Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Review – Monkey Business

August 10, 2010

Monkey Business – U.S., 1952

Made today, I have no doubt that Howard Hawks’ Monkey Business would be a kids film. After all, it has some of the makings of a live-action Disney film - funny animals, characters who suddenly act younger than they really are, and a (slightly politically-incorrect) musical number thrown in for the heck of it. It is only the appearance of Marilyn Monroe and the occasional discussion of adult topics that distinguishes the film from the kind that Fred MacMurray made for Disney in the late 1950s and the 1960s.

Monkey Business stars Cary Grant as Barnaby Fulton, a chemist who, like Ponce de Leon years earlier, is searching for a formula that will act as a modern day fountain of youth. On a professional level, such a discovery would finally enable him to land the promotion that has long eluded him; on a personal level, it would help him and his wife to finally live the kind of life they have been dreaming of. It doesn’t help that it would also prove to his mother-in-law that she was wrong about him. Fulton’s boss Oliver Oxley is so convinced that Fulton will be successful that he’s already making plans for the product. It will be called “B-4,” and advertisements will promise that people who take it will be like they were… before. Fulton doesn’t completely share Oxley’s enthusiasm, partly because he can’t quite figure out how to make it. One evening, he happens to burn his mouth on his wife’s cooking, and in a flash (of pain, perhaps) the answer comes to him – heat! Soon he’s back at the lab mixing chemicals, and after a series of comic events involving a monkey, a second, somewhat methodically put together formula, and a drinking fountain, Fulton, having decided to test the formula on himself, is suddenly acting as if he were twenty years old. Success? Well, sort of.

Given such a set up, Monkey Business doesn’t really have many places it can go. Perhaps that’s why the film goes to the well three times. The first time Fulton takes the formula, the second time it is his wife Edwina (Ginger Rogers) that does so, and the third time they both do, albeit accidentally. Hilarity ensues each time, although I must say I was a tad bit tired of the gag the third time it was used. Fortunately, the circumstances in which the characters find themselves were altered enough for me to be roped in yet again. Part of the fun of the film is seeing Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers go from being mature adults to being naïve and immature, much more prone to jealousy, recklessness, and bashfulness than rationale thought. Grant plays these moments as if a much younger Fulton was rather starved for attention. In one scene, convinced that people are watching him, he sticks his chest forward and walks along the diving board as if he were on a catwalk. It matters little when he accidentally belly-flops though, for everyone was staring at Miss Lois Laurel (Marilyn Monroe) in her mesmerizing low-cut one-piece bathing suit anyway. As for Edwina, when under the influence of the formula, she becomes filled with energy and demands to go out dancing. Given how long she dances and just how much energy she puts into it, it’s rather amazing that she doesn’t give her husband a heart attack.

Towards the end of the film, screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer try to inject themes of corporate greed into what had until then essentially been a slapstick comedy. The attempt is only partially successful, perhaps because Hecht and Lederer do not truly want viewers to have a negative impression of Oxley, having written him as a rather jovial, comic character. Therefore, just as quickly as they introduce the issue of money and the rights of corporations to own whatever its employees come up with, the members of the board are seen singing a lullaby to a young child. How could these men possibly be bad? As for Marilyn Monroe, she does well with what little she is given to do. She has some humorous moments and is believable as Edwina’s possible competition. Laurel may actually be one of the worst secretaries in the history of film. At one point, Oxley asks her to find someone to type a memo. She looks at Oxley with a mixture of hope and excitement and asks, “Can’t I try again?” His response: “No, [the memo]’s very important.”

If there is a message to Monkey Business, it is that aging, in spite of the way your joints ache and your energy for such things as dancing and dinner parties wanes, is not necessarily a bad thing. It teaches one to prioritize, and prioritizing allows one to learn that it’s not the attention of the crowd or the excitement of a secret night in a hotel that is important. Instead, it’s the people who go with you along the journey of life that matter the most. It’s not a very original message, but that doesn’t make it any less true. (on DVD)

3 stars

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