There is to be a celebration held in the lavish home of Mrs Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont) in honour of Captain Spaulding (Groucho Marx) who is returning from Africa with tales of his exploring on that continent that every one of the guests is keen to hear about. As if that were not enough, a painting is to be unveiled, absolutely priceless and one Mrs Rittenhouse is now the proud owner of, yes, it will be a prestigious day all round. So when the guests are gathered and the Captain finally arrives, they sing his praises in a chorus, but he seems less keen to stick around than he is to get going, answering with a song of his own making that apparent. However, he will be persuaded to stay…
Just as well, because it wouldn’t be half the movie it is without him. Animal Crackers was the next film the Marx Brothers made after their hit debut feature The Cocoanuts (though they had made a silent short which they thoroughly disowned), and saw them bringing their stage show to the big screen once again – most of their movies were tried out in the theatre beforehand to hone the gags and routines to perfection. In this case, it was often regarded as one of their lesser efforts thanks to those stage origins being more blatant than ever, not so much a movie as a filmed version of the theatrical experience, and it was true enough without the fizzing energy of the Brothers it would feel rather flat.
Fortunately they were on somewhere near their best form, which saved the picture through some of the less exciting patches as when characters who were not played by the Marxes took the limelight, as was part of the deal here when something approaching a plot had the temerity to intrude. This was to do with that painting, which in slightly tedious fashion had to be stolen, initially by two sets of characters who believe it would be a great wheeze to replace it with a replica, which presumably meant there were three paintings about the mansion, one an original and two fakes. But you wouldn’t be too interested in that when there was the chance to listen to Groucho fast talk his way around the others.
Not to mention watch Harpo ply his accustomed lunacy, rushing around the set, chasing his blonde, parping his horn, offering his leg, producing props from his overcoat and generally terrifying everyone who wasn’t Groucho or Chico. His version of bridge which he plays with partner Chico against Mrs Rittenhouse and her friend was a rare instance of Dumont getting her own scene with the other two brothers rather than exclusively the stooge of Groucho, and the ridiculously fixed deck of cards was pretty funny, as was the bizarre punchline, though you could understand why Groucho was probably best with her, at least he didn’t manhandle her in the way Harpo managed to do (as he did with everyone).
Other interest in the cast came from Lillian Roth as the female lead, not love interest for Zeppo, though, who had very little to do this time around (impersonating Groucho in the dark was possibly his most impressive sequence, and you couldn’t even see him properly). Roth would become infamous as the first star to admit she had a dire drinking problem and endorse Alcoholics Anonymous; she did recover and returned to performing, but her life was a tragic one she detailed in a tell all autobiography that topped the bestseller lists, so it’s a little sad to see her before all her troubles befell her, pretty and lively and getting her own (admittedly inconsequential) musical number. In the main, though the years had not been kind to the technique, the wild humour survived with all its bad puns and outlandish set-ups, you doubt the Captain had ever been out of America, the actual thief was no surprise though the reveal is overextended to the point of lunacy, and there were plenty of laughs from these true originals.