Oh, sure, I know. You're thinking
Duck Soup is the funniest Marx Brothers film. Well, I agree with you...to a point.
Horse Feathers actually makes me laugh the most, but for pure volume of jokes, you can't beat Duck Soup (except maybe for
A Night at the Opera, but then there's all that singing to get through).
But, I have a special place in my heart for
Animal Crackers. It was my very first Marx-fest. I still remember the night my Dad came into my room and said to me, "Come out here, you've got to watch this." He had taken it upon himself to be responsible for my rudimentary film education. What I saw that night was like nothing I had seen before. These guys were hilarious, and to a twelve-year-old, "hilarious" means a lot.
In this film, Groucho plays Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding (the song
"Hooray for Captain Spaulding" would later become his theme song, used extensively during his
You Bet Your Life years), back from an African safari just in time for Mrs. Rittenhouse's (Margaret Dumont) party. In fact, he enters being carried in by African warriors (I didn't say it was PC, now did I?). Then come the jokes so many are familiar with...
"One morning, I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I don't know. Then we tried to remove the tusks...but they were embedded in so firmly that we couldn't budge them. Of course, in Alabama, the Tusk-a-loosa. But, uh, that's entirely irrelephant to what I was talking about. We took some pictures of the native girls, but they weren't developed, but we're going back again in a couple of weeks."
...and so on. Groucho has a way with words. Harpo, on the other hand, does not speak. He communicates through marvelous facial expressions and his trusty horn. He also chases whatever blonde happens to be walking past at the time. And during slow points in the story, he plays the harp (and sometimes the piano, but that's really Chico's territory).
Speaking of Chico (we were, weren't we?), he has the best/worst affected Italian accent ever. Of course, it's not a-meant to be a-taken a-serious-a-ly. He also has a mind that goes in--shall we say?--different directions. The scene where he and Groucho discuss the theft of an expensive painting is priceless. (Thanks to
The Greatest Films for the detailed transcript.)
Spaulding: In a case like this, the first thing to do is to find the motive. Now what could have been the motive of the guys that swiped the Beaugard?
The theft of the painting is also not meant to be taken seriously. It's simply an excuse to discover that someone has painted a copy to replace it, and someone else has another copy...but that's boring. It's the mixups and mistaken identities--not to forget the physical comedy--that is the reason for the show here.
Ravelli: I got it. Robbery.
Spaulding: Would you mind going out and crossing the boulevard when the lights are against you?
Ravelli: ...I gotta-a an idea how to find-a this painting. In a case like this that is so mysterious, you gotta-a get-a the clues. You gotta-a use-a the Sherlock-a Holmes method...You say to yourself, 'What happened?' And the answer come back...'Something was stolen.' Then, you-a say to yourself, 'What was stolen?' And the answer come back: 'A painting.'
Spaulding: What are you, a ventriloquist?
Ravelli: Now you say to yourself, 'Where was this painting stolen?' And the answer come back: 'In this house.' Now so far, I'm-a right, eh?
Spaulding: Well, it's pretty hard to be wrong if you keep answering yourself all the time.
Ravelli: Now you go a little further and you say to yourself, 'Who stole the painting?' This is a very, very important question. Captain, if you got-a the answer, you got-a the solution to the whole thing.
Spaulding: Especially if you find the picture.
Ravelli: Now you take all-a the clues. You put 'em together. What do ya got, eh?
Spaulding: Bread pudding?
Ravelli: No. Here's what-a we got. Something was stolen. Stolen where? In-a this house. Stolen by who? 'Somebody in the house.' Now to find the painting, all you got to do is go to everybody in the house and ask 'em if they took it.
Spaulding: You know, I could rent you out as a decoy for duck hunters. You say you're gonna go to everybody in the house and ask them if they took the painting. Suppose nobody in the house took the painting?
Ravelli: Go to the house next door.
Spaulding: That's great. Suppose there isn't any house next door?
Ravelli: Well, then of course, we gotta build one.
Spaulding: Well now you're talkin'. What kind of a house do you think we ought to put up?
Ravelli: Well, I tell ya. Captain. You see, my idea of a house is something nice, and a-small, and comfortable.
Spaulding: That's the way I feel about it. I don't want anything elaborate. Just a little place that I can call home and tell the wife I won't be there for dinner.
Ravelli: I see, you just want a telephone booth...Now, what do you say, uh, what do you say, Captain, we build right about here.
Ravelli: Here, right about here (pointing to a spot on the table).
Spaulding: Oh, I'd like something over here if I could get it. I don't like Junior crossing the tracks on his way to the reform school. I don't like Junior at all, as a matter of fact.
Ravelli: All right, all right. We got something over there. And believe me, that's a-convenient. Oh, that's a-very convenient. Well look, all you gotta do is open the door, step outside, and there you are.
Spaulding: There you are?
Spaulding: There you are where?
Spaulding: But suppose you want to get back in again?
Ravelli: You had no right to go out.
Spaulding: Well, don't do anything until I hear from you, will ya? Say, maybe that's the painting down in the cellar.
Ravelli: That's a-no cellar. That's the roof!
Spaulding: That's the roof down there?
Ravelli: Yeah, you see, we keep-a the roof in the basement, so when the rain come, the chimney don't get wet.
Spaulding: Don't you remember, Mrs. Rittenhouse lost a valuable Beaugard oil painting worth a hundred thousand dollars? Don't you remember that?
Ravelli: No, I'm a stranger around here, I don't remember that.
Spaulding: Well, what do you think I am? One of the early settlers? Ravelli, don't you remember, Mrs. Beaugard lost a valuable Rittenhouse oil painting worth a hundred thousand dollars? Don't you remember that?
Ravelli: No! But I've seen you someplace before.
Spaulding: Well, that's where I was, but I'll stay out of there in the future.
Ravelli: Hey, Captain. It come to me like a flash! This painting wasn't stolen. Ha! You know what happened? This painting, Captain, disappeared, and yes, it disappeared. And you know what make it disappear? You'll never guess, Captain. What do you think-a make-a this painting disappear, huh? Moths! Moths eat it...Left-handed moths.
Spaulding: Go away. Go away. I'll be all right in a minute. Left-handed moths ate the painting, eh?
Ravelli: Yeah, it's a-my own solution.
Spaulding: I wish you were in it. Left-handed moths ate the painting. You know, I'd buy you a parachute if I thought it wouldn't open.
Ravelli: Hey, I got pair-a shoes. (Spaulding cringes)
Spaulding: Come on, let's go down and get the reward. We solved it, you solved it. The credit is all yours. The painting was eaten by a left-handed moth.
Ravelli: Hey, you know, we did a good day's work.
Spaulding: How do you feel - tired? Maybe you ought to lie down for a couple of years, eh? Why don't you just lie down so rigor mortis sets in. Look, Ravelli, I'll show ya how to get the painting. We'll go to court, and we'll get out a writ of habeas corpus.
Ravelli: You're gonna get rid-a what?
Spaulding: Oh, I should never have started that way, I can see that.
Note: At this point in their careers, the Marxes were still adapting their Broadway successes. This was their second film (after The Cocoanuts ), and by then they were famous enough to have screenplays written directly for the screen (like
Monkey Business, which would directly follow this). But they would still take their routines out on the road to perfect them before filming. The scenes in
A Night at the Opera and
A Day at the Races are the result of months of on-stage tweaking.