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They say that Hollywood never lets a good idea die, that anything worthdoing once is worth camouflaging and doing over again, especially if you canwring a buck out of it. During the studio era, even gifted artists weren'timmune to this approach. They were, after all, working on a glorifiedassembly line, and there wasn't always time for originality.
Howard Hawks' screwball comedy, Monkey Business (1952), is a case in point.Although it contains a handful of very funny sequences and features the inspired comic pairing of Cary Grant and Marilyn Monroe in several scenes, the picture is highly derivative of 1938's Bringing Up Baby, whichalso starred Grant and was directed by Hawks. The absurd plot of Monkey Business also kicks into gear via an animal that gets referenced in the title ("Baby," in case you haven't seen the first film, was atroublemaking leopard.)
Grant, just as he did in Bringing Up Baby, plays an absent-mindedprofessor, except that this one has thicker glasses and speaks slower thanthe first one did. The professor, Barnaby Fulton, has been trying to find away to reverse the aging process. He's not having any luck, but a monkeythat's caged in his lab escapes one night, mixes together some of Barnaby'schemicals, and pours them in the water cooler. The next day, when Barnabydrinks from the cooler wouldn't you know it he suddenly starts actinglike a much younger man!
Soon, he's behaving like a college freshman, even going so far as to buy asports car so he can drive his boss' sexy, flabbergasted secretary (Monroe,whose dim-bulb character gets to work early because she's been told to workon her "punctuation") around town with him. It's all innocent enough. But Barnaby's wife, Edwina (Ginger Rogers), senses something is up, of course. Before long, Edwinadrinks from the tainted water cooler as well and starts acting like an exceptionallysilly adolescent girl. Soon, she and Barnaby are screaming and playing games like belligerent schoolchildren and the situation deteriorates from there.
"I don't think the premise of the film was really believable," Hawks himselflater said, "and for that reason it was not as funny as it should havebeen." He also wasn't particularly pleased to be working with Rogers, whowas forced on him by the studio. Originally, Hawks wanted only Grant'scharacter to experience the effects of the serum. But Rogers insisted onalso "getting young," and Hawks felt her scenes were easily the weakest inthe picture...and many critics at the time agreed.
Still, Monkey Business is frequently hilarious, and it didmanage to cast a spell over Jacques Rivette, a highly influential critic(and, later, a talented director) who wrote for the groundbreaking Frenchfilm digest, Cahiers du Cinema. Strangely enough, Rivette came toview Monkey Business as one of the masterworks of the studio era, andhe wasn't shy about announcing it.
The title of Rivette's famous 1953 essay, The Genius of Howard Hawks,is on the money - Hawks was a superior craftsman, and he successfully workedin more different genres than any of his peers. But Rivette's lengthyrumination on Monkey Business's thematic complexity is the kind ofthing that makes otherwise intelligent people blanche at the very concept offilm criticism. His unyielding opening passage sets the tone - "Theevidence on the screen is the proof of Hawks' genius: you only have towatch Monkey Business to know that it is a brilliant film. Somepeople refuse to admit this, however; they refuse to be satisfied by proof.There can't be any other reason why they don't recognize it." One passage even compares Grant's regression toearly childhood to the plight of the down-sliding lead character in TheBlue Angel (1930), a classic slice of Germanic misery in which a dignifiedcollege professor is systematically humiliated by a sexy, pitiless showgirl."It is by no means facile to compare these two similar tales of ruin,"Rivette wrote. "We recall how the themes of damnation and malediction inthe German cinema had imposed the same rigorous progression from the likableto the hideous."
Be that as it may, Monkey Business is far more enjoyable if youbanish any themes of damnation and malediction from your consciousness whileGrant plays cowboys and Indians with a bunch of second graders. The monkey,for his part, is pretty funny too.
Director: Howard Hawks
Producer: Sol C. Siegel
Screenplay: Ben Hecht, Charles Lederer and I.A.L. Diamond (based on a story by HarrySegall)
Cinematography: Milton Krasner
Editing: William B. Murphy
Art Direction: Lyle Wheeler and George Patrick
Set Design: Thomas Little and Walter M. Scott
Special Effects: Ray Kellogg
Costume Design: Travilla
Makeup: Ben Nye
Music: Leigh HarlineCast: Cary Grant (Prof. Barnaby Fulton), Ginger Rogers (EdwinaFulton), Charles Coburn (Mr. Oliver Oxley), Marilyn Monroe (Lois Laurel),Hugh Marlowe (Harvey Entwhistle), Henri Letondal (Dr. Jerome Linten),Robert Cornthwaite (Dr. Zoldeck), Larry Keating (Mr. G.J. Culverly), DouglasSpencer (Dr. Brunner), Esther Dale (Mrs. Rhinelander), George FoghornWinslow (Little Indian), Emmett Lynn (Jimmy).
B&W-97m. Closed Captioning.
by Paul Tatara