Story. Story. Story. It’s the one that thing was drilled in to my head from countless screenwriting classes. Story was the most important element in any film. It was the reason someone watched and, more importantly, the reason people kept watching. Even if you have interesting characters that the audience cares about, unless they’re doing something -- anything -- then your story is not worth telling and your screenplay is not worth being made. If your screenplay didn’t have characters that pushed the narrative forward or did not directly relate to the overall structure, then you had failed. In the years since graduation, I’d taken the lesson to heart, both in criticism and in practice in making my own stories. It was simple. I was happy.
And then, you watch something like Animal Crackers, and it all gets shot to hell.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a story in Animal Crackers. There is a very definite story that follows a traditional two-act play structure (as it was adapted from a George S. Kaufman “musical play”) and it starts immediately following the credits. There is a close-up on the front page of a newspaper, featuring a large photo to the side (showing the setting) and two sub-headlines that handle the majority of the plot.
A socialite will host a party Captain Spaulding as its guest of honor. He is an explorer who has recently returned from a trip to Africa and, to mark the occasion, there will be an unveiling of a famous work of art. It doesn’t take much watching this in hindsight to see just who this Spaulding will be as the first scene features a butler, flanked by his subservient servants, each more stodgy and straight laced than the last, singing about how they must do their best to serve on this evening. They brace for a man like a king. Little do they know that they're being set up like a row of pins.
We meet the main cast of characters. The host of the party is Mrs. Rittenhouse, played by the seemingly unflappable Margaret Dumont, who greets Mr. Chandler (Louis Sorin) and his expensive painting (even pointedly remarking to a friend that he’d be accompanied by his new “$100,000 painting”) and seamlessly introduces Arabella Rittenhouse (Lillian Roth), the precocious daughter who is entangled with John Parker (Hal Thompson) in some way or form. Enter Captain Spaulding; exit narrative.
It’s not Kaufman and Co’s fault, really. The man can certainly write a story or two. An anarchic tribe known as the Marx Brothers takes this story in their grasps and never lets go. The moment Groucho arrives, apparently carried all the way from Africa like a pharaoh (carried exclusively by black actors, monopolizing the film's non pale appearances) everything gets shot to hell. He begins to sing “Hello, I must be going,” the perfect fag line both for the film and the Marx’s involvement.
Everything about the song is a contradiction. It’s an introduction and, upon seeing the people with whom Spaulding will spend an extended amount of time with, he immediately sings about his retreat. One can guess that animals are a more welcoming host than the depression-era Aristocrats. He sings that he’ll “do anything you say…except stay,” a part of a song that will last the length of his life and thusly his career. Then he dances like a loon in front of this mass of people who are all reduced to scenery. Those actors should get used to the feeling.
Groucho’s attacks on this foolish aristocratic class are sharp, pointed, and directed straight at the faces of those he is mocking. His berating of Miss Rittenhouse comes early and often, with each barb either going over her head or because she is far too proper to try and stop the man, though it's not clear which makes her more inept. The irony is that the same mechanism that makes them mock these people is also the reason why they’re so consistently allowed to. Like good hosts, they give way to the Marx Brothers to do as they please, and they run all over.
Essentially, every time you see Harpo, Chico, Zeppo, or Groucho, the movie comes to a halt and they are allowed to run their bits, keeping in tune with the “everything that is, is not” vibe. Groucho doesn’t have an actual mustache, Chico is a musician who is so bad he’s paid to not play (don’t even ask what it’ll cost to have him not rehearse), the professor (Harpo) is a mute who chases women around like a predator that Spaulding fell in the jungle…or at least is purported to have seen, since the very sight of a caterpillar sends him into hysterics.
Each get their own separate scenes, and opportunities, to perform solos. Groucho gets to faux-propose not only to Miss Rittenhouse, but her friend as well, dabbling in polygamy before dumping both of them like bad habits. Chico and Harpo both get to show off their musical talents, tickling the ivories and the harp, respectively. The actors politely stand in attention, mirroring us on the screen. Let us enjoy their talents together, yes? Good.
The counter argument could stand that some pieces of the plot do affect, such as when Harpo and Chico are going to steal and switch out the painting with a duplicate, but that section amounts to an extended bit where Chico continually asks for a “flash” through his heavy Italian accent and Harpo pulls everything out of his jacket but the wanted flash light. This, like the scene between Groucho and Chico where they “solve the crime” starts at a point that has to do with what’s going on, but almost never ends there. Towards the second half of the film, they have to resort to waiting for the Marx Brothers to leave before they shoe-horn in about four lines of plot from two characters you barely remember and certainly don’t care about.
That might be the most salient point. After a while, when the plot does come in to play, it’s the most tedious, boring thing possible. Within minutes, you won’t care a lick about the young couple in love, or the spiteful bitches who try to be curmudgeons, to the point where their very existence is annoying. Only the Marx Brothers could be so funny, so well-timed, so incredibly talented, that normal conventions, feel as stodgy and old as the aristocrats they send up.