Monkey Business (1952) by Mark R. Leeper (a film retrospective).

December 5, 2021 | By | Reply More

At least, for the record, Howard Hawks did not direct ‘The Thing From Another World’, though he certainly did contribute to the creative process of that film. But a year after that film was made Hawks really did direct a Science Fiction film. It is not remembered like ‘The Thing From Another World’, but that is because it was really not intended for a Science Fiction audience. The film was a comedy with Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers. It was a somewhat half-hearted film at that, neither good Science Fiction nor good comedy. Even if it was Christian Nyby who directed ‘The Thing From Another World’, that film better represents the best of Hawks and not ‘Monkey Business’.

Cary Grant plays the absent-minded Professor Barnaby Fulton and Ginger Rogers plays his wife, Edwina. As the film opens, they are on the way to a party. But before he can leave Barnaby gets involved thinking about a problem he is having with an as yet unexplained formula he is trying to develop for Oxley, the chemical company for which he works. Edwina humours him and fixes him a hot bowl of soup. This gives Barnaby the idea he thinks he needs to use with his formula, he has to heat it. Too late to go to the party, at least his mind is off of his problem, he has a romantic evening home alone with Edwina rather than going to the party. Having romantic evenings when they are expected at parties is a continuing theme of this film.

The next morning at the office at Oxley Chemical, we learn a little more about the formula. His boss Oxley (Charles Coburn) is waiting on his results and wants to call it B4. As we learn what he is working on is a rejuvenating formula, a sort of chemical fountain of youth. Almost immediately it seems that he has it. An elderly experimental chimpanzee is acting like a baby again. Barnaby and Oxley go to see and are impressed until Barnaby notices the chimpanzee really is another chimpanzee entirely, a young experimental subject.

An accidental clothing switch has led to its being misidentified. Disappointed, Barnaby goes back to work on the formula but, when he is out of the lab, the playful young ape escapes again and starts mixing chemicals. The chemicals end up in the water cooler. Barnaby is ready to try his formula on himself in what should be a safe dosage. The drug is bitter, however, and he takes water from the water cooler with it, getting some of the chemical that the ape mixed up-which just happens to be the right proportions.

Barnaby starts getting an odd reaction all over his body, but then he identifies it as feeling younger. He starts feeling like a twenty year-old. He finds he cannot be serious talking on the telephone. He leaves the lab by a window and goes out to get a younger haircut, a flashy jacket and pants and a sport car. Oxley has sent out his sexy secretary Lois (Marilyn Monroe) out to find him. She finds him buying the car and joins him. He takes her out in the car and soon plough it into a truck. He leaves the car at a body shop and takes Lois out roller-skating, swimming and for a general good time. At the end of the afternoon, they pick up the car again.

Driving back to the lab, Barnaby finds that he is reverting to his older self as the effect wears off. Again he wreaks the car. Edwina comes to find him as the lab and finds him resting up. He tells her about his adventures. She is a little suspicious of the lipstick on Barnaby’s face, but is trusting enough. Barnaby tells her he has discovered his formula and it is a success. Barnaby is ready to try the formula again that same evening, but Edwina is not so trusting of her husband after all.

She gets to it first and drinks it with water from the water cooler. After a few minutes, it is her who is acting like a twenty year-old. She insists that Barnaby take her to the hotel where they honeymooned. They even get the bridal suite. There is a dance floor and a band playing in the hotel and though it is now 11pm after a hard day they go out on the dance floor where Edwina dances like Ginger Rogers. From there it is up to the room.

What starts like a romantic interlude is even more like the first night of a honeymoon. Suddenly Edwina gets cold feet and ends up locking Barnaby outside the room in his pyjamas, without the drawstring and without his glasses. Barnaby ends up spending the night in the hotel laundry. Next morning, Edwina is back to normal and takes Barnaby home, still in his pyjamas. There Edwina’s lawyer and her mother, called by Edwina under the influence of the formula, are waiting to castigate Barnaby for his behaviour.

Barnaby and Edwina return to the lab. The whole experience has been an eye-opener to him. He is ready to destroy the formula but he still does not know the real formula is in the water cooler. Edwina makes coffee using water cooler water and the two of them are acting like children. Meanwhile, the Board of Directors of Oxley Chemical knows the formula does not work and assume that there is an ingredient missing in Barnaby’s recipe. However, coaxing a non-existent ingredient from a young child is more difficult than they had realised. Together, Barnaby and Edwina wreak havoc through the neighbourhood just acting like children. Barnaby uses some neighbourhood children to have revenge on his wife’s old boyfriend, Hugh Marlowe (Hank Entwhistle).

There are the expected comical mix-ups including Edwina finding a young child and thinking that it is Barnaby. While the Board of Directors of Oxley Chemical are waiting for the formula to wear off the infant, the board all drinks for the tainted water cooler and are all reduced to acting like children. Finally, all problems are resolved and Barnaby concludes that you are young if you feel young.

If this is Science Fiction and it is by virtue of a technicality, it really is more the feel of a fantasy film. I do not think anybody writing the film seriously wanted to look at the human effect of the aging process and the effect it would have on society if it could be turned back. If the film had been made ten years earlier, it would have used magic rather than science.

This is a film made for a few minutes diversion, but no thought of any great depth. It is the cinematic equivalent to playing solitaire. In spite of itself there is some serious content to the film, though it is easily overlooked. It suggests, somewhat complacently, that youth is not as good as we like to think. Youth is associated in this film with superficiality. Basically, it is a film made for adults that pokes fun at the behaviour of young people. These days with young people going to digitised theatres, films are more likely to make fun of mature adults.

The film tells us there is nothing that a youth drug can do for you that cannot be better done by just getting in the proper frame of mind. Youth is not wasted on the young, but it would waste anyone else. ‘You are old only when you forget you are young,’ Grant tells his wife.

Of course, the only way to put a happy ending on this film is to have people accept their aging and look on it as if it is a good thing. The film is somewhat contrived for this ending. Of course, that is not all that is contrived. The chimpanzee is over-trained and behaves like no chimp ever would. This is chimpanzee behaviour from the Tarzan school of animal acting. The adult imitations of child behaviour are equally unconvincing. The script is mediocre in most regards. It is a 50s film so it could not be explicit about sex, nor would that have fit well into the period, but there is plenty of sexual innuendo in the dialog without actually saying anything overt. Presumably, that was part of the art of scriptwriting at the time.

It makes the film a little more interesting is the reprise of two actors familiar from ‘The Thing From Another World’. Douglas Spencer who played Scotty and Robert Cornthwaite who played Carrington are two of the chemists at Oxley. It is not enough to salvage the film and their roles are quite small, but it is still a minor reward.

I would give ‘Monkey Business’ a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale.

 

© Mark Leeper 2021

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Category: Films, MEDIA, Scifi


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