Wednesday Editor’s Pick: Monkey Business (1952)

by on July 5, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Wed July 6 at 6:50, 9:15 at BAMcinématek [Program & Tix]


BAM’s Marilyn Monroe retrospective continues through July 17. Make sure to read Dan Callahan’s full-career analysis, Tom McCormack’s rundown on Bringing Up Baby – both for Alt Screen – and ready yourself for Howard Hawks’  other marvelous comedy starring Cary Grant. While occasionally dismissed by audiences with no sense and fun and Hawks himself, who had a less than respectful initial impression of Monroe,  Monkey Business has found a deservedly devoted following by critics and academics alike.


Peter Bradshaw for the Guardian:

It is part romp, part druggie-surrealist masterpiece, and a complete joy. Monkey Business is undervalued by some, on account of its alleged inferiority to the master’s 30s pictures, and the accident of sharing a title with a film by the Marx Brothers. I can only say that this film whizzes joyfully along with touches of pure genius: at once sublimely innocent and entirely worldly. Cary Grant plays Dr Barnaby Fulton, a mild-mannered, bespectacled industrial scientist working on a “rejuvenation” elixir for his tetchy boss Mr Oxley (Charles Coburn). One of Dr Fulton’s test chimps escapes and mixes up the lab chemicals in a random way so as to create the perfect “eternal youth” recipe – somewhere between Viagra and LSD – and dumps it in the water supply.


Dr Fulton drinks it; his short sight is cured and he instantly gets a new youthful haircut, jacket, and snazzy roadster, in which he takes smitten secretary Lois (Marilyn Monroe) for a day’s adventures. (The memory of Grant with his Coke-bottle glasses exchanging dialogue with the entranced Marilyn was revived eight years later by Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot.) His wife Edwina (Ginger Rogers) and Mr Oxley drink it too, with anarchic results. I think the role of Edwina in this film has been misread by some critics. It isn’t simply that she becomes a wacky, carefree schoolgirl under the influence. She takes her husband to a hotel and is chemically compelled to recreate her wedding night, becoming the terrified young woman she was on that occasion: frightened of seeing her groom’s naked body, overwhelmed with sadness at the thought of leaving her mother, querulous at the thought of Barnaby’s ex-girlfriends. It is a brilliant and subtle invention – and like everything else packed with gags.



Jacques Rivette
in his landmark Cahiers essay “The Genius of Howard Hawks”:

The evidence on the screen is the proof of Howard Hawks’s genius: you only have to watch Monkey Business to know that it is a brilliant film… in Monkey Business the enemy has crept into man himself: the subtle poison of the Fountain of Youth, the temptation of infantilism. This we have long known to be one of the less subtle wiles of the Evil One — now in the form of a hound, now in the form of a monkey — when he comes up against a man of rare intelligence. And it is the most unfortunate of illusions which Hawks rather cruelly attacks: the notion of adolescence and childhood are barbarous states from which he are rescued by education. The child is scarcely distinguishable from the savage he imitates in his games: and a most distinguished old man, after he has drunk the precious fluid, takes delight in imitating a chimp. One can find in this a classical conception of man, as a creature whose only path to greatness lies through experience and maturity; at the end of his journey, it is his old age which will be his judge.


Still worse than infantilism, degradation, or decadence, however, is the fascination these tendencies exert on the same mind which perceives them as evil; the film is not only a story about this fascination, it offers itself to the spectator as a demonstration of the power of the fascination. Likewise, anyone who criticizes this tendency must first submit himself to it. The monkeys, the Indians, the goldfish are no more than the guise worn by Hawk’s obsession with primitivism, which also finds expression in the savage rhythms of the tom-tom music, the sweet stupidity of Marilyn Monroe (that monster of femininity whom the costume designer nearly deformed), or the ageing bacchante Ginger Rogers becomes when she reverts to adolescence and her wrinkles seem to shrink away. The instinctive euphoria of the characters’ actions gives a lyric quality to the ugliness and foulness, a denseness of expression which heightens everything into abstraction: the fascination of all this gives beauty to the metamorphoses in retrospect. One could apply the ‘expressionistic’ to the artfulness with which Cary Grant twists his gestures into symbols; watching the scene in which he makes himself up as an Indian, it is impossible not to be reminded of the famous shot in The Blue Angel in which Jannings stares at his distorted face. It is by no means facile to compare these two similar tales of ruin: we recall how the themes of damnation and malediction in the German cinema had imposed the same rigorous progression from the likeable to the hideous.


