Monkey Business (1952)

12 07 2010

Cary Grant does something of a reprise of his role in Bringing Up Baby here and Howard Hawks is obviously trying to one up his own antics of that film, but it all ends up a little bit short of that movie. It’s still a lot of fun and one can’t really fault Hawks for being able to produce something so zany and goofy without peering off the side of complete insanity. I’m sure the term “controlled chaos” has been used to describe the comedy of Hawks in the past, but it fits so well. There’s a restraint to all the craziness here, and it’s quite impressive to feel that Hawks is still in complete control even after the script begins to read like the dwellings of a mental patient.

Where as Bringing Up Baby takes a believable enough scenario and pushes it to the furthest extreme of the natural world, this movie begins with a concept that is completely out of this world (the development of a “youth serum”) and just playfully bounces along inside its own fantasy world for the entire running time. That isn’t to sell the film short, it’s still great fun, but it lacks the spontaneity found in the chaos of the aforementioned film. Again, we still have chaos, but this is a more noticeable example of that “controlled chaos” I mentioned earlier.

At the risk of getting way too analytical, I’ll admit that in terms of actual space, this is a more open film. There’s actual scenes that are shot outdoors and not just in a “outdoors” set but that’s not really fair to either film. Neither of them are photography-driven movies. Sure, Hawks had an eye for excellent composition in his more “serious” works (despite his claim that he didn’t) but the examples for it here are few and very fleeting. This one looks a little better just by default as it came during the time when black and white film stock looked it’s very best in America cinema, but basically, I’m saying this is a non-factor in both films.

What is a factor, though, is the writing. The screenplay here has been penned by Ben Hecht (worked on Stagecoach), Charles Lederer (His Girl Friday), and I.A.L Diamond (Some Like It Hot) — I’d venture to guess that these three developed the original script for the 1931 version of the film, of which I have not seen, and then in 1952, Hawks himself looked after and maybe made a rewrite or two. This is all important because it reflects the culture of a 1930’s comedy (I’m hesitant to drop the word screwball) and thus, the film feels like it is a product of the 1930s. The fact that the story involves two seminal 1930s Hollywood stars, Ginger Rogers and Cary Grant, dramatically reverting back to their ways of youth implies that Hawks was more aware of things then he’d like to admit.

It’s a 1930s comedy (again, “screwball” territory, I suppose) masked in the makeup of a 1950s production. Sure, Marilyn Monroe’s performance as the clueless secretary seems entirely to be a product of the 1950s, but that’s a small thing – though as I said with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, it could launch an entire series of feminist theory. As a whole though, the film is a call back to Rogers’ and Grant’s (and one could argue, Hawks’) golden years. It’s a nice tribute to the era that spawned it, but Bringing Up Baby this is not.

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