Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Monkey Business (1952)

Monkey Business is perhaps Howard Hawks' most truly madcap farce, a film that takes an absurd premise — a distracted professor trying to discover a formula for youth — and diligently expands upon each of the scenario's many comic possibilities in turn. There's something simultaneously chaotic and methodical about Hawks' approach to comedy, and it's especially true here. There's a sense in his comedy that, while the action onscreen may be wild and frenzied, there is actually a thoroughly designed structure underpinning everything. The film takes its central idea and then rotates through the possible results: first the professor Barnaby Fulton (Cary Grant) drinks the potion and begins acting like a young man of twenty; then his wife Edwina (Ginger Rogers) takes a drink and becomes a teen; then they both down an even larger dose and regress to childhood; finally everybody in the lab accidentally ingests the formula. The script is schematic in the extreme, formally structured into discrete segments based around the stepped regression of the protagonists, and yet the result never feels mannered. The action is smeared across the frame with such energy and abandon that it's impossible not to giggle and laugh with pleasure.

A large part of the credit must surely go to the fantastic cast. Grant and Rogers have a surprising comic chemistry that's equally apparent in the early scene where the patient, bemused Edwina deals with scatterbrained Barnaby's attempts to get ready for a party, and the later scenes where the duo become childlike, sparring and bickering with petulant stubbornness. Both actors perfectly manage the transformations from adulthood to childhood, acting in multiple different registers to convey the shifts in their personalities. Grant is initially a stiff, somewhat stuffy scientist with a tendency to daydream and forget what he's doing, especially if he's hard at work thinking about a project. The opening credits introduce the actor overlapping with his own character; the credits sequence unfurls over a view of the couple's front door, and Grant keeps opening the door and starting to step out, before an offscreen voice (Hawks himself, actually) tells him, "not yet, Cary." It's a tossed-off metafictional moment intended to remind the audience that, no matter how much of a nerd Barnaby seems to be, it's stylish Cary Grant under that nebbishy exterior. Once he ingests his formula, however, his absent-mindedness gives way to boyish enthusiasm and energy, and quite naturally an interest in the office's leggy, dumb-as-a-brick secretary, Miss Laurel (Marilyn Monroe, in a small but show-stopping role), who he ordinarily barely even notices despite her bombshell beauty.

Grant is an absolute joy when he's playing his younger self. As a young man, he engages in a whirlwind courtship of Laurel, taking her out roller-skating, high-diving into a pool to impress her, racing frantically through the streets in the souped-up sports car he buys. Later, as a younger boy, he's even more fun: dressing himself up in warpaint to become an Indian, and hatching a plan with a bunch of real young boys to "scallop" his wife's former boyfriend Hank (Hugh Marlowe). This scene is perhaps the most distinctively Hawksian in the film. There is almost always, in Hawks' best and most characteristic films, a scene where a group of people gather together, in a tightly clustered frame, in order to perform and listen to music. These scenes are usually joyous and celebratory, representing the peak of Hawks' vision of communal togetherness and cooperation. In this film, the scene that fulfills this function is a truly unusual one, as Barnaby and the other young Indians begin performing a war dance in order to prepare for their ambush of Hank. The boys are gathered in a circle around Grant, whose face is smeared with black paint and a few white lines. He directs his new friends in what to do, giving one a rhythm to play, another a short lyric to shout, another a war cry to holler, and soon the boys and Grant are worked up into a frenzy, howling and singing with the rhythm of the war drums. Hawks' camera maintains its stoic fixed position, capturing the absurd energy of this scene. He follows it up with an equally enjoyable sequence where Hank is captured, tied to a tree, and then "scalloped" until he's left with only a scraggly mohawk on the top of his head. These scenes are truly hilarious, accumulating a ridiculous momentum driven by Grant's over-the-top performance.

Rogers is nearly as good, and her transformations from loving wife to bratty little girl are just as adept at signaling the change in her character (in fact, both actors render completely redundant the silly sound effect that accompanies their changeovers, which makes the whole thing seem more like magic than science). Rogers doesn't get quite as much meat as her co-star, but she does seem to have a real ball shifting from a TV sitcom housewife to a mouthy teen who speaks her mind. There are hints of sexism here — why does the younger Grant become playful and fun-loving while Rogers' youth unleashes a shrewish, whining quality in her personality? — though they are balanced on the whole by the film's overall thrust, and by Barnaby and Edwina's temperate consideration of what the youth formula brings out in each of them. The scene where Edwina, reliving her honeymoon night with her husband, abruptly breaks down crying and lashing out at him over everything, is cruelly stereotyped, depicting every negative feminine caricature rolled up into one character. On the other extreme, the "mature" Edwina dismisses her husband's philandering, his chasing after the luscious Laurel, with nothing more than a bit of affectionate ribbing, as though that's to be expected. Edwina vacillates between a dowdy housewife and a frightful nag, both hoary stereotypes even if Rogers does invest them with a greater than usual depth and complexity.

The film's theme, if such a light-hearted confection can be said to have one without sounding too pretentious, is the importance of retaining a youthful passion in relationships, even as youth itself recedes into the past. Initially, Barnaby and Edwina's marriage is a bit staid, and Edwina seems vaguely discontented even if she's too chipper and understanding to let it show. In one early scene, she casually shrugs it off when Barnaby's absent-minded musings prevent them from going out to a party, shedding her elegant dress for a frumpy housewife's apron and making her husband eggs instead. Despite her laidback attitude, it's hard to believe that she isn't at least subconsciously dissatisfied with this situation. Even the oblivious Barnaby soon realizes it, reminiscing about the much more passionate early years of their marriage.

This narrative of dimmed romance drives the film's narrative, which is otherwise structured only by the (il)logic of its escalating series of gags. There is no real plot here, just the riotous spirit of fun unleashed by the youth formula's effects. The narrative throughline is more subtle, an undercurrent beneath the surface insanity and laughs, a story of lovers reconnecting with their youth and realizing both what they've missed and what they've gained by growing up. The narrative here is thus not a sequence of events so much as a sequence of emotions, and the actors do a fantastic job of maintaining this serious subtext even through the film's most baroque bits of slapstick absurdity.

And there's plenty of absurdity to contend with, in the best sense. The dialogue is quick-witted and clever, packed with sexual double entendres and wordplay. It's not quite as pattering as in some of Hawks' earlier screwball comedies, but there's a real comedic edge to it, a bite to the verbiage that's enhanced by the actors' flowing deliveries. Monroe, though she has a bit part, gets a lot of the choice material, playing even more of an oblivious blonde bimbo than usual, whether she's showing off her "acetates" or explaining why she's at work so early: "Mr. Oxley's been complaining about my punctuation, so I'm careful to get here before nine." Speaking of Oxley, Charles Coburn, as Barnaby's boss, gives another great character actor turn, as a dignified old geezer who's utterly matter-of-fact about his perversions. One of the film's best lines is tossed off by Coburn as he watches Monroe leave the room, having just told her that she shouldn't try typing again after the last disaster. He admires her wiggling walk as she exits, then turns to Grant with a shrug and deadpans, "anyone can type." Hawks also packs a lot of physical humor into the film, whether it's from an impressively trained monkey or from Grant, who's a tightly wound ball of energy and even launches into one of the joyful somersaults he so often performed in his earlier career. The film is nearly a decade late to be a real screwball comedy — and it was certainly too late to be a commercially successful one, as the dismal box office take at the time proved — but it is nevertheless a vibrant, satisfying take on the genre that Hawks and Grant themselves perfected in their own younger days.


Fox said...

I'm happy to hear you sing the praises of Monkey Business. It seems to constantly get stuffed behind His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby in discussion of the Hawks comedies. And while I love those two films, I think this one has been given an unfair overlook.

I would say the same for Gentlemen Prefer Blonds as well. In fact, that's one of my favorite Hawks films that rarely gets tossed in with his top tier best. Granted, he has about 10-15 that could duke it out for his greatest, but I really adore Gentlemen (Monroe at her best, perhaps??)

And yes oh yes on Monroe in Monkey Business. That scene in particular from the still you posted is very sexy.

Ed Howard said...

You're right, this film does not deserve to be overlooked. While His Girl Friday and Twentieth Century are probably the smartest and most stylish of Hawks' comedies, I'd put this one nearly on par with Bringing Up Baby -- they're both so much madcap fun, mixing slapstick and verbal dexterity really well. Monroe is a lot better in Gentlemen, though, because it's a much more knowing subversion of her usual role. In that film, she acts dumb because she knows it's what men expect from her -- which is exactly what she does in this film, putting on this ditzy airhead persona, except that the film makes no acknowledgment of the act. She's just supposed to be this really dumb character.

Anonymous said...

I watched "Monkey Business" for the first time this evening and then searched for reviews online. Ed, yours was by far the best.
You and "Fox"--and everyone else who admits to having seen the movie--missed the key to the "logic" of the movie, one that isn't necessary to have to enjoy it but that answers some of one's questions about why the movie was made. Get ready for a shock.
The "fountain of youth" that Dr. Fulton is preparing is actually the cure for HEARING LOSS. When a patient is stricken with serious hearing loss and then recovers, either with the help of an operation or a hearing aid, he must "catch up" on the period of time he spent without hearing, which sometimes involves regressive behavior and almost always involves a certain amount of impulsiveness, especially an eagerness to voice one's opinions and interrupt others. Hence, "Not yet, Cary." Hank Entwistle is so named because ENT stands for the "ear-nose-and-throat man" who performs the operation or prescribes the hearing aid. In the movie, it's Cary's sight that goes in and out, indicating that the movie is about a kindred sensory perception.
How do I know this? Because I myself grew up with a serious hearing loss; I also grew up with the late anthropologist Dr. Ray BirdWHISTLE's daughter. I was deaf in my right ear from around 3 years old but didn't get a hearing aid till age 37, after two operations in my youth failed to restore my hearing. My granduncles lived in Fulton County, Pennsylvania.
My eagerness to volunteer this information is due in part to the hearing that was restored by my hearing aid in 1991, but the impetus for my writing is mainly to educate people about the nature and seriousness of hearing loss, so that the insurance companies who do not recognize hearing aid expenses as medical expenses will learn the error of their ways. Do I often feel giddy, as if I were a teenager again? Absolutely, and I've done some foolish things to prove it. Do I feel as if I've discovered the fountain of youth? Well, not really, but my "inner child" is far more alive than everyone else's. It's hard to say if that's from the hearing aid or therapy--probably the latter.
New perspectives on an old film: surprised?