By Josh Pachter
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Between 1921 amd 1946, the Marx Brothers made fourteen films, thirteen of which survive to this date and are frequently watched by legions of fans who appreciate the brother's irreverent form of humor. Many of these films have plos (such as they are) that revolve around some form of crime: a stolen necklace (The Cocoanuts) or painting (Animal Crackers), mobsters (Monkey Business), a fixed football game (Horse Feathers), etc. Josh Pachter, who has created a cottage industry of editing crime fiction based on pop culture has now turned his attention to the brothers with Monkey Business: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Films of the Marx Brothers. Fourteen different crime fiction authors have been assigned one of the brothers' movies to use as their inspiration for a short story.
In 1921, the Mark Brothers made a silent film entitled Humor Risk, which may have never been released (or even finished). Groucho had only negative things to say about the film, but Groucho is a notoriously unreliable narrator. In any event, little is known about the project for sure. Barb Goffman uses the lack of information about the film as a blank canvas in "Humor Risk," the anthology's first story. She focuses her attention on Dominic, a small town, small time hood whose only exposure to the Marx Brothers was seeing their films with his Uncle Mikey. Upon hearing that a local house was owned by a family that was connected with the Marx Brothers and the family was known for being hoarders, he search the house in case a copy of the lost film is there. Goffman set up the story as a slamming-door style farce, which always works better on stage than in print. Despite the fact that none of the characters are sympathetic, Goffman does allow the reader to sympathize with Dominic.
While Goffman used one of the films as background for a story, Lesley A. Diehl presents the first retelling of one of the films with "The Cocoanuts," in which she recasts Groucho's role as Mr. Hammer in the film with Hammer's sister, niece, and nephew. The Chico and Harpo roles are taken on by stand-ins Cheeto and Hardy as Hammer's niece tries to find the deeds to the lands around Cocoanut Manor so they can be sold at auction, after Cheeto and Hardy spruce them up using whatever means are available. Although an enjoyable story, it is a little too derivitive of the original film.
Although the Marx Brothers films are filled with illogical leaps that make them excellent sources of surreal comedy, they actually do have certain rules that apply, which is why a Marx Brothers film would never be mistaken for a film made by The Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, or Abbott and Costello by anyone who is aware of comedy. Joseph Goodrich does a good job of capturing that surrealness in "Animal Crackers or, The Persecution and Assassination of Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding As Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Long Island Under the Direction of Mrs. Rittenhouse," which offers not only back story for the film Animal Crackers, but also delves into the aftermath of an alternative version of the events depicted in the film. While fans of the film will enjoy the story, it may leave those who are less than familiar with it at a loss since it relies so heavily on knowledge of the characters and their interactions.
Editor Pachter has reserved the books titular film for himself. "Monkey Business" is based on the first original film to survive (THe Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers were based on stage plays). POPachter clearly took the "inspired" in the subtitle of the book seriously. Set on an ocean liner, like the first half of Monkey Business, most of the characters borrow their names from the supporting cast of the film. The story is set at Captain Corcoran's dinner table with guests Akly and Lucille Briggs, J.J. Helton, and Madame Swempski. They are joined by Mary Ann and her companion, a mandrill named Groucho who she is returning to Africa. The story tosses out numerous references to the film as Madame Swempski's jewels go missing, the story only marred by the obvious solution to the crime.
While the film Horse Feathers looks at a football game between Huxley and Darwin Colleges, little remains of the film in Jeff Cohen's "Horse Feathers" aside from the names of the colleges used in different contexts, Chico and Harpo's characters' names, and a brief reference to the college widow. Instead, Cohen tells the story of a missing ruby and Martin van Buren Turntable's attempts to find it for Mrs. Cumbersome. However, while many people seem to think it is easy to recreate the banter between Goucho and Chico, Cohen manages to capture both of their rhythms and while his descriptions of Harpo's actions lack how frantic they often appear on screen, his descriptions successfully get Harpo's feeling across.
Brendan DuBois recasts "Duck Soup" with his Rufus T. Firefly analog, Roger P. Glowworm, and Mrs. Teasdale as Mrs. Coffeedale leading the breakaway city-state of Sevastopol, now known as Dofreedia. DuBois uses the modern political setting as his background, with Glowworm having to be concerned about how long his new country can hold off Vladimir Putin's Russia. The focus of the story, however, is a trouble shooter named Julius Henry, who must try to figure out how to disarm Dofreedia of its urported nuclear bomb that is the only thing standing between the new country (and Glowworm) and eradication by the Russians. the highpoint of the story is the negotiations between Henry and a Russian general as he tries to resolve the problem.
Donna Andrews tackles "A Night at the Opera," one of the Marx Brothers' most famous films. As in Goffman's "Humor Risk," Andrews' protagonist is aware of the Marx Brothers and their films, especially A Night at the Opera. As in that movie, there is a boat voyage with a stowaway who came aboard in a steamer trunk. However, Andrews' character finds herself spying on the stowaway and her two roommates to while away the time on the journey, eventually deciding to blackmail her neighbors. Her plan doesn't quite go as she expects it to and the rest of the story offers a series of dark turns, leading to a potential denouement and revelation to all parties concerned.
