Monkey Business (1952)
Films in BOLD will Air on TCM * | VIEW TCMDb ENTRY
They say that Hollywood never lets a good idea die, that anything worth doing once is worth camouflaging and doing over again, especially if you can wring a buck out of it. During the studio era, even gifted artists weren't immune to this approach. They were, after all, working on a glorified assembly 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, which also 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 a troublemaking leopard.)
Grant, just as he did in Bringing Up Baby, plays an absent-minded professor, except that this one has thicker glasses and speaks slower than the first one did. The professor, Barnaby Fulton, has been trying to find a way to reverse the aging process. He's not having any luck, but a monkey that's caged in his lab escapes one night, mixes together some of Barnaby's chemicals, and pours them in the water cooler. The next day, when Barnaby drinks from the cooler wouldn't you know it he suddenly starts acting like a much younger man!
Soon, he's behaving like a college freshman, even going so far as to buy a sports 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 work on 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, Edwina drinks from the tainted water cooler as well and starts acting like an exceptionally silly adolescent girl. Soon, she and Barnaby are screaming and playing games like belligerent school children and the situation deteriorates from there.
"I don't think the premise of the film was really believable," Hawks himself later said, "and for that reason it was not as funny as it should have been." He also wasn't particularly pleased to be working with Rogers, who was forced on him by the studio. Originally, Hawks wanted only Grant's character to experience the effects of the serum. But Rogers insisted on also "getting young," and Hawks felt her scenes were easily the weakest in the picture...and many critics at the time agreed.
Still, Monkey Business is frequently hilarious, and it did manage to cast a spell over Jacques Rivette, a highly influential critic (and, later, a talented director) who wrote for the groundbreaking French film digest, Cahiers du Cinema. Strangely enough, Rivette came to view Monkey Business as one of the masterworks of the studio era, and he 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 worked in more different genres than any of his peers. But Rivette's lengthy rumination on Monkey Business's thematic complexity is the kind of thing that makes otherwise intelligent people blanche at the very concept of film criticism. His unyielding opening passage sets the tone - "The evidence on the screen is the proof of Hawks' genius: you only have to watch Monkey Business to know that it is a brilliant film. Some people 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 to early childhood to the plight of the down-sliding lead character in The Blue Angel (1930), a classic slice of Germanic misery in which a dignified college 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 in the German cinema had imposed the same rigorous progression from the likable to the hideous."
Be that as it may, Monkey Business is far more enjoyable if you banish any themes of damnation and malediction from your consciousness while Grant 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 Harry Segall)
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 Harline Cast: Cary Grant (Prof. Barnaby Fulton), Ginger Rogers (Edwina Fulton), 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), Douglas Spencer (Dr. Brunner), Esther Dale (Mrs. Rhinelander), George ³Foghorn² Winslow (Little Indian), Emmett Lynn (Jimmy).
B&W-97m. Closed Captioning.
by Paul Tatara