The film stars the Four Marx Brothers, Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo, with Lillian Roth and Margaret Dumont. It was directed by Victor Heerman and adapted from a successful 1928 Broadway musical of the same title by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, also starring the Marx Brothers and Margaret Dumont. The part of Hives the butler was played by Robert Greig who also appeared with the Marx Brothers in Horse Feathers (1932).
A newspaper headline explains that society matron Mrs. Rittenhouse is holding a lavish party at her home in Long Island. The party will host renowned explorer Captain Geoffrey (or Jeffrey) T. Spaulding as the guest of honor, recently returned from Africa. Also, as a special treat for the guests and Capt. Spaulding, revered art collector Roscoe W. Chandler will unveil his recently acquired painting by famous fictional artist Beaugard.
Hives instructs the servant crew on preparations for the party. Chandler arrives with the Beaugard and proceeds to set it up to be displayed. Capt. Spaulding's assistant Horatio Jameson announces the Captain's arrival. Capt. Spaulding makes a grand entrance and announces that he cannot stay and must leave immediately, uninterested in the party. Mrs. Rittenhouse begs him to stay and the guests declare their admiration for the Captain and he decides to stay. Soon after, Signor Emanuel Ravelli arrives with his colleague the professor, hired to provide music for the weekend event. After an elaborate introduction, The Professor scares the guests away with a pistol he grabs from Capt. Spaulding's supplies. The Professor soon takes off chasing after an attractive blonde party-goer.
Mrs. Rittenhouse's daughter Arabella is attending the party with her fiancé John Parker, who is a struggling painter. John feels discouraged because he hasn't been able to make a living with his art in order to support himself and Arabella. Arabella suggests John do a portrait for Chandler, suggesting he would receive an impressive commission. John laughs at the idea, not believing Chandler to have a genuine appreciation for art. After examining the Beaugard, Arabella devises a scheme to win Chandler's interest in John's work: They'll replace the Beaugard with a almost perfect copy of it John painted in art school, since they can find no obvious differences. After the painting is unveiled at the party, they will surprise everyone and hopefully convince Chandler to hire John. Arabella asks Ravelli to switch the paintings. Meanwhile another guest, neighbor Mrs. Whitehead thinks up the same idea with her friend Grace Carpenter as a means of humiliating Mrs. Rittenhouse. They grab Grace's poorly made copy that she painted and ask Hives to put it in place of the Beaugard, unaware that they are taking out John's copy.
Ravelli catches the Professor chasing after the blonde girl and scolds him. Soon Mrs. Rittenhouse and Mrs. Whitehead arrive and the four proceed to play an absurd variation on Bridge. Ravelli and the Professor run into Chandler and recognize him as Abie the fish peddler from Czechoslovakia. Chandler tries to bribe the two in order to keep them quiet, but they end up taking his money, tie and garters as well as, miraculously, Chandler's birthmark which is transferred to the Professor's arm. After a series of strange interludes while speaking with Mrs. Rittenhouse and Mrs. Whitehead, Capt. Spaulding has a debate with Chandler outside on the balcony after his encounter with Ravelli and the Professor.
Later that night in the middle of a thunderstorm, Ravelli and the Professor attempt to replace the Beaugard with the power going on and off, making the job more difficult. In the middle of the job Capt. Spaulding and Mrs. Rittenhouse wander in, making the job more difficult. They succeed in replacing the painting.
During the party, Mrs. Rittenhouse invites Capt. Spaulding to speak about his travels in Africa. He proceeds to tell a ridiculous and absurd account of his travels before Mrs. Rittenhouse cuts him off. Signor Ravelli is invited to play some selection on the piano. After several quips and interruptions by Spaulding, Ravelli, and the Professor, Chandler invites the guests into the parlor so he can unveil the Beaugard. Once revealed, Chandler notices the poor quality and realizes someone has stolen his painting and replaces it with a cheap imitation. John feels discouraged, thinking the painting is still his copy. Suddenly the power goes out, and when restored, the imitation Beaugard is missing as well. The guests, now in an uproar, scatter and attempt to find the stolen painting, led by Capt. Spaulding. John and Arabella discuss the excitement of the situation and their love for each other.
The next day, a police squad arrives to secure the house and search for the missing painting. Realizing that they may have gone too far, Mrs. Whitehead and Grace ask Hives for the Beaugard he took back, but he can't find it anywhere. Mrs. Whitehead deduces the Professor must have stolen it. After confronting him she gets Grace's copy back. Later, John finds Grace's copy of the Beaugard and reveals to Arabella that someone else must have had the same idea as them. Realizing that Chandler never actually saw John's copy, they become more hopeful. Soon after John realizes the copy he found is now missing. Capt. Spaulding, Jameson, and Ravelli discuss how they might go about finding the missing painting. After getting the painting back from the Professor, who is now in disguise, John and Arabella bring it to Capt. Spaulding. They figure out that the Professor must be the one who stole the paintings, and enlist the police to help find him.
