Animal Crackers (1930)

Director: Victor Heerman

Starring: Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, Zeppo Marx, Margaret Dumont, Lillian Roth

Anyone who says Black & White movies are irrelevant because they’re too old has never seen a Marx Brothers feature. I can still recall a time when my own perceptions of Golden Age comedy were colored by a growing apathy towards the slapstick routines of the Three Stooges and a sense that any topical humor would inevitably come off sounding rather dated. Then I sat down and watched “Animal Crackers,” the second feature film starring Chico, Harpo, Zeppo and, of course, Groucho. Apart from Zeppo’s everyman character (who often fades into the background), each of them brought something to the table that not only distinguished them individually, but would inspire countless comedians in the 80+ years that have passed since. Although many critics and fans favor either 1933’s “Duck Soup” or 1935’s “A Night at the Opera” (both of them outstanding in their own right), I was won over by “Animal Crackers” with four simple words: “Hooray for Captain Spaulding!”

The plot of “Animal Crackers” is a very simple one. During a party held at the home of Mrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont), three groups with their own separate agendas all form plots to steal a painting on display inside the home, intending to replace the more valuable original with a copy. This includes the con artist team of Signor Ravelli (Chico Marx) and his mute partner, The Professor (Harpo Marx). The whole reasoning for said party is the return from the African Jungle of Captain Geoffrey T. Spaulding (Groucho Marx), and the entrance he makes is one for the ages. Carried in by human caravan like royalty, Captain Spaulding immediately launches into a sequence of non-sequiturs which lets you know that this guy enjoys being the smartest/wittiest man in the room. He can start off by talking about art and then segue into pointing out how cranberries can be made to taste like prunes if stewed in just the right way, all without ever missing a beat. Also presented in these first ten minutes of the film are its two best songs: “Hello, I Must Be Going” and “Hooray for Captain Spaulding.” Though the former would later become his theme song, it is the latter which instantly made me a Groucho Marx fan. After repeatedly being interrupted by the song’s chorus, Captain Spaulding finally gives in, interrupts himself and then breaks the fourth wall, insisting “Well, somebody’s gotta do it!” Doesn’t matter how many times I’ve seen “Animal Crackers.” That scene always makes me laugh until my sides hurt.

This is not to say that Groucho is your only reason for watching “Animal Crackers.” Both Chico and Harpo have their time to shine, as well. As is their usual shtick, the two play bumbling thieves/con artists. There is the card game during which they are caught blatantly cheating with multiple copies of the various suits. Signor Ravelli, the dimwitted Italian, impresses no one while the Professor, silent but sneaky, irritates everyone at the same time as he is picking their pockets clean. Chico and Harpo both also put on display their musical talents. Signor Ravelli sits down at the piano, initially annoying Captain Spaulding with a repetitive number to which he cannot remember the finish, and then with a more beautiful tune. But it’s Harpo. as the Professor, playing the harp (a somewhat dying art nowadays) who really brings the house down.

As with “The Cocoanuts,” the Marx Brothers had first performed “Animal Crackers” as a stage play. Considering the way in which the movie’s narrative is structured, and keeping in mind the way in which Groucho often plays to the audience/camera, this comes as no surprise. Also like their first film, the brothers found themselves at odds with their director. Groucho, in particular, butted heads with Victor Heerman, often over his trademark appearance. Heerman didn’t believe that audiences would buy into Groucho’s greasepaint eyebrows and moustache. Well I say, “horse feathers” (No, wait, that’s another Marx Bros. film, entirely!) and apparently so did Groucho.

Based on my thorough enjoyment of this film, I purchased two box sets of Marx Brothers movies on DVD, which includes all of the group’s twelve movies: five with Zeppo, and seven after Zeppo’s departure. Often, the supporting cast would include many of the same players. Margaret Dumont was a regular feature. Most of the time, though, they were mostly relegated to the background in favor of the brothers’ antics. Only once did a co-star ever manage to upstage Groucho, Harpo and Chico: a young Lucille Ball in 1938’s “Room Service,” whose own legacy is cemented by the TV series “I Love Lucy,” which has remained in syndication ever since the end of its original run more than sixty years ago. Though “Animal Crackers” was originally made with a pre-World War II audience in mind, it too never has and probably never will lose any of its potency.

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Comments
  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    Yes, I agree entirely. It is my favorite, too, and I can almost quote along by now! So proud you appreciate it, too!

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