Story. Story. Story. It’s the one that thing was drilled in to my head from countless screenwriting classes. Story is the most important element in any film. It was the reason someone watched and, more importantly, the reason people kept watching. Even if you have interesting characters that the audience cares about, unless they’re doing something, anything, then your story is not worth telling and your screenplay is not worth being made. If your screenplay didn’t have characters that pushed the narrative forward or did not directly relate to the overall structure, then you had failed. In the years since graduation, I’d taken the lesson to heart, both in criticism and in practice when making my own stories. It was simple. I was happy.
And then, you watch something like Animal Crackers, and it all gets shot to hell.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a story in Animal Crackers. There is a very definite story that follows a traditional two-act play structure (as it was adapted from a George S. Kaufman “musical play”) and it starts immediately following the credits. There is a close-up on the front page of a newspaper, featuring a large photo to the side (showing the setting) and two sub-headlines that handle the majority of the plot. A socialite is having a party and its guest of honor is Captain Spaulding, an explorer who has recently returned from a trip to Africa and, to mark the occasion, the unveiling of a famous work of art will be shown. Perfectly setting up the unveiling of Groucho Marx's Spaulding, the first scene features a butler, flanked by his subservient servants, each more stodgy and straight laced than the last, singing about how they must do their best to serve on this evening. They’re like a row of bowling pins and Groucho is the ball.
We then efficiently meet the main cast of characters. The party's host is Mrs. Rittenhouse, played by the seemingly unflappable Margaret Dumont, who greets Mr. Chanlder (Louis Sorin) and his expensive canvas (even go so far as referring to his new “$100,000 painting”) before seamlessly introducing Arabella Rittenhouse (Lillian Roth), the precocious daughter who is entangled with John Parker (Hal Thompson) in some way or form. Then Captain Spaulding arrives with quite an entrance.
And this is where I completely stop caring about the plot in any way, shape, or form.
It’s not Kaufman and Co’s fault, really. The man can certainly write a story or two (his resume defends that point quite nicely). That anarchic tribe known as the Marx Brothers takes this story in their grasps and never lets go. The moment Groucho arrives, apparently carried from Africa like a pharaoh (carried exclusively by black actors, making their only appearance -- oh, hindsight) everything gets shot to hell. He enters and begins to sing “Hello, I must be going,” which is the perfect distillation of the Marx’s involvement in this film.
Everything about the song is a contradiction. It’s an introduction and, upon seeing the people with whom Spaulding will spend an extended amount of time with, he immediately sings himself off. One can imagine that elephants (wearing pants or not) are a more welcoming host than the depression-era Aristocrats that flank all around him. He sings that he’ll “do anything you say…except stay,” a gag that he continues throughout this movie and for the rest of his career. Then he dances like a loon in front of this mass of people who are all reduced to scenery. Those actors should get used to the feeling.
Groucho’s attacks on this foolish aristocratic class are sharp, pointed, and directed straight at the faces of those he is mocking. His berating of Miss Rittenhouse comes early and often, with each barb either going well over her head (as she’s an idiot) or because she is far too proper to try and stop the man (which just reinforces the previous diagnosis). The irony is that the same mechanism that makes them mock these people is also the reason why they’re so consistently allowed to. Like good hosts, they give way to the Marx Brothers to do as they please, and they run all over the walls with muddy shoes.
Essentially, every time you see Harpo, Chico, Zeppo, or Groucho, the movie effectively comes to a halt, allowing them time and space to run their bits, keeping in tune with the “everything that is, is not” vibe. Groucho doesn’t have an actual mustache, Chico is a musician who is so bad he’d paid to not play (don’t even ask what it’ll cost to have him not rehearse), the professor (Harpo) is a mute who chases women around like a predator that Spaulding saw in the jungle…or at least is purported to have seen, as it turns out that the very sight of a caterpillar sends him into hysterics.
Each scene stands as a chance for the brothers to perform. Groucho gets to faux-propose not only to Miss Rittenhouse, but her friend as well, dabbling in polygamy before dumping both of them before they could even realize the situation they are in. Chico and Harpo both get to show off their musical talents, Chico tickling the ivories as Harpo expands upon piano playing and goes to the harp, again, as the actors play like the audience, standing in marvel of their talents. What else are they supposed to do? Further a relationship? Pay some respect.
Some plot elements do come across the Marx's bow, such as when Harpo and Chico are going to steal and switch out the painting with a duplicate, but that section amounts as an excuse for an extended bit where Chico continually asks for a “flash” through his heavy Italian accent as Harpo pulls everything out of his jacket but the flash light. This, like the scene between Groucho and Chico where they “solve the crime,” starts at a point that has to do with what’s going on, but almost never ends there. Towards the second half of the film, they have to resort to waiting for the Marx Brothers to leave before they shoe-horn in about four lines of plot from two characters you barely remember and couldn't care less about.
As we near the climax, the story takes front and center, much to the movie's detriment as it’s the most tedious, boring thing possible. Within minutes, you won’t care a lick about the young couple in love, or the spiteful bitches who try to be curmudgeons, to the extent where their very existence is annoying. Only the Marx Brothers could be so funny, so well-timed, so incredibly talented, that normal story conventions feel as stodgy and old as the aristocrats they send up. What couldn't they do?
Because copyright laws sometimes work in our favor, you can view the entire movie for free on Google Video by clicking this li’l link right here.