As screwballs go, Howard Hawks’ Monkey Business (1952) might not be up there with the greatest, but it certainly deserves a high ranking for sheer silliness. Brazenly ignoring the conventional theatre refrain to never work with children or animals, Hawks does both, bringing mischievous chimpanzees and a gang of unruly Indians to the party. Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw described the film as ‘part romp, part druggie-surrealist masterpiece’ – he got the druggie/romp/surrealist angle right, but neglected to mention that this is a sublimely funny film, walking a line between overt farce and relatable scenarios, mixing order and anarchy for comic effect.
Defining the end of the screwball era is problematic, but this film certainly falls into the genre’s twilight years – indeed Monkey Business was probably made several years too late to fully capitalise on the previous success of Bringing Up Baby, The Lady Eve and more (in fact, Monkey Business wasn’t a big money maker). Hawks, however, knew the genre was worth revisiting – and to his credit, Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers give incredibly accomplished performances that are inspired by and build upon previous roles, trading on their star status.
Grant and Rogers (both accomplished screwball performers) play Barnaby and Edwina Fulton, a married couple. He’s an absent-minded, awkward alchemist in search of an elixir that can reduce the signs of ageing, she’s the devoted housewife who makes sure Barnaby’s life runs smoothly enough to accommodate for his genius. So far, so conformist. Chaos ensues when one of Barnaby’s test-lab chimpanzees (let’s gloss over the ethical issues here) manages to ‘create’ the elixir that had evaded Barnaby for so long. Cue scenes filled with double entendres, slapstick, madcap cavorting and inappropriate behaviour, and a script that takes an idea and runs with it.
The accidentally created rejuvenation potion reverts its drinkers to their younger selves, bringing long-forgotten personality traits and ambitions to the fore (and curing deteriorating eye sights and aching limbs in the process). In short, it’s regressive – it makes children of adults, and no one knows how to deal with it, apart from perhaps Lois Laurel (Marilyn Monroe), a wide-eyed secretary whose ditziness is emphasised from the beginning (“Mr Oxley’s been complaining about my punctuation, so I’m careful to get here before nine”). The ‘drug’ enables plenty of comedy – Barnaby purchases an unsuitable car and takes Lois for an extremely fast spin, Edwina drops a fish down the trouser leg of Barnaby’s boss – but youth can be as destructive as it is exciting, and the reverted moments are often offset by negative emotions, drawn from each character’s childhood.
Edwina isn’t quite able to keep up the joviality that results in the fish-in-trousers escapade, and reverts to a helpless, trembling wreck whose girlish fears prevent her from getting changed in front of her husband when she takes him to a hotel to recreate their wedding night. It’s a wonderful emotive scene that touches on her terror (at being alone with a man), sadness (at the thought she’s no longer a ‘girl’) and panicked (at the supposed suggestion of Barnaby’s ex-lovers) and fear (that she might not match up), and even though the emotional rollercoaster is slightly clichéd, Hawks just about gets away with it thanks to Rogers’ ability to infuse the role with depth and complexity.
Edwina might need a drug to break her steely housewife exterior; it’s something of a relief to learn that something other than concern for husband affects her emotions. The appearance of her mother (played by Esther Dale) is a further complication. She makes it clear she prefers (even advocates) Edwina’s more ‘demure’ behaviour, as her daughter now conforms to her own ideas of femininity. Oscillating between carefree dancing and reckless abandon, Edwina encompasses the best – and the worst – of ‘youth’. The contrast between the demure housewife and the plain talking ‘teenage’ Edwina is delightful, although the reversion back to type somehow reduces sympathy for the character, who seems reduced to a nagging wife figure – especially where Lois is concerned, claiming she wants to ‘pull her blonde hair out by its black roots’.
As with many of Hawks’ films a more sinister message lingers below the joviality. What does growing old really mean? Is it only by looking back that we can make improvements for the future? And one that seems particularly prescient today – why are we so obsessed with youth? What can really be gained from denying the passage of time? For Barnaby and Edwina – not a lot. Their strong marriage and affections might’ve been deepened by their escapades, but that knowledge didn’t come without heartache and misunderstanding. Irresponsibility and the folly of youth do not necessarily correlate to pleasure, especially when viewed through the lens of maturity. Rejuvenation won’t change us, but it might make understanding the present a little easier.