After a brief altercation, Spaulding, Ravelli, and Jameson enter with the Professor. The Professor is apprehended and the three paintings are returned. Chandler momentarily mistakes John's copy for the Beaugard. Realizing his talent, Chandler hires John to do a series a portraits for him. After momentarily letting the Professor go free, the police sergeant tries to apprehend him. To escape arrest, the Professor sprays the guests with a knockout substance from a Flit can. After everyone is laid out on the floor and fully subdued, the film concludes with the Professor knocking himself out next to the pretty blonde he has been chasing throughout the entire film.Groucho Marx as Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding
Harpo Marx as The Professor
Chico Marx as Signor Emanuel Ravelli
Zeppo Marx as Horatio Jameson
Lillian Roth as Arabella Rittenhouse
Margaret Dumont as Mrs. Rittenhouse
Louis Sorin as Roscoe W. Chandler
Hal Thompson as John Parker
Margaret Irving as Mrs. Whitehead
Kathryn Reece as Grace Carpenter
Robert Greig as Hives
Edward Metcalf as Hennessey
The Music Masters as the Six Footmen
Four of Groucho's best-known quips:One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don't know.
(The American Film Institute listed this at number 53 in the 100 Greatest Movie Quotes of All Time.)
Then, we tried to remove the tusks, ... but they were embedded in so firmly, we couldn't budge them. Of course, in Alabama the Tusk-a-loosa. But that's entirely ir-elephant to what I was talking about.
[Similar to a joke Chico would later tell in Duck Soup
Africa is God's country – and He can have it.
We took some pictures of the native girls, but they weren't developed. But we're going back again in a couple of weeks!
Other quotes from Groucho:"Ever since I met you, I've swept you off my feet."
"You mind if I don't smoke?"
"There's one thing I've always wanted to do before I quit: Retire."
"I was outside the cabin smoking some meat. There wasn't a cigar store in the neighborhood!"
"Didn't you ever see a Habeas Corpus
?" Chico: No, but I see Habeas Irish Rose.
The film also contains the well-known Chico-Harpo scene in which Chico keeps asking Harpo for "a flash" (meaning a flashlight), and Harpo – not understanding – produces from his bottomless trenchcoat and baggy pants a fish, a flask, a flute, a "flit", a "flush", etc.
Zeppo figures in a well-known scene in which Groucho dictates a letter to his lawyers in rambling pseudo-legalese. Zeppo gets to one-up Groucho: When asked to read the letter back, Zeppo informs him, "You said a lot of things I didn't think were very important, so I just omitted them!" whereupon a minor skirmish ensues: what he's omitted is the body of the letter. (Joe Adamson, in Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Sometimes Zeppo, observed that this scene disproved the common notion that Zeppo was the least of the Marx Brothers: "It takes a Marx Brother to pull something like that on a Marx Brother and get away with it.")
One more complex running joke has Groucho turning the dialogue into a scene out of the Eugene O'Neill play, Strange Interlude, in which the characters continually spoke asides that convey their thoughts. Groucho's voice becomes deep and droning as he steps apart from the other characters to comment on the scene:
"Living with your folks. Living with your folks. The beginning of the end. Drab dead yesterdays shutting out beautiful tomorrows. Hideous, stumbling footsteps creaking along the misty corridors of time. And in those corridors I see figures, strange figures, weird figures: Steel 186, Anaconda 74, American Can 138..."
The comedy, thus, is in the unpredictable shifting of the scene's meaning, from two socialite ladies and a world-famous explorer mingling at a party, to a parody of O'Neill's work, to a mimicking of a man reading out stock prices. Incidentally, Groucho had heavy investments in Anaconda Copper and after having lost everything in the stock market crash of 1929 experienced a bout of depression as well as insomnia.
In the final scene, Harpo uses a Flit gun to pacify an entire crowd, finally spraying Groucho, who falls unconscious to the ground. The current prints of the film have the "Flit" name blotted out, since Paramount Pictures didn't get permission to use the trademarked name.
Groucho's songs, "Hello, I Must Be Going" and "Hooray for Captain Spaulding", both written by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, became recurring themes for Groucho through the years. The latter song became the theme of Groucho's radio and TV game show You Bet Your Life. It referred to a real Captain Spaulding, an army officer arrested a few years earlier for selling cocaine to Hollywood residents. The original full version of "Hooray for Captain Spaulding" was edited in compliance to the Hays Code when it was re-released in 1936: the sexually suggestive line "I think I'll try to make her" was removed – it came after Mrs. Rittenhouse's line: "He was the only white man to cover every acre." It was long believed that this footage had been lost forever, until a pre-Hays Code print was discovered in the archives of the British Film Institute. This forms the basis of Universal's Blu-ray restoration, released in October 2016.
