Friday, March 11, 2011

Howard Hawks' Monkey Business | 1952 | Not funny "ha-ha," but funny "genre"

Barnaby Fulton (Cary Grant) is a chemist working on a youth serum, but has failed to get the results he seeks. A lab monkey secretly starts to create his own concoction, using ingredients from Barnaby's serum.  But when his experiment is interrupted but the custodian, he hides it in the water cooler.  The monkey's mixture actually works, and soon Barnaby, his wife Edwina (Ginger Rogers) and eventually the owner and board of directors become unwitting test subjects, and begin acting like kids, teenagers and very young adults.

Howard Hawks' Monkey Business is not a super-successful comedy, but it's definitely more comedy than screwball.

The word screwball is defined as eccentric or whimsical, and this film seems to fit the bill.  It's a silly concept, a serious scientist thinks he's invented a youth serum when really it's a lab monkey that came up with the formula.  There's a bit of a love triangle in that Hank Entwhistle (Hugh Marlow) is carrying a torch for Edwina (Ginger Rogers) even though she's happily married to Barnaby (Cary Grant), and she doesn't seem to mind that he does and her mother definitely encourages it.  Combine these two elements and you get Edwina regressing, second guessing her choice of Barnaby, and calling Hank and her Mother to tell them Barnaby beats her.  Meanwhile Barnaby recruits neighborhood kids to scalp Hank, and goes out joy-riding with young, gorgeous Miss Laurel (Marilyn Monroe).

But screwball as a film genre is more than just eccentricity and whimsy.  I'm still working on my definition, but right now it's being heavily influenced by Wes D. Gehring's book "Screwball Comedy:  A Genre of Madcap Romance".  This book borders on annoying, it sometimes takes screwball so seriously that it loses credibility.  It feels as though anyone that serious about the subject is surely missing the point, or has at least lost the forest for the trees.  However, I can't ignore the fact that when a film isn't as snappy and lively as the strongest in the screwball pack, it is generally missing a few of the elements Gehring has identified as key to the genre.

Those key elements are:  a male antihero, the leisure class, pursuit of the "right" romantic partner (not the one that is expected to maintain an image, please a family or keep a business flourishing), an urban setting, a child-like perspective is valued and rewarded, little interest in politics (though moral stands are taken), and a baseline dissatisfaction with the status-quo.

Howard Hawks' "Monkey Business" has only the comic anti-hero, kind of.  Barnaby isn't a traditional hero, but there is never a question or doubt that he'll do the right thing.  For a brief, shining moment it seems he might actually do some scalping but that probably has less to do with the film wanting its audience to believe it'll happen and more of a hope born out of boredom.  Barnaby and Edwina act like children through much of the film, but each ultimately it rejects everything that came about in those episodes.  There's no leisure class, just what appear to be upper-middle-class business men.  Their romantic connection is not really challenged, it's just poked a bit.  There is never much at stake for these characters, accordingly the actors seem to just go through the motions.

The film oscillates between trying-too-hard and phoning-it-in, which is unfortunate because there's no reason it couldn't have been a genuinely funny comedy.  As it stands, though, given the laundry list of elements as well as the execution, it is not a screwball comedy.

Released: 1952
Director: Howard Hawks
Leads: Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers, Marilyn Monroe
Writer: Ben Hecht, Charles Lederer, I.A.L. Diamond
Genre:  Comedy