On board an ocean liner to America, four stowaways are involuntarily pressed into service as toughs for a pair of feuding gangsters while constantly trying to evade the ship's crew. Prior to this, the film has no real plot, just the brothers causing unending uproar. Except in the credits and in the screenplay, the Brothers' characters have no names in this film. They are referred to simply as "the stowaways". After arriving stateside, one of the gangsters kidnaps the other's daughter, leaving it up to the brothers to save the day.Groucho Marx as GrouchoHarpo Marx as HarpoChico Marx as ChicoZeppo Marx as ZeppoRockliffe Fellowes as J.J. 'Big Joe' HeltonHarry Woods as Alky BriggsThelma Todd as Lucille BriggsRuth Hall as Mary HeltonTom Kennedy as First Mate GibsonCecil Cunningham as Madame Swempski, opera singer giving interview on shipCharlotte Mineau as Emily, woman on veranda of mansion having an illicit affairMaxine Castle as opera singer singing O Sole MioRolfe Sedan as the ship's barberBess Flowers as wife of man dressed as Indian at partyBen Taggart as Captain CorcoranDavison Clark as passport official
Typical for many Marx Brothers films, production censors demanded changes in some lines with sexual innuendo. Monkey Business was banned in some countries because censors feared it would encourage anarchic tendencies.
This is the first Marx Brothers film not to feature Margaret Dumont: this time their female foil is comedian Thelma Todd, who would also star in the Marx Brothers' next film, Horse Feathers. A few years after the release of Horse Feathers, Todd died in unexplained circumstances. A line of dialogue in Monkey Business seems to foreshadow Todd's death. Alone with Todd in her cabin, Groucho quips: "You're a woman who's been getting nothing but dirty breaks. Well, we can clean and tighten your brakes, but you'll have to stay in the garage all night." In 1935, Todd died in her car inside a garage, apparently from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning.
Early on in Monkey Business, the Brothers—playing stowaways concealed in barrels—harmonize unseen while performing the popular song "Sweet Adeline". It is a matter of debate whether Harpo joins in with the singing. (One of the ship's crew asserts to the captain that he knows there are four stowaways because he can hear them singing "Sweet Adeline".) If so, it would be one of only a few times Harpo used speech on screen, as opposed to other vocalizations such as whistling or sneezing. At least one other possible on-screen utterance occurs in the film A Day at the Races (1937), in which Groucho, Chico, and Harpo are heard singing "Down by the Old Mill Stream" in three-part harmony.
This was the first Marx film to be filmed in Hollywood. Their first two films were filmed at Paramount Pictures' Astoria Studios in Queens, New York City.
Upon alighting from the ship, the Marx Brothers' real life father (Sam "Frenchie" Marx) is briefly seen in a cameo appearance, sitting on top of luggage behind the Brothers on the pier as they wave to the First Mate.
Chico performs two pieces on the piano, the "Pizzicato" from Sylvia by Léo Delibes, which then morphs into the song "When I Take My Sugar to Tea" written by Sammy Fain, Irving Kahal, and Pierre Norman. Harpo performs "I'm Daffy over You" by Sol Violinsky and Chico. One of the most famous sequences from this film involves the four brothers attempting to get off the ship using a passport stolen from famous singer (and fellow Paramount star) Maurice Chevalier. Each brother impersonates Chevalier (complete with straw hat) and sings "You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me" ("If the nightingales could sing like you ...") in turn. This poses a problem for the mute Harpo, who mimes to a hidden phonograph tied to his back which plays the Chevalier recording. When the turntable slows down and he has to rewind it, the ruse is uncovered. The dance band at Mary's debut party is playing the song "Ho Hum!" when the Marx Brothers arrive."Sweet Adeline""You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me""Pizzicato""O Sole Mio" sung by opera singer Maxine Castle with harp accompaniment by Harpo"I'm Daffy Over You""When I Take My Sugar to Tea"
According to TCM's Robert Osborne, a sequel was planned for this film that would continue the mafia theme. During the development of that film, aviator Charles Lindbergh's son was kidnapped and killed by what was believed to be gang members. The writers quickly shifted gears and based the Brothers' next film very loosely on the Marx Brothers' earlier stage show Fun in Hi Skule, which would evolve into Horse Feathers.
Reception and impact
Monkey Business was a box office success, and is considered one of the Marx Brothers' best films. Contemporary reviews were also positive. Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times wrote, "Whether it is really as funny as 'Animal Crackers' is a matter of opinion. Suffice it to say that few persons will be able to go to the Rivoli and keep a straight face." Variety's review began, "The usual Marx madhouse and plenty of laughs sprouting from a plot structure resembling one of those California bungalows which sprout up overnight." Film Daily agreed that the plot was "flimsy", but also found the film "crammed all the way with laughs and there's never a dead spot." John Mosher of The New Yorker thought the film was "the best this family has given us."
The film was evidently based on two routines the Marx Brothers did during their early days in vaudeville (Home Again and Mr. Green's Reception), along with a story idea from one of Groucho's friends, Bert Granet, called The Seas Are Wet. The passport scene is a reworking of a stage sketch in which the brothers burst into a theatrical agent's office auditioning an impersonation of a current big star. It appeared in their stage shows On the Mezzanine Floor and I'll Say She Is (1924). This skit was also done by the Marxes in the Paramount promotional film The House That Shadows Built (1931).
The concept of the Marx Brothers being stowaways on a ship would be repeated in an episode of their radio series Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel (1933) in the episode "The False Roderick" and would also be recycled in their MGM film A Night at the Opera (1935). The essence of Groucho's joke, "Sure, I'm a doctor—where's the horse?" would serve as an integral plot element for their film A Day at the Races (1937). Also repeated in that later film would be the uproarious medical examination that Harpo and Chico give opera singer Madame Swempski (Cecil Cunningham).
Awards and honors2000: AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs – #73