‘Animal Crackers’ or — Dumont Steals The Show?
The story to ‘Animal Crackers’ (1930) is super simple — Chico and Harpo must steal a painting… and that’s pretty much it. Of course, what happens all around that is super complicated and utterly insane to the point that you actually end up forgetting the stolen painting because you’re too busy keeping track of the elephants in pajamas, the left-handed moths and the left out Hungerdungers.
This stripped-down story might explain why ‘Animal Crackers’ might be the Marx Brother’s most insane movie… and that’s saying something! By not having an annoying ‘plot’ or ‘narrative’ to clutter things up it frees up bags of space for unrestrained silliness and trust me, there’s A LOT of silliness in ‘Animal Crackers’ and all of it is unrestrained. The film is bursting with comedic set-pieces, word-play, fore-play, sight gags, fourth wall breaks and leaps of twisted logic that are inspired. For example, I love the moment when Captain Geoffrey T. Spaulding, Groucho, and Emanuel Ravelli, Chico, deduce that the stolen painting must be in the house next door. The only problem is there isn’t a house next door. The logical solution — they need to build one. It’s a stroke of genius.
The best scene, however, might be the card game where Margaret Dumont, as she would so often do, sneakily steals the show from under the boy’s noses. It starts in spectacular fashion with the prim and proper Dumont being repeatedly punched in the stomach in a physical comedy performance that rivals Ade Edmonson or Rik Mayall in ‘Bottom’ in terms of brutality. Then it’s onto the card game where she absolutely dominates the scene simply by her looks and movements alone. Watch what she does throughout the bridge game whilst Harpo is dealing; it’s wonderful and timed to perfection (watch when Harpo hits her hand but hits his hand by mistake to which she scolds him — “It’s your own fault”). She is wonderful. It’s a brilliantly written scene and topped off with a truly unhinged joke with shoes.
I’ve always loved The Marx Brothers and I’ve found that, outside of Warner Bros cartoons, no one has ever matched their comedy for sheer speed and acceleration. Their films have always moved fast but boy, ‘Animal Crackers’ might just be their fastest. It’s an extraordinarily funny movie that moves at a blistering pace. Oh, and it’s also extremely naughty; you can tell, sense and feel, this is a pre-code film because sex is everywhere.
Watching ‘Animal Crackers’ again last night it struck me that The Marx Brothers seem to be the inverse of Laurel and Hardy, two poor men struggling with the insanity of life. So in ‘The Music Box’ (1932) Laurel and Hardy are attempting to deal with an out of control piano which brings destruction into their lives; the difference with the Marx Brothers is that they ARE the piano and the rest of us had better watch out. Sometimes it’s a wonderful thing to be on the side of agents of chaos.