From the close-up of the chimpanzee to the moment when the diaper slips off the baby Cary Grant, the viewer’s head swims with the constant whirl of immodesty and impropriety; and what is this feeling if not a mixture of fear, censure — and fascination? The allure of the instinctual, the abandonment to primitive earthly forces, evil, ugliness, stupidity — all of the Devil’s attributes are, in these comedies in which the soul itself is tempted to bestiality, deviously combined with logic in extremis; the sharpest point of the intelligence is turned back on itself.


Time Out (London):

Immaculate screwball comedy by its greatest practitioners, in which Cary Grant polishes up at least three previous roles as an absent-minded chemist in search of a youth drug. The chaos starts when a mischievous monkey accidentally mixes the magic formula into the water cooler, whereupon Grant and wife Ginger Rogers take turns to regress into childhood. For Grant, that means sex, speed, a crew-cut, checked jacket and socks, while Rogers wants to dance the hoochie-coochie in their honeymoon hotel. Monroe is on hand as the typist who can’t type, while the timing of the gags can put most Hollywood comedies, never mind TV sitcoms, to shame. The classic inverted-world comedy, where kids and animals bring sexual anarchy into the demure adult world, leaving all inhabitants much refreshed and highly amused.



Robin Wood in his study of Howard Hawks:

Scarface apart, Hawks’s greatest comedy is Monkey Business. Here the disturbing elements that characterize the comedies are assimilated into an entirely coherent, perfectly proportioned whole… The reversions in Monkey Business, like the anti-social behavior of the gangsters in Scarface, strike sympathetic chords in all of us; the unflagging zest of the film suggests that they strike sympathetic chords in Hawks. This disturbing ambivalence of feeling—the simultaneous attraction to the rational and the instinctive, the civilised and the primitive—is cenral to much of Hawks’s work. We never reach anything remotely approaching ‘the horror—the horror’ of Heart of Darkness; if the descent into primitiveness of Monkey Business conveys a sense of dangerous uncontrol it conveys simultaneously a joyous exhiliration. Our primitive selves respond, the divilised selves tell us to be ashamed of the response: this is the tension that underlies Monkey Business, and Hawks here keeps the conflicting impulses perfectly in balance, without sacrifice of vitality.


If Monkey Business is the greatest of Hawks’s comedies, it is finally because it is the most organic. Once the principle has been grasped, every detail of the film fits into place. Barnaby’s boss Mr. Oxly, contemplating with unqualified admiration the imbecilic cavortings of a supposedly rejuvenated chimpanzee suggests, near the beginning of the film, the folly of human desires and reminds us of the connection between the childish and the senile. the ‘half-infant’ Monroe character stands as an example of fully developed immaturity. Edwina’s mother adds a further complexity by showing us that Edwina’s early behaviour under the drug – her reversion to helpless, trembling virginity – is just what the mother likes to see, conforming to her image of what a girl should be. Edwina’s very first action after taking the drug – the dropping of a fish down Oxly’s trousers – with its ironic appropriateness to the dedicated student of ichthyology and its combining of an irresponsbile teenage joke with inescapable sexual overtones, shows us very economically the discrepancy between what she was and what the drug allows her to become. Her later assumption that the naked infant that has strayed  into the house is her drastically retrogressed husband is anticipated not only in her motherly handling of Barnaby at the beginning, but by her half-gleeful talk about the possibility of his reverting to infancy in the coffee-making scene half-way through. The image of the eminently civilized and scholarly Barnaby daubed with war-paint and executing a var dance with a gang of kids around a petrified Hank, at home he brandishes a lethal-looking pair of scissors, crystallizes  (with its simultaneous sense of the loss of control and the gaining of vitality – the ambivalent feeling of the whole film. There are no irrelevances: the comic invention is the funnier for being so satisfyingly organic.


