Monkey Business (1952): Classic Movie Review

Monkey Business (1952): Classic Movie Review

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 on1952 Screwball Comedy starring Ginger Rogers, Marilyn Monroe 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.

  • William Sommerwerck

    “Monkey Business” (not to be confused with the Marx Bros. film of the same name) appears to be Howard Hawks’ attempt to “correct” the box-office failure of “Bringing Up Baby”. Both star Cary Grant as a befuddled scientist. Needless to say, it flopped, too, and has not gone on to become the classic “Bringing Up Baby” is. “Baby” is a crazy screwball comedy, with one of Katherine Hepburn’s bester performances; “Monkey Business” is just a lot of ultimately pointless silliness.

    Grant’s peformance, though, shows what a good actor he could be when he wanted — it doesn’t duplicate his performance in “Baby”. And Ginger Rogers has wonderful chemistry with him — her sense of profound (but not awe-struck) affection for her husband comes across well.

    Worth seeing — once.

  • mike jaral

    monkey business is probably one of the funniest movies ever made, I believe as good as “some like it hot”. the scene where he plays the indian leader is hystericly funny. this is one very underated movie.

  • JIM RICK

    DON’T NORMALLY LIKE “GOOFY” AND UNREALISTIC MOVIES, BUT ENJOYED THIS…MAINLY CUZ I WILL WATCH ANYTHING WITH GINGER ROGERS….TALK ABOUT VERSATILITY, THIS LADY INVENTED THAT NAME….IT IS FUN TO CATCH HER IN THE LATE 20′S AND THEN WATCH HER PROGRESS….YOU CAN EVEN FORGIVE HER ONE REAL FLUB IN PICKING FILM ROLES…THE MOVIE IS CALLED “HEARTBEAT”, MADE IN 1946 WITH GINGER PLAYING AN 18 YEAR OLD….IN 1946????YOU DON’T NEED A CALCULATOR TO FIGURE SHE WAS BORN IN 1911, SO THIS WOULD MAKE HER 35 YEARS OLD…TALK ABOUT MISCASTING…MUST OF NEEDED THE MONEY….

  • bonnerace

    I went to the local “nostalgia” film house to see this in the pre-VCR days. I thought I was seeing the Marx Bros.(as did the owner of the theater!) Imagine how I felt when this came on….but I had never seen this film, so I stayed because of Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers. A pleasant surprise to say the least. The supporting cast is great and it is good to see Marilyn Monroe in her role. Check it out once, you may be surprised by the movie.

  • Juanita Curtis

    Haven’t seen this film in a long time so will have to view it again. I always enjoy Cary Grants performances but can’t imagine it would be as good as Bringing up Baby.
    Recently saw Ginger Rogers in Barkleys of Broadway made in !949 and thought she was looking a bit worn by then – enjoyed the dancing though.Loved her with Ray Milland in the Major and the Minor – although it was a stretch that she was portraying a “teenager”.

  • Blair Kramer.

    “Monkey Business” is a great comedy. I think Cary Grant was at the top of his game. It was certainly one of his best performances. And Marilyn Monroe was also very good. It was early in her career and she was not yet the driving cinematic force she eventually became. That’s why she plays a character who is essentially a “straight man.” She is a target for much of the hilarious slapstick nonsense wrought by Grant and Rogers. But she takes it all in stride. All in all, “Monkey Business” is not to be missed.

  • Mary

    This movie is fun because it is so unbelievable. Besides Cary and Ginger, Charles Coburn is a delight as he always is and could never resist the little boy with the froggy voice.

  • Blair Kramer.

    Terrify tissue?

  • Barbara Atkinson

    This is a fun movie! If you’re looking for silly, escapist, smile producing entertainment, this is a good one to see. Even more than once! Our friend JPK hits the nail on the head with his comments on Ginger Rogers…. She was really one amazing lady in many, many respects. As for this viewer, daily life presents so much in the “Sturm und Drang” line that my entertainment must be escapist…. You can keep your realism and drama! In almost every instance, Ginger makes you smile – and often! That glass trick was pretty amazing at any age, and especially for anyone over 40!… She even mentioned it in her autobiography. Yes, she and Cary worked well together. They should have done more! Thanks for good comments all around!

  • maxfabien

    A lot of the hilarity of this film come from the one-liners, especially involving Marilyn Monroe. My favorite is(and I’m paraphrasing)when Barnaby (Cary Grant) goes to see Mr. Oxley (Charles Coburn) and Miss Laurel (Marilyn as Coburn’s ‘dumb blonde’ secretary) is at her desk. Barnaby says to her “You’re here early.” She says, “Well, Mr. Oxley says I need to improve my punctuation.”

  • tony

    I really enjoyed this film, but in my view not as good as Bringing up Baby. There are many fun scenes and my favourite line is when Coborn gets Marilyn to find a secretary to type a letter. Grant says “but SHE is your secretary”. Coburn repostes ” anyone can type!” Great stuff.

  • VKMfanHuey

    …great to see another review of a GingerFilm (along with The Major and the Minor a few weeks back).
    This one is mindless fun, and the bottom line is it seems like everyone in the film is having fun with it… my fav scene is where Edwina and Barney are checking into a hotel, and Edwina (in young girl mode due to the magic elixir) turns the corner and slides about 30 feet or so right past the camera into a pratfall…yeah, it’s acting goofy, but just….cool!
    Ultimately a pretty neat ‘latter-era’ screwball comedy, which honestly foreshadows the Disney ‘live-action’ movies of the early-mid 60′s, like ‘nutty professor’, ‘flubber’, etc… I recommend it to screwball fans, and a ‘must-see’ for Cary, Ginger, and even Marilyn fans, as she does turn in a good performance as…well, Marilyn!

    VKMfanHuey
    P.S. – check out Gingery stuff on my blog, gingerology.com…thanks!

  • Maxwell Starr

    I saw this first on NBC’s ‘Saturday Night At The Movies’ when I was a kid. It remains an excellent zany comedy. Cary Grant became one of my top favorite actors as a result of seeing a television broadcast of ‘Gunga Din’ back in the late fifties. Ginger Rogers and Marilyn Monroe were always a joy to watch. They were savvy actresses and rarely, if ever, delivered a disappointing performance.

  • Roger Phillips

    Most of Cary’s movies are good and highly entertaining–”Monkey Business” lives up to it’s name. Also love Ginger as she was very talented and fun to watch.

  • Bill C.

    I agree that Ginger Rogers may be one of the most underrated actresses of the Golden Age.

    In discussing her teamings with Fred Astaire, most reviewers go out of their way to mention that Astaire danced with far more technically proficient dancers. Yet, he was never teamed with a better acting partner. I can’t think of a bad performance she ever turned in.

    I also liked the comment about Marilyn’s “voluptuousness.” There are many males like myself who long to see a return to that standard of beauty rather than the “skinny little boy look” that seems to be in vogue (witness the rising popularity of Christina Hendricks from “Mad Men”).

    All in all a solid little comedy. Each of the cast members have appeared in far funnier films, but not a bad film at all.