In 1974, more than forty years after its initial release and decades of being unavailable due to copyright troubles, “Animal Crackers” opened in New York at the Sutton Theater to packed houses and continued to do so for an amazing eight weeks. While many new films played to half empty houses, Marx mania brought in audiences that resulted in lines outside the theater waiting for the next showing.
“One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don’t know.” – Captain Spaulding.
Based on a stage musical with a book by George S. Kaufman and Morris Ryskind and music by Burt Kalmar and Harry Ruby that ran on Broadway for 191 performances during the 1928-29 season, “Animal Crackers” was the Marx Brothers second film (The Coconuts was the first). The films gives us the first of Groucho’s many great characters, the great African explorer, Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding, along with many of his most famous lines.
“You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen, which doesn’t say much for you.”
The plot, and calling it a plot is a stretch, (who needs a plot in a Marx Brothers film?), involves the return of Captain Spaulding from Africa where he attends a big gala in his honor at the Long Island estate of Mrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont). An expensive painting is stolen at the party and the Brothers assist in its recovery. The plot, like I said, is really incidental, minor, it’s there, is at best what can be said. The real joy of the film is the sheer Marxist brand of brilliant anarchistic humor that is laid before us. Harpo chasing women, Chico double talking, and Groucho, his lines drenched in sarcasm pouring out at a mile a minute, hitting at machine gun speed. And yes, Zeppo is there too as Groucho’s secretary Jamison, the same character name he used in the Brothers first film, but like the plot, he is incidental. Lillian Roth is on board as Mrs. Rittenhouse’s daughter, Arabella.
“Hello, I must be going/I cannot stay, I came to say I must be going/I’m glad I came, but just the same, I must be going, la-la!”
Filmed in the original Astoria studios, “Animal Crackers” is an odd film. In some ways, it could be seen as visually primitive today. The film is static, though not as bad as “The Coconuts,” their first film. This was a common problem in the early days of sound, and also reflects the films’ stage roots. Yet, it does contain at times, a post modern feel to it in scenes, where for example, Groucho breaks the fourth wall addressing the audience directly, apologizing for many bad jokes, or when Harpo pulls out a gun and shoots a statue that turns out to be a real person. Adapting their own play, Kaufmann and Rykind wrote the screenplay, and songwriters Kalmar and Ruby came up with two now classic songs, “Hooray for Captain Spalding” and “Why Am I So Romantic.”
“Pardon me while I have a strange interlude”.
“Animal Crackers” remains a very funny film, just missing the pantheon of Marx Brothers films, reserved for works like, “Duck Soup,” “Horse Feathers”, “Monkey Business” and “A Night at the Opera.” The film remains essential Marx Brothers viewing. Long live Marxism!