This 1952 exercise in foolishness, directed by Howard Hawks, is constructed well enough to make itself likeable, even charming. The star-studded cast doesn’t hurt anything either—Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers and Charles Coburn all get their chances to jump around and use juvenile voices, doing their variously silly impressions of youthful teens, while Marilyn Monroe, on the very cusp of becoming an icon, gets by fine with her fallback little-dumb-blonde-lost shtick, cooing and swishing around and showing off body parts (I’m always a little taken aback by her voluptuousness, forever expecting that her reputation for beauty will mean the usual quasi-anorexia of today).
It’s the kind of movie I used to love finding on after-school matinees on TV, a confection built out of broad concept, even broader humor, and star turns artfully deployed, which I’m pretty sure adds up simply to testament of Hawks’s ability to make a picture. Cary Grant plays Dr. Barnaby Fulton, a genius—the term is bandied about so casually it’s drained of the typical pretensions and becomes a kind of equivalent of “dentist”—and an affable chemist who works for a big corporation on “formulas,” which in turn produce products like nylons that won’t run and popcorn bags that won’t crackle. In this case he is working on a fountain-of-youth drug. Well, that’s kind of like a popcorn bag that won’t crackle.
And he perfects it—or, that is, one of the monkeys that serve as his test subjects does (title explanation alert!). Escaping from its cage when no one is around, it mixes and matches ingredients from the lab table randomly and then tosses the final product into the watercooler before heading off in search of a typewriter to recreate the works of Shakespeare. Hence, keep an eye on that watercooler. When someone gets a drink of water (and they do so, of course, over and over again), makes a face, and comments on how bitter the water is, you know massive hilarity is on the way.
In Barnaby’s case it involves recovering his eyesight (normally he wears a pair of comical thick-lensed absent-minded scientist glasses), leaving the lab to acquire a crewcut, a loud jacket, and a bumptious jalopy, and spending the afternoon with Miss Lois Laurel (played by Marilyn Monroe), the secretary of his boss. For Ginger Rogers, as Barnaby’s wife Edwina, it means her voice going up about an octave, a desire to dance all night, and a bathetic sentimentalism combined with an outrageous self-centeredness that’s nearly perfectly annoying. This contrasts with her usual stolid willingness to support her husband in anything and go to the kitchen to make eggs.
Cary Grant is about what he always is—unrelievedly debonair, somehow even in war paint and jumping up and down and whooping. Ginger Rogers is also pretty much what she always is, but because she’s more taken for granted I will use the opportunity to point out how remarkably good that actually is. Here, in her early 40s (virtually ancient in those times), she’s inventing a strain of Doris Day mostly before Doris Day even got to it, the talented beauty who’s given up her opportunities to be the stalwart wife of a serious man. She plays the long-suffering-patience side of that almost beyond believability (when Barnaby shows up with lipstick all over his face after his first adventure she barely bats an eye), but she is capable of turning on a dime to become feisty and combative, weepy and self-pitying, or just plain treacherous.
She even gets to do a few dance moves, which is as it should be, although her most amazing stunt here is to lie down with a cup of coffee balanced on her forehead and then get back up again without ever spilling a drop. Rogers holds her own reliably; it doesn’t matter with whom she’s sharing the screen, she’s often the most interesting person there. This is actually true across a reasonably large majority of her movies, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Go ahead and check them out. Any five titles with her, selected at random—with or without Fred Astaire, even. Your choice. You may be surprised.
But I digress. Monkey Business comes with a great cast all through—don’t miss the six-year-old George Winslow and his usual frog voice doing a bizarre riff on John Wayne and the fine points of western conflict, or Hugh Marlowe taking a mohawk for the project. The story is ridiculous and only gets more so, but certainly that’s as intended. It’s also entertaining, propulsive, and over before you know it, which are hallmarks of Howard Hawks pictures, even ones like this that at bottom are very nearly fatally slight. Is it worth chasing down? Maybe. It’s not worth changing the channel to avoid; maybe that’s the better way to put it.
JPK is an arts journalist and professional writer and editor who owns and operates the blog Can’t Explain, which covers movies, music, and books of the past.