Monkey Business Loads of Fun
By Kristin Battestella
Thanks to its star studded cast and award winning talent both in front and behind camera, the 1952 comedy Monkey Business doesn’t screw up its screwball wit.
Chemist Barnaby Fulton (Cary Grant) and his wife Edwina (Ginger Rogers) are hopeful for his next scientific breakthrough at Oxley Chemical. Barnaby thinks he may have the right youthful formula at last, which excites boss Oliver Oxley (Charles Coburn) and his secretary Lois Laurel (Marilyn Monroe). However, after one of the lab monkeys mixes up a brew of her own and it gets in the office water cooler, this true fountain of youth elixir effects Barnaby – and his wife – in ways never expected.
Director Howard Hawks (Red River, Sergeant York) and writers Harry Segall (Here Comes Mr. Jordan), Ben Hecht (Notorious), I. A. L. Diamond (The Apartment), and Charles Lederer (Ocean’s Eleven) begin with some self referential charm, adorably dry jokes, friendly jabs, and even cooking insults before building the fifties fun and witty science. The dialogue and deadpan reactions are on form and keep what is quite a preposterous premise relatively smart. Subtle, silent slapstick scenes force the viewer to pay attention to the players at hand and their experimental elixir changes. Those unaccustomed to classic film comedy beats and rhythms may find the characters both too slow going and too talkative, but this style fits the plot perfectly. Yes, Monkey Business is similar in slapstick to Bringing Up Baby, and several scenes are too rowdy, fifties familiar, and overly stereotypical, granted. The whole predicament is also fairly obvious today – he drinks, she drinks, then they drink together! Fortunately, the hair-brained trouble each step causes is nonetheless charming, and even the monkeys are cute. Okay, so the primate elements may be cliché too, but at least real monkeys were used. That’s more than I can say for all those old man in a gorilla suit horror pictures!
Well, well the be-spectacled and socially dim witted but sophisticated scientist Cary Grant looks great, surprise, surprise. Whether it’s merely an undone tie around his neck, cruising in his new car, or taking a swim, Grant (star of 5 pictures helmed by Hawks) is certainly having a good time in Monkey Business. Is it ridiculous to have the king of suave jumping out the window, acting like a kid, and scalping his rival? Of course. Does the mayhem work? Absolutely. His scientific dialogue and innuendo alliteration isn’t easy either, but Grant’s delivery is spot on – although I can’t say the same for his singing! Though known more for her dancing with onscreen partner Fred Astaire than her first picture with Grant, Once Upon a Honeymoon, Ginger Rogers is equal to the task as Barnaby’s sassy, bossy wife Edwina. The part could have easily become annoying or trite, but Rogers is so classy and charming whether she’s a supposedly simple housewife with a smile on her face or a juvenile victim of the formula. Her trickster ways and finger wagging jealousy may seem a bit too childish for modern viewers, but then again, that’s the point of Monkey Business. Rogers does have a few chances to get her dance on, too, and her baby scenes in the final act are far more amusing than the Indian scalping play-acting. The proverbial letting their hair down and matching of wits between Grant and Rogers makes for lovely dynamics and a fun, coupled adventure, and their tandem work is delightful. They just don’t make comedies like they used to – or have the right pairs of stars to go in them!
Today Monkey Business may be billed as one of her big pictures, but Marilyn Monroe (also of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with Hawks) is not the star here and she doesn’t have much screen time. Nevertheless, her cluelessly loveable and steamy, but harmless secretary Lois Laurel is the perfect fodder for our fountain of youth experiencing duo. The innuendo and misunderstandings she causes are just as amusing as her stupidity. From not being late because of bad punctuation and needing someone to type for her to enjoying her acetates – err stockings – the delivery from Monroe is smooth, even innocent. Monroe isn’t over the top and deliberately putting on the sexy, and thus Grant can match her as the straight man with no laugh track, rim shots, or hammering the viewer’s head with the nudge nudge wink wink required. Yes, Monroe’s bullet bra enters the room before she does and her fans will enjoy what time she has onscreen, but her performance is really wise, well done comedy. Charles Coburn (The More the Merrier) is also a hoot as the monocle wearing and definitely noticing Oliver Oxely – after all, “Anyone can type.” Perhaps the subtext is tame today, but intelligent hints and charming performances never go out of style. In addition to these big stars of Monkey Business going kid, it’s also an ironic twist to add the deep voiced little George Winslow (My Pal Gus and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) as a child voice of reason on the whole wacky matter.
Although the black and white photography may hide some of the sweet costumes from oft Monroe designer Travilla, all the mid century touches are here – the jazz, her pearls, those gloves, that kitchen! I have to say, I love the obviously fake driving scenery and crazy stunt work. It’s such a fifties staple! The laboratories are fun, and the monkey filming is well done, too. Naturally, one can’t go looking for serious science or the moral and ethical consequences of youthful experimentation with Monkey Business. While parts here are predictable, dated, and definitely of their time, one can’t pull off this kind of witty magic and comedic delivery today without resorting to gross out, college sex romp humor. Yes, it may be tough for younger audiences who didn’t grow up seeing this type of fast-paced screwball fun to appreciate. However, the deadpan zingers here can still make one crack up and smile. Fans of the cast and classic comedies certainly know and love Monkey Business, but older audiences or viewers looking for smart, sophisticated fun need look no further than the delightful shenanigans here.