Animal Crackers (1930, Victor Heerman)

After initially teasing some kind of narrative, Animal Crackers gives it up and embraces not just being a stage adaptation (hope I don’t forget to talk about that aspect) but also a series of sketches. Not just comedy sketches, but also musical ones.

The film takes place over a day. It starts one morning, it ends the next morning. In that time, besides the Marx Brothers arrival at the swank, palatial home of Margaret Dumont (who’s particularly wonderful here), there’s a missing painting. That missing painting is as far as Crackers goes narrative. Groucho being an explorer who’s sort of courting Dumont? Not as important as a sketch with Chico or Zeppo.

For a while, when Crackers is finding its footing, the lack of narrative is annoying. There’s a bunch of great supporting performances–Dumont, of course, but also Lillian Roth as her daughter and Margaret Irving as her society nemesis–in these little moments. They have the most story without the Marx Brothers. Louis Sorin, as Groucho’s rival for Dumont, gets some good moments, but with the Brothers. It feels incredibly disjointed.

Director Heerman can never decide how to stage the action. For example, Groucho breaks the fourth wall to acknowledge the audience and loses Heerman. But, quite often, Heerman’s pragmatism serendipitously makes the awkward exquisite.

The last twenty minutes, as every plot absurdity gets integrated just because it’d be too much work to keep things sorted, gives Crackers a manic pace to the sublime finish. It ends gloriously.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Victor Heerman; screenplay by Pierre Collings and Morrie Ryskind, based on the play by George S. Kaufman, Ryskind, Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby; director of photography, George J. Folsey; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Groucho Marx (Captain Jeffrey Spaulding), Harpo Marx (The Professor), Chico Marx (Signor Emanuel Ravelli), Zeppo Marx (Horatio Jamison), Lillian Roth (Arabella Rittenhouse), Margaret Dumont (Mrs. Rittenhouse), Louis Sorin (Roscoe Chandler), Hal Thompson (John Parker), Margaret Irving (Mrs. Whitehead), Kathryn Reece (Grace Carpenter), Robert Greig (Hives) and Edward Metcalf (Hennessey).