“Well, all the jokes can’t be good. You’ve got to expect that once in a while.”
So says Groucho during an aside to the camera in Animal Crackers, the Marx Brothers’ adaptation of their own Broadway musical comedy. This is perhaps especially true when you average about 20 jokes a minute, which is the pace the brothers attempt to maintain here. The plot involves a weekend house party in honor of the great African explorer Capt. Jeffrey Spaulding (Groucho), yet this is, as usual, an excuse for some song, a little dance and the nonsensical deflating of propriety of any kind.
That sort of spirit can take you a long way – as Bugs Bunny learned – and so Animal Crackers proceeds pleasantly enough. Indeed, if your sense of humor leans heavily on wordplay and vaudevillian puns, you might even find the movie to be hilarious.
What’s most evident, however, is the raging egomania at the center of the brothers’ comedy – Groucho in particular.
What’s most evident, however, is the raging egomania at the center of the brothers’ comedy – Groucho in particular. The fact that he does speak to the camera is one clue, a nod that he knows you’re watching him. There’s also the revealing reality that many of his comic set pieces involve a crowd of about 20 onlookers gathering in a semi-circle, looking aghast. True, they are there to register dismay, so that we get a full sense of the chaos being caused, but it’s telling that director Victor Heerman does this primarily through shots of the encircled onlookers rather than close-ups. Groucho needs not one, but two audiences.
Even when Groucho shares a scene, the other performer is entirely superfluous. A deliriously head-spinning introductory exchange with Louis Sorin’s art collector requires nothing more of Sorin than a repeated gesture of exasperation. There’s barely the minimal interplay you usually get with a straight man. Speaking of which, Margaret Dumont, making the second of seven screen appearances with the Marx Brothers, seems valuable not so much for her rapport with Groucho, but for the elegant manner in which she’s able to stand next to him without really being there.
These egomaniacal traits are less dominant in Chico and Harpo – but then again, those two are far less funny. The former’s thick Italian “accent” is made up for during an amusing and beautifully performed bit in which Chico begins playing a lovely piano piece but can’t figure out how to end it. Groucho does a lot of eye rolling – Chico is stealing his audience, after all – but I rather enjoyed the brief moment of respite.
As for Harpo, I’m afraid I may have to confess an allergy. Some comedians, like early Jim Carrey, have a certain style that can cause you to itch the moment they appear on screen. With his distorted mugging (now Heerman pulls out the close-up) and aggressive instigating, Harpo has that affect on me. I’m all for comic anarchy, but I’d rather it didn’t leave a rash.