Howard Hawks’s Monkey Business is one of the too few excellent American film comedies past the 1920s and ’30s. Its characters want desperately to get out of the American mindset in which they feel, to the point of defeatism, entrenched.
During the 1930s and, thanks to Preston Sturges, the first half of the 1940s, Hollywood “screwball comedies” generally were romantic, with girl or boy in hectic pursuit of the other, and also socially satirical, for instance, with reference to the Depression, the state of the economy and of American life—the issues that inspired the genre. (Its launch and perhaps enduring masterpiece is Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night, 1934.) But Monkey Business is a different sort of “screwball,” coming at a different time—in America, an economically settled, socially complacent time despite a number of political agitatives current and on the horizon (the Korean conflict, the McCarthy witch-hunts, the Cold War in general, the school desegregation decision handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court). Thus Hawks’s late “screwball”—perhaps the last successful one—aims not at romance but at a marriage, addressing the issue of faltering romance in this marriage along with the “seven-year itch.” Moreover, the larger point of reference is psychological instead of social. Everything in the film revolves around Barnaby and Edwina Fulton, two likeable, middle-class persons—another twist to the old “screwball,” which in the ’30s observed and analyzed contrasts between the rich and the poor.
As it evolved, the script by Ben Hecht, Charles Lederer and “Izzy” Diamond, from Harry Segall’s original concept, is first-rate. The highly commercialized suburban setting suits a time of fast, light sports cars and ugly advertising billboards—a nation glutting on success and boredom but also mightily suppressing ripples of discontent. The unofficial motto of the day is this: “You are what you can sell and what you buy.” Partly the legacy of the interruptive Second World War in whose aftermath Americans felt pressured to make up for lost time, the country was newly obsessed with youth and with being young. Now that the scourge of polio has been laid to rest, an enterprising chemical company is hard at work catering to America’s frivolous medical desire; Barnaby (Cary Grant, excellent) heads the team of scientists developing an elixir of youth. It’s Barnaby’s “baby,” so to speak—a salient point given that he and Edwina, infertile as a couple, remain childless. (Along the way the film casually reveals their deep fondness for children.) Dissatisfaction, disappointment, a sense of incompletion; We’ve won the war—now what? perhaps sums up one of the elusive moods of this neatly packaged time of loose ends and intangible dreams.
While it can’t be divorced from its national context, Barnaby and Edwina’s marriage is complex, as well, on its own. Barnaby has his “scientific” projects; but what of his wife? Equally intelligent, this stay-at-home spouse makes do with her traditional role—another reflection of the times. Moreover, Edwina keenly regrets forsaking her own career path in order to support Barnaby’s career; this resentment of hers is given, in fact, full (and frightening) expression by her mother—for Barnaby, the mother-in-law from hell who constantly berates him for stunting her daughter’s success, pride and personal growth. (Ironically, her mother’s fierce advocacy finds Edwina slipping into a family peacekeeping role that masks and more deeply buries her discontent.) That is not all. Mother, it seems, much preferred for her daughter another one of Edwina’s suitors, Harvey Entwhistle, who still exists in the Fultons’ lives; their attorney, he mostly hangs about hoping for a crack in the marriage that might allow him to reinitiate his suit. Barnaby’s resentment about Harvey, Edwina’s resentment over the career that might have been: both factors lie repressed in their marriage, threatening everywhere to erupt and raze this most civil and affectionate union of theirs.
The eruptions indeed come, hilariously, triggered by the youth elixir that studious Barnaby mistakenly believes he has concocted. (Actually, lab test monkeys on the loose have willy-nilly mixed the potent Shakespearean brew.) Barnaby tests the elixir on himself; later, trying to matter more to him under the guise of freeing him for a strictly observational role in the experiment, Edwina downs her own dose. The result each time is a preposterous age regression—Barnaby’s involves a young secretary (Marilyn Monroe) eager to pounce on him sexually—that enables each partner to hurl hidden resentments at the other. The marriage survives, but only because the elixir wears off, leaving the Fultons with an expanded awareness of themselves and their fragile, precious union—new matters for them to repress.
Monkey Business is easily the funniest American film comedy of the ’50s; its only real rival, in fact, is Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959)—and that film is total make-believe, while Hawks’s grabs at darker, more serious implications. (Wilder’s partner on the script is the same Diamond who helped the other script to sparkle.) Indeed, a curious depressed feeling permeates Monkey Business, solemnizing its whacked-out humor and helping to release deeper chords. An episode where the age-regressed Barnaby enlists neighborhood boys playing Cowboys & Indians to kidnap, tie up and scalp Harvey—the film’s nearly intolerably funny apex—suggests a savagery beneath America’s surface that curdles one’s hysterical laughter.
Ginger Rogers plays Edwina. Rogers also deserves part of the writing credit, for it is she who insisted that her character participate in the age regression, an element whose absence in the original script would have made for a considerably less suggestive and important film. And her acting is brilliant. It’s hard to imagine any other actress the right age capable of being as funny as Rogers is here; it’s impossible, though, to imagine someone else so seamlessly introducing into the characterization such poignant accents as she is also able to do. Her performance accumulates a touching warmth and spirit that are the principal source of the film’s unexpected humanity.
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