|Animal Crackers (1930)
Run time: Passed 97 min
Genres: Comedy | Musical
Director: Victor Heerman
Writers: George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind
Stars: Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx
Captain Spaulding, the noted explorer, returns from Africa and attends a gala party held by Mrs. Rittenhouse. A painting displayed at that party is stolen, and the Marxes help recover it. Well, maybe ‘help’ isn’t quite the word I was looking for–this is the Marx Brothers, after all… Written by Ken Yousten <email@example.com>
Release Date: 28 August 1930 (USA)
When "Animal Crackers" was re-released after decades in hiding (due to copyright problems), the ticket-buyer & ticket-holder lines at New York's Sutton Theatre stretched down 57th Street for every showing. I was dazzled when I first sat through this film– it seemed as if there was a kind of magic in the theatre that night. I can remember having goosebumps when Lillian Roth sang "Why Am I So Romantic?".
I was working as manager of the Paris Theatre on 58th Street when "Animal Crackers" opened at the Sutton, and because both houses were part of the Cinema-5 circuit, I was always able to get passes. — In this case, because I had also worked as 'relief manager' at The Sutton on many occasions, I was well known to the staff and had entry to that theatre whenever I wanted. –During the 'opening' run of "Animal Crackers," I often walked over to The Sutton when my day's shift was complete at The Paris.
I can tell you that every screening of "Animal Crackers" that I attended was packed. And every time I was present for the film's end, I witnessed a standing ovation– something that many film producers can only dream of.
I often tried to imagine myself attending a 'live' performance of this show. –As many have mentioned here, "Animal Crackers" was a hit Broadway show, starring the Marx Brothers, long before it was filmed by Paramount.
Rather than complaining that this film is "stagey", many who comment here would do well to remember that a film like this is as close to a Broadway show as millions of people will ever get. The annoying penchant some viewers have for wondering why the film version of a Broadway hit show (especially a musical-comedy) isn't more "opened-up" is both tiresome and moot.
Also, the constant comparison of "Animal Crackers" to other Marx Brothers films (especially the later MGM films) is an 'apples-to-oranges' kind of thing. It would make far more sense to compare it to other early filmed-versions of it's Broadway contemporaries, such as "Rio Rita" or "Flying High" or "Girl Crazy"….
Although the stage show of "Animal Crackers" was on Broadway long before I was born, (and the film's initial premier pre-dates me by almost as long), I am forever gratified to have been able to attend the 1974 "re-opening" of the film in New York, and to see, feel, and participate in, the audiences' jubilant reactions.
I rated this film 10/10. It's a perfect comedy, with (theatre-goers will recognize this-) honest-to-goodness Broadway music– and with Lillian Roth, too. "Animal Crackers" is a great show in every respect.
Animal Crackers is one of the best films ever done by the 4 Marx Brothers. For a start, the comedy completely works on screen, especially considering that the film was adapted from the musical stage play. And although Zeppo’s comedy has always been underrated and underplayed in the five films that the 4 Marx Brothers did for Paramount Pictures, he proves in this film, as well as the four other movies he appeared with Groucho, Chico, and Harpo, that the 4 Marx Brothers made better films when the four of them worked together; as opposed to when it was just Groucho, Chico and Harpo. All the Marx Brothers films which included Zeppo were zanier films and, to me, the best of their work. Verbally, Groucho is at his razor-sharp best in Animal Crackers, with almost every one-liner dripping with comedic insults and sarcasm. Chico and Harpo perfectly add to the mayhem. The direction by Victor Heerman showed the type of skill needed to professionally control the 4 Marx Brothers to make Animal Crackers the tremendous success that it was. Though the Great Depression was taking hold on the American psyche in 1930, Animal Crackers was the perfect comedy which allowed ordinary Americans to enjoy the spoofing of America’s ‘Hoi Polloi’.
Though the 4 Marx Brothers’ succeeding films (Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, and Duck Soup) were even more of the Hollywood film-style comedy successes which crystalized their zaniness and on-screen craziness, one should not underestimate the cinematography of George Folsey, Sr., who made the film look like a movie written especially for the screen. The look of the film (specifically the sets) makes one feel like he or she wished they had been invited to Mrs. Rittenhouse’s party in honor of Captain Spaulding. Lillian Roth never looked better, and the best song in the film is her musical number with Hal Thompson, "Why Am I So Romantic?" – which was the theme music for the entire movie. Animal Crackers is one of my favorite films that the 4 Marx Brothers did for Paramount Pictures – although all five films made at Paramount are absolute gems. I strongly suggest getting the Marx Brothers’ Silver Screen Collection, which is now on DVD. They are a must for your film library!
Judging by the script, you’d never believe that "Animal Crackers" is over seventy years old. Think of all the "postmodern" things that happen in this movie: Groucho directly addresses the audience to apologize for a bad joke; Harpo shoots a gun at a statue, only to see the statue come to life and return fire; and Margaret Dumont freezes in time while Groucho has a "strange interlude" and rambles to the audience about the perils of marriage and living with your folks! Of course, the absolutely ancient and decaying print will remind you that "Animal Crackers" is older than the hills, but otherwise, it’s much fresher and weirder than the stuff that passes for comedy today.
Like "The Cocoanuts," this movie is based on a play, and as such it is considerably longer and stagier than most of the later Marx movies. The pace does drag a bit towards the end, especially since the plot disappears (along with Zeppo) for long segments at a time. But many of the individual segments are classic, including the often (and rightly) praised bridge game and Harpo’s gag with the cutlery-filled sleeves. Even the music segments hold up well, particularly Chico’s piano routine that gets savaged by Groucho.
Interestingly, there is a prominent romantic subplot to this film, which puts paid to the fallacy that Marx Brothers movies didn’t have romances until MGM got its hands on them. However, the romance isn’t nearly as intrusive or annoying here as in their later vehicles, so there’s still plenty of reason to be annoyed with good old MGM…
Is it a surprise that "Animal Crackers" takes a simple plot and turns it on its ear in a matter of minutes as a launching pad for the insanity of the Marx Brothers?
No, but it makes sense.
The characters in "Animal Crackers" celebrate the return of world traveler Captain Spaulding (Groucho) while also dealing with the theft of a rare work of art at the home of the wealthy Mrs. Rittenhouse (Dumont), where the soiree takes place. But once the good captain arrives, along with Spaulding’s stenographer Jamison (Zeppo), Signore Ravelli (Chico) and the Professor (Harpo), nothing sane or expected takes place afterwards. But really, what did you expect?
Perfect foils are the likes of Dumont and art patron Mr. Chandler (Sorin), the latter of which is revealed to be Abie the Fish Peddler from Czechoslovakia by fellow Czech Chico. in fact, here’s a FAVORITE LINE: Chandler – (to Chico) "Hey! How did you get to be Italian?" Chico – "Never you a-mind; who’s-a confession is-a this?". What’s not to love?
Anyway, there’s loads of quotable dialogue, sight gags galore, a great running gag with a picture of a horse and a finale that must be seen to be believed. Of course, this whole MOVIE must be seen to be believed!
Ten stars and a pair of elephant pajamas for "Animal Crackers" – the perfect side dish for four hams.
TIDBIT – The song "Hooray for Captain Spaulding" was later re-used by Groucho for his game show "You Bet Your Life". Can’t say that I blame him.