Ironically, Groucho used an even more risqué line in introducing Chico's piano sequence: "Signor Ravelli's first selection will be, 'Somewhere My Love Lies Sleeping', with a male chorus." Chico's own piano composition "I'm Daffy over You" would be played again in their next feature film, Monkey Business, by Harpo on the harp.He's One Of Those Men (Hives and Footmen)
I Represent The Captain (Zeppo)
Hooray for Captain Spaulding Part I (The Cast)
Hello, I Must Be Going (Groucho)
Hooray for Captain Spaulding Part II (Cast)
Why Am I So Romantic? (Arabella and John, and as a harp interlude with Harpo)
I'm Daffy Over You (Chico; the refrain is sometimes confused with the 1950s song "Sugar in the Morning")
Silver Threads Among the Gold (Chico)
Brief piano interlude (Harpo)
Gypsy-chorus (a.k.a. Anvil Chorus) (Chico)
My Old Kentucky Home (Marx Brothers)
In December 1973, UCLA student and Marx Brothers fan Steve Stoliar drove to Anaheim, California, to view a rare screening of Animal Crackers at the Old Town Music Hall theater. The print shown there was a poor-quality bootleg, probably because the film had not been distributed for theatrical release since the mid-1950s. Paramount Pictures had allowed its licenses to expire, and rights had reverted to the authors of the Broadway stage play: the playwrights George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, the composer Harry Ruby, and the lyricist Bert Kalmar. Although EMKA, Ltd. (now part of Universal Television) had acquired Paramount's older films in 1959, Animal Crackers evidently was regarded as a mess best left untouched. Stoliar impulsively called Groucho Marx to enlist Groucho's support for an unlikely campaign to attempt to persuade – or pressure – Universal to re-release the film. Groucho agreed to visit the UCLA campus for a publicity event.
On February 7, 1974, Groucho and his assistant, Erin Fleming, visited UCLA under the aegis of Stoliar's newly formed "Committee for the Re-release of Animal Crackers" (CRAC). The event drew about 200 students, 2,000 signatures on re-release petitions, and several reporters. Universal scrambled to appear responsive: a spokesman told a UCLA Daily Bruin reporter that the studio was "delighted" by the interest, and that "we have negotiated with the heirs of the writers (Morrie Ryskind and George S. Kaufman), but they were asking much more than we wanted to spend. Just recently we reached an agreement, and we're waiting to sign the contracts." (Not quite: Ryskind was still in the pre-heir stage – he lived until 1985. The songwriter Harry Ruby was also alive, though he died two weeks later, aged 79.) The spokesman added that he expected the film would soon be released. As the Daily Bruin put it, "The rest of the day belonged to Groucho, as he showed surprising flashes of his old brilliance." Asked to name his favorite comedian, he said: "Me." He also said that "Animal Crackers is the best of our movies."
Groucho's UCLA appearance generated national press coverage. An appearance on the nationally syndicated Merv Griffin Show soon followed. In April, 1974, Groucho and Stoliar "received an answer from Universal. According to Vice President Arnold Shane, they were 'delighted with the response of the students.'" On May 23, 1974, attempting to gauge public interest, Universal screened a sharp new print of the film at the UA Theater in Westwood, just south of the UCLA campus. Groucho made a personal appearance and walked unescorted into the theatre on the left aisle. He was wearing his beret. People in the audience stood up and started applauding and soon the entire theater joined in. Encouraged by the response there – the lines stretched around the block for months – on June 23 the studio screened the film at the Sutton Theater in New York. Groucho attended the New York premiere. A near-riot broke out and a police escort was summoned. From there Animal Crackers went into national release.
It is also because of these rights issues that Animal Crackers did not see an appearance on television until July 21, 1979, when CBS aired a special broadcast of the film.
The complete, uncut Animal Crackers, which had only been available for decades in a version cut for the 1936 reissue, was restored from a 35mm duplicate negative held by the British Film Institute and released by Universal Pictures in 2016 in DCP format for theatrical distribution and Blu-ray for home video as part of The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection. The restored edition features an optional commentary track by film historian Jeffrey Vance.
In the 1990s, a 15-second clip filmed in Multicolor during the rehearsal of a scene in Animal Crackers was found and aired as a part of the AMC documentary Glorious Technicolor (1998). The clip is significant because it is the oldest known color footage of the Marx Brothers, and also for an appearance by Harpo without his usual costume and wig.