One of the Marx Brothers' biggest fans, Salvador Dalí, called the 1930 film Animal Crackers "the summit of the evolution of comic cinema." It's a testament to the Brothers' remarkable run of classic comedies that Dalí's opinion would be controversial at all. Certainly, Animal Crackers is no slouch in the Brothers' oeuvre. Like The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers preserves for posterity much of the substance of the 1928 Broadway musical upon which it is based—the same musical the Brothers were performing by night while shooting The Cocoanuts by day.
The musical play came with a book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, with songs by Bert Kalmar & Harry Ruby, and Kaufman, Kalmar and Ruby get screen credit for the screenplay. In spite of all that talent and plenty of comical trappings, Animal Crackers has the least memorable plot of the Brothers' stint at Paramount: a halfhearted farce around a $100,000 oil painting stolen from high-society grande dame Mrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont) during her soirée in honor of African explorer Captain Geoffrey T. Spaulding (Groucho).
This tees up a remarkable entrance for Groucho, who returns from Africa in a litter carried by natives, then holds court as the center of the terrific twofer of musical mirth "Hooray for Captain Spaulding"/"Hello I Must Be Going," both songs that would remain indelible parts of Groucho's image for the rest of his life and beyond. Upon its 1936 reissue, this pre-Code comedy lost about a minute and a half of footage to censors, including a notorious line from "Hooray for Captain Spaulding": "I think I'll try and make her." Thanks to an archival print from the British Film Institute, the excised footage is back in wide circulation via Universal Home Video's 2016 The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection: Restored Blu-ray Edition.
More so than any of the other Paramount films, Animal Crackers is Groucho's picture. His mock outrage with Zeppo (as Spaulding's field secretary Horatio W. Jamison) and Dumont (Groucho's greatest foil) is downright hilarious. Particularly notable are a letter-dictation sketch with Zeppo (in the role typically assigned to Chico) and a scene spoofing Eugene O'Neill's 1928 play Strange Interlude ("Pardon me while I have a strange interlude..."). Even audiences unaware of the pop cultural parody would have to find the scene pricelessly funny, as Groucho steps out of the action and up to the camera for ridiculous, melodramatic asides ("Living with your folks. Living with your folks. The beginning of the end. Drab dead yesterdays shutting out beautiful tomorrows. Hideous, stumbling footsteps creaking along the misty corridors of time...").
Of course, Chico and Harpo are on hand, too, and in fine fettle. Chico plays musician Signor Emanuel Ravelli and Harpo "The Professor," two guests whose presence at the party immediately proves surreal. Chico gets a couple of great doubletalk exchanges with Groucho (one about the former's musical billing practices and other about investigating the robbery). Chico's piano number this time ("I'm Daffy Over You," composed by the man himself with Sol Violinsky) has a ragtime flair, and Harpo turns in another magical harp performance, punctuated by a sweet an perhaps self-deprecating lullaby yawn. In a pre-postmodern aside, Groucho cracks to the audience, "Well, all the jokes can't be good. You've got to expect that once in a while." But he needn't apologize: Animal Crackers comes up another consistently funny winner.
Universal has gifted fans with The Marx Brothers' Blu-ray debut in the three-disc The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection Restored Blu-ray Edition . The main review page linked here details the set's bonus features and link to reviews of the other films.
Animal Crackers is the jewel of the set, given its sourcing from an uncut duplicate negative in the BFI vaults. Given a 4K scan, the picture looks magnificent and, crucially, lacks the crude cuts imposed by censors in its theatrical reissue following the passing of the Production Code. The restored one and a half minutes are something of a holy grail for Marx fanatics, and everyone can thrill to the fine presentation, with much-improved resolution and revelatory detail in glorious, well-calibrated black and white. Sound comes in a clean and clear lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track that's an authentic presentation of the original mono sound.
Animal Crackers also gets one film-specific bonus feature, a scholarly feature commentary with film scholar Jeffrey Vance. Kudos to Universal for springing for these commentaries, which do a great job of contextualizing each film in the Marx Brothers' career, addressing the film's specific development and production and reception, and providing biographical information about the cast and crew of each film.
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