Richard Brody discusses what he considers one of Hawks’s best films in a clip  for the New Yorker:




A not entirely successful, but humorous and somehow appropriate translation of program notes by Jonathan Rosenbaum for the Austrian Film Museum:

The more powerful the height of fall into the ridiculous, the more successful comedy. Mindful of the cruelty of this principle may Cary Grant (as a scientist whose seriousness with the thickness of its lenses vies) under the influence of a rejuvenation drug behind the hips wiggling and Marilyn Monroe’s chase, the child became physically to complete Indianerskalptänze. The chimpanzee-supplied provides the paradigm: The Verkindlichung is also animalization. In the final, a horde of screaming rages as monkey chemist St. Vitus’ dance of the disintegrating civilization. Bar on digressions, elaborations, refinements, stripped of all sentiment veil, sealed and compact with the functional beauty of a machine built Hawks on the situation and extend it, the mechanism of turning to the limits of embarrassment, and ends up at the stage exact delirium, and in suspension remains as to whether the decline of reason makes frenetic anarchic free or extremely angry.


The mysteriously un-surnamed Trevor for Journey by Frame:

Monkey Business is a truly subversive and transgressive work of art, but it’s also a comedy that many could watch without really listening to Hawks and his team. And to me, that’s okay. I don’t think we need works of art to loudly announce themselves to the world and render us incapable of resisting the reprogramming and betterment they allegedly promise. Of course works of art can change us, but they can also be ignored, whereas the world of politics is ever-present and unavoidable. If we wanted to, we couldn’t avoid the world of politics, because it is so loud, but art is different because instead of raising its voice, it challenges us to listen better. There will always be the possibility to ignore it, which enrages us fans because anyone can trample over it without facing repercussions, but I cherish the utter “uselessness” of any work of art, the way it resists being used or exploited for any purpose. I can only give myself to it and let myself be changed by it, and that is a purpose of sorts, even though we still can’t describe art as a “tool.” Furthermore, I like to think that Hawks’s films meant a lot to Robin Wood, who wrote sensitively and passionately about them. I like to imagine a connection between Wood’s coming out of the closet (after he had already lived the life of “unadventurous respectability”) and the joy and sense of liberation with which Hawks depicts the irresponsible and instinctive. Of course, Hawks’s films didn’t “make” Wood come out of the closet, but I think what they did was more valuable. In the way that he grapples with the themes of Hawks’s comedies, I know that Wood thou


At the end of Monkey Business, after Barnaby and Edwina had both taken the larger dose of the drug, they settle once again into their ordered lives at home. They are exactly where they started, but they have been changed. They have perhaps learned something about each other and about their relationship; probably, it was all for the better. In Hawks’s comedies, conflict enters the otherwise ordered lives of the protagonists until they break down and reform in happier ways. Barnaby and his wife talk to each other about “letting the phone keep ringing” all day. This conclusion may seem slight, but it’s the manner by which they reach it that matters. The Fultons find greater happiness by rejecting the social obligation of responsibility: Barnaby has passionately abandoned his project to find the formula for the drug. This idea that irresponsibility can lead us to liberation and happiness can be followed to an even more radical position if one is willing, as the argument that one should reject social and productive demands for “mere” pleasure and happiness (the “premise” of art in general) runs counter to the very foundations of modern, capitalist society. Monkey Business will not change that society, but it can help us change ourselves.


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