still tied down to a great deal of rough technology to make a sound film.
Worse yet, the musical numbers here outside of Groucho’s “Hello, I Must Be Going” peter out early and interrupt the proceedings. I’ve read several analysis that assert that this holds Animal Crackers back from being their best film, but I don’t think it’s a major blemish. The jokes here are as strong as ever, and the two or three songs aren’t grating.
Considering the legendary and risque wits on the center of the screen, it’s almost surprising the film has so few entries in the ‘Proof That It’s Pre-Code’ list. There’s a reason for this, though: Animal Crackers, like some other Pre-Code films, was a popular candidate to be re-released in theaters. Since they were working under the strict operation of the Hays Office during these re-releases, the films were edited for content before being sent out. These scenes are lost to the garbage bins of history, which is a shame; though you can’t say the material here is fully sanitized, it still feels like pieces are missing.
In spite of all of this, Animal Crackers is unrelentingly hilarious. Some of the scenes, from Groucho’s “Strange Interlude” to Chico being unable to remember the ending to the song he’s playing, are tight pieces containing moments that transcend the boundaries of the English language as if they were made of tissue paper.
It’s so difficult to quantify just the anarchy and undeniable joy that comes from watching the Marx Brothers at the top of their game. There are few essential pleasures on this planet; Animal Crackers is one.