Joseph S. Walker sets "A Day at the Races" at Santa Anita Racetrack the day before the Marx Brothers are scheduled to film scenes for A Day at the Races. Upon entering the track, HR chief Julia Simmons is escorted into his boss's office, only to find him murdered. The detective assigned to the case, Alan Garrison, seems pretty useless, taking suggestions of guilty parties from the various employees until Julia explains why each individual couldn't have killed her boss. The lack of realism in Garrison's methods seems to go hand-in-hand with the lack of realism in so many of the Marx Brothers films and the direct tie to the making of the movie is a nice touch.
The 1938 film Room Service is unique in that it is the only one of the fourteen films which was not original written for the brothers, but was rather an adaptation of a stage play (later also adapted for an episode of The Monkees). Sandra Murphy's characters, who are all named for the characters in the film, are aware of the Marx Brothers film, but in their strange universe have also seen a film adaptation of Hail and Farewell, the play the brothers' characters produced in the film. Rather than trying to produce a play, they are involved in a barber-shop quartet convention while trying to avoid being evicted from the hotel Unfortuantely, the story demonstrates why farce works so much better on the screen than on the written page.
Robert LoPresti is set "At the Circus" in 1940 with a circus owner who is a big Marx Brothers fan. Unable to afford any real animals for the circus, but inspired by the film from the previous year, he outfits Kenny Ringwing with a gorilla suit to form part of a clown act. Everything goes well until Kenny is found dead. As in Walker's "A Day at the Races," the police who is assigned to the case takes advice from one of the circus' employees, Madame Matilda, who knows the ins and outs of the circus better. Moreso than "At the Races," LoPresti offers up several potential murder suspects in a short amount of space. He provides the clues needed to figure out the solution without telegraphing the answer to the whodunnit.
After watching the film Go West in Robert J. Randisi's "Go West," pulp author Eddie Quince decides that Irving Brecher, the screenwriter, stole elements of his earlier stories to come up with the film. Egged on by some other authors, Quince hires attorney Sidney Kaminsky to represent him in the case. Things go awry when the police bring Quince in for questioning the day after Brecher and MGM Studios are served with the lawsuit. Although Randisi's set up opened up numerous opportunities for face or satire, he decided to play the story straight, providing realisitc responses and making this story based on one of the Marx Brothers lesser films one of the strongest stories in the anthology.
In The Big Store, Groucho played a detective, Wolf J. Flywheel, so the film provides the perfect background for Terence Faherty's "The Big Store." Another one of the brother's less regarded movies, it may be safe to say that nobody wondered what happened to the characters after the film ended until Faherty came along with the only story that is a direct sequel to the film it is based on. In the film, Flywheel, Ravelli (Chico), and Wacky (Harpo) stop evil store manager Mr. Grover (Douglass Dumbrille) from taking control of the Phelps Department store and killing owner Tommy Rogers (Tony Martin) before he can sell his share to the Hastings Brothers. In Faherty's sequel, Flywheel has been hired by owner Martha Phelps to serve as head of security. Flywheel stumbles across a plot to tank the store's business and must figure out who is responsible and why they are doing it. Faherty's story is every bit as enjoyable as the original film.
Marilyn Todd has taken an extremely look inspiration from "A Night in Casablanca," using a couple of character names, but mostly playing off the similarity of the title to a more famous film. Todd sets her story in the Hotel Casablanca where Bea and Rusty are renewing their wedding vows in a large ceremony. While most of the stories in Monkey Business focus on some sort of crime, "A Night in Casablanca" deals with Bea's concerns about her relationship with Rusty, stoked by his busy schedule and the comments made by her assistant Lisette, whose cousin's husband suggested renewing his vows to atone for an affair he had. This decision gives the story a ver different feel from all the other stories in the anthology.
The last Marx Brothers film was Love Happy, which is often cited as being one of Marilyn Monroe's first screen appearances. Since Groucho portrayed Sam Grunion, a Chandler-esque private eye in the film, it seems like it would be the perfect fit for this anthology. Frankie Y. Bailey creates he own Grouchoesque PI, Sidney Sturgeon, in "Love Happy," which takes place while Love Happy is filming. Sturgeon is visited by a woman who wants him to keep tabs on her sister, Norma Jean. The background for the story, about a missing treasure map, along with the structure of the story, mirrors the film. Sturgeon also visits the set and comments on the acting while Harpo makes an unnamed cameo in the story as well.
Monkey Business will be best appreciated by fans of the Marx Brothers movies, but very few of the stories actually rely on knowledge of the films to enjoy them. In some cases, being too familiar with the films may be a hindrance to full appreciating the stories these fourteen authors have decided to tell. The stories cover a wide range of styles and demonstrate that inspiration comes in a variety of forms, from allowing authors like Faherty and Goodrich who explore the characters and scenarios created by the Brothers to Todd and Pachter, who take a broader inspiration from the source material.
|Barb Goffman||Humor Risk|
|Lesley A. Diehl||The Cocoanuts|
|Joseph Goodrich||Animal Crackers or, The Persecution and Assassination of Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding As Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Long Island Under the Direction of Mrs. Rittenhouse|
|Josh Pachter||Monkey Business|
|Jeff Cohen||Horse Feathers|
|Brendan DuBois||Duck Soup|
|Donna Andrews||A Night at the Opera|
|Joseph S. Walker||A Day at the Races|
|Sandra Murphy||Room Service|
|Robert LoPresti||At the Circus|
|Robert J. Randisi||Go West|
|Terence Faherty||The Big Store|
|Marilyn Todd||A Night in Casablanca|
|Frankie Y. Bailey||Love Happy|
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