Posted by Susan Doll on September 10, 2012
Monkey Business airs tomorrow night on TCM as part of a night devoted to the comedies of Cary Grant. Directed by Howard Hawks, this under-appreciated film was released at the tail end of the original cycle of screwball comedy. Monkey Business has always been one of my favorite comedies, largely because of the cast. Stars Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers were old hands at romantic comedy by the time this film came around, and they tackle the physical and situational humor with the experience and authority of veterans. Marilyn Monroe is featured in a secondary role, and she plays into her image as a blonde bombshell for comic effect. Familiar character actor Charles Coburn is appropriately blustery as Monroe’s boss, who is too enamored of her physical assets to care about her qualifications as his secretary.
The plot of Monkey Business turns on a farcical situation that exploits the differences and tensions between men and women, which is typical for screwball comedies. Grant stars as the brilliant but absent-minded Dr. Barnaby Fulton, a chemist who works for a big drug company run by Oliver Oxley, played by Coburn. Barnaby’s latest experiments involve the search for a youth serum. Oxley’s motives for wanting an elixir of youth go beyond just making money. They likely have something to do with his interest in his sexy, young secretary, Lois Laurel, played by MM. Lois can’t type, take dictation, or do anything else a secretary is required to do—a running joke in the film. At one point Coburn hands Miss Laurel a memo, adding, “Find someone to type this.”
Though Barnaby feels he is getting close to perfecting the elixir, it just hasn’t gelled yet. That is, until one of his research chimps escapes her cage and dumps parts of the formula into the water cooler. Unaware of the chimp’s meddling, Barnaby tests his latest version of the formula on himself, washing it down with a quick drink of water from the cooler. The formula works too well as Barnaby, who is normally unaware of Miss Laurel’s charms, takes her out for a day’s adventures, acting like an energetic adolescent. When Barnaby’s wife Edwina, played by Rogers, finds out that the youth serum was a success, and that the buxom secretary was along for the ride, she handles her jealous feelings like an adult. Of course, the water cooler full of youth serum is a comic escapade waiting to happen, and when most of the principles unwittingly drink from the cooler, the characters release their inhibitions and repressed feelings, like the children they have become.
As much as I like Monkey Business, apparently it does not have a good critical standing. This past weekend, a documentary about Cary Grant aired on PBS. The doc included Monkey Business as one of those box-office and critical disappointments that caused Grant to consider retirement in the early 1950s. As it turns out, the reviews of the film were mixed—not devastating. The New Yorker dismissed it, noting, “If youth is anything like the nonsense displayed here, maybe it’s just as well that nobody has really concocted anything that would force us older citizens back into it.” But, Newsweek hailed it as “one of the best comedies of the year,” while Arthur Knight in the Saturday Review called Grant “a polished farceur” who had considerable “skill and charm.”
It doesn’t help the film’s reputation that Howard Hawks himself dismissed it, claiming the story went too far and became “too fanciful”—as though the coincidences and antics in other screwball comedies are any less so. Actually, Hawks was bitter because he did not get to select the female lead. Grant did not want a young costar for this film, and he turned down many of Hawks’s suggestions. Finally, the actor asked Rogers, whom he had dated in the 1930s, to costar, which Hawks resented. In retrospect, the director seems to have taken out his anger over the situation on Rogers. In an interview, he claimed that the original script called for only Grant to take the elixir, but that Rogers insisted she have a scene in which she gets to return to childhood, too. Hawks claimed, “She wanted to do it, and I had to let her do it. I thought it was lousy and it made her play badly all through the whole picture.”
Monkey Business gets short shrift from contemporary scholars and critics because it is compared to Bringing Up Baby, Hawks’s screwball masterpiece from 1938. Some claim the films are just too similar, and that Hawks and Grant were repeating themselves with Monkey Business, because the actor plays ditzy professors in both films, and both plots include animal antics. But, I don’t find the two films to be similar at all: Bringing Up Baby takes place among the blue-bloods of New York, with class differences as part of the theme. Grant is a sexually naïve academic pursued by wealthy socialite Katharine Hepburn; the search for the leopard unites them so that class conflict and clashing personalities are pushed aside. However, the long-term prognosis for their relationship is not good if you look too closely at the destruction caused by their union at the end. Monkey Business is set in the corporate world, where Grant is an absent-minded scientific genius. The conflict exposes the pitfalls of a long-term marriage in which a couple can get too comfortable in middle age, losing the spontaneity of youthful love. And, unlike the leopard in Bringing Up Baby, the chimp is a plot device, not a major part of the story.
Barnaby and Edwina do have differing personalities in Monkey Business, but they complement rather than oppose each other. Edwina’s logical common sense and calm, collected personality balances Barnaby’s absent-minded fluttery forgetfulness. After years of marriage, they are comfortable in each other’s company, and Edwina is tolerant of Barnaby’s behavior. This is suggested in the first scene when Barnaby is so distracted by his work that he can’t manage to get dressed and out of the house to attend a social function, so Edwina suggests that they stay home, like a couple of old married folks. Barnaby is not only absent-minded, he has become absent in his marriage because of the distractions of his job—a problem still relevant for many long-term married couples. Rogers was 41 when she made this film, and Grant was 48. Though no mention is made of age in the dialogue, the actors’ identities as middle-aged stars service their characters. I can understand why Grant held out for a mature actress.
The youth serum upsets the balance between Barnaby and Edwina because it inspires him to go out and have fun, which he does with the youthful, over-ripe Miss Laurel. When Edwina takes the serum, not only does she retreat into childhood but her jealousy over Miss Laurel erupts. Years of being the cool, calm caretaker for Barnaby have repressed her own vitality and sense of fun, and Edwina cuts loose into a prank-pulling bundle of energy. Grant excelled at creating characters through physicality—gesture, body language, and expression. His adeptness at double takes serves the character of Barnaby well in Monkey Business. However, Rogers has the broadest range to play in this film—going from the loving wife, who is always in control of the situation, to an overwrought child in an adult body. She had an amazing range as an actress—from physical comedy to musicals to drama—and she handles the transformation of Edwina from adult to adolescent to child back to adult masterfully. I don’t agree with Hawks at all about her performance, and I chalk it up to sour grapes on his part.
The subtext ofMonkey Business is clearly about sustaining a marriage over the long haul, a theme relevant to most mature adults. By revisiting their youth, and expressing their repressed emotions, Barnaby and Edwina reaffirm their life together, signified by a conclusion similar to the beginning. Monkey Business becomes one of those Hollywood films about remarriage that is supportive of traditional relationships and marriage as a social institution. It also makes some interesting observations about the compromises and hypocrisies of adulthood, but it certainly doesn’t romanticize or idolize youth.
And, the film features an odd moment of self-reflexivity in the beginning, which is atypical of the time period. Before the credits, Cary Grant opens the front door of Barnaby and Edwina’s house, but an off-screen voice tells him, “Not yet, Cary.” Grant replies, “Hmm,” and shuts the door as the credits begin to roll. Apparently, the gag was not in the original script and was added by Hawks. After the credits, the shot is repeated as the beginning of the actual story. I attribute the opening as a nod to Grant’s enormous stardom at the time. Audiences came to the film to see Cary Grant, and the details of character and story were irrelevant. Hawks was acknowledging that with a wink and a smile.
Deschner, Donald. The Complete Films of Cary Grant. New York: Citadel Press, 1991.
Mast, Gerald. Howard Hawks: Storyteller. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.
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