Monkey Business – Howard Hawks
Monkey Business is a comedy about rejuvenation, a serious theme; however, director Howard Hawks’s treatment of the subject does not emphasize this seriousness. His approach is to make the situations resulting from the premise as ridiculous as possible. It has often been observed that Hawks’s comedies are the inversion of his dramas. He creates a pleasing balance in his work by alternating between disturbing comedies and warm-hearted adventure stories, sometimes in immediate sequence, as was the case with The Big Sky (1952) and Monkey Business. In his comedies, which are at their best when they are most outrageous, there is a giddiness which could make us forget that Hawks’s lucidity never deserts him even in the face of lunacy. He looks on the silly antics of the characters in a film like Monkey Business with a straight face, observing perhaps that his adult men and women are less mature than certain children and less capable than certain monkeys.
Monkey Business is one Hawks comedy, however, that is more akin to a Hawks drama. When Hawks looks at a relationship seriously, he invariably finds some simple value which validates that relationship, such as an unselfish love which causes one friend to look out for another. In Monkey Business, he also validates the relationship between Barnaby Fulton (Cary Grant) and his wife Edwina (Ginger Rogers), and does so with an unmistakable warmth which gives the film’s conclusion a very different feeling from that found in earlier Hawks comedies such as Twentieth Century (1934) or Bringing Up Baby (1938). Barnaby and Edwina are made to look extremely foolish during most of this film, but when they decide to accept themselves as they are, they do so in a positive spirit.
The story begins with Fulton’s attempts to invent an elixir that causes rejuvenation. Although Barnaby is a scientist, he is one step away from helplessness when it comes to handling the practical details of life, and Edwina is guileless enough not to try to change him. If the artificially experienced youth which his formula makes possible has a positive effect, it is to take away a craving for a carefree existence of which they really have no need.
Actually, it is the monkey and not Barnaby who comes up with the right formula, a fact of which the principals are unaware until the final reel of the film, and which makes the entire experiment seem properly frivolous. One night when the laboratory is deserted, a monkey whose cage has inadvertently been left unlocked grabs the bars of the cage door and comes swinging out toward the camera. It follows that the monkey accidentally mixes the right formula, then expresses his contempt for it by dropping it in the water cooler.
The remainder of the film is structured around three distinct episodes of rejuvenation which successively release an increasingly wild frenzy of youthful activity. In the first episode, Barnaby takes the formula and reverts to his college days, getting a youthful haircut and buying a sports car, as well as having a lot of innocent fun with Lois Laurel (Marilyn Monroe), the sexy but not very proficient secretary of his boss, Mr. Oliver Oxley (Charles Coburn). In the second episode, Barnaby is back to normal and Edwina has seized her opportunity to drink the elixir. She drags Barnaby to their honeymoon hotel, dances the hours away until he is in a stupor, then becomes insecure and mistrustful and throws