Hooray for Captain Spaulding!
Animal Crackers is the second of the Marx Brothers films and thus one of the four they shot at Paramount. This would be the last time they made a film based on a stage production, though they would take their later MGM scripts (in a couple cases) in front of live audiences before beginning filming. Those later instances, however, were cases of screenplays produced live rather than plays that were put to film as was the case for their first two movies.
Though the video and audio are still rough, they are leaps and bounds ahead of the Brothers’ first outing in The Cocoanuts. The sets are better as well, though it still all clearly takes place on a soundstage, and the ultimate result is a funnier film too. While the plot really isn’t that important (the Marx Bros. are about the jokes, not the story), but the basic idea is that the four brothers all end up at a large weekend house party thrown by one of the ultra-rich. Hijinks ensue. Groucho is Captain Spaulding, an explorer recently returned from adventures in Africa, and Zeppo is his secretary, Jameson. Chico and Harpo are musicians engaged to perform during the weekend named Signor Ravelli and The Professor, respectively. While they’re all there shenanigans ensue with a valuable painting and efforts to steal it.
To be sure, some of the jokes are dated (the pipe tobacco joke went right over my head as a kid), and some are obscure (how well do you know the plays of Eugene O’Neill?), but they are rapid-fire and if one misses, you’ve got a good chance to get the next. There’s a nice harp interlude for Harpo, an impressive and amusing bit for Chico on the piano, and some excellent work between Groucho and Zeppo that was improvised on set. The Marx Brothers are so chaotic and the supporting cast is so talented at playing straight to their jokes that even the scene where one of the other actors calls Groucho by the wrong character name doesn’t slow them down. They turn it into a joke, bounce it off each other, Groucho makes a fourth-wall gag by asking the audience for a program, and then they pick up where they left off with the scripted jokes.
As would be usual throughout their films, there is also a romantic subplot between two other actors that feels like it’s included only because the studio expects it will be. Two singers are cast to fall in love or be in love and have a duet at some point in the second reel. It’s fine, but it’s really just kinda…there. It’s neither very good nor very bad. And that’s really all there is to say about it. If you’re a fan of silly slapstick and puns and the bizarre kind of behavior that the straight men among the cast take oddly in stride, then this is the kind of movie for you. I’ve seen in dozens of times and I still laugh out loud many times in each viewing. It may lack substance, but if clowning is an art, there are fewer higher examples than the Marx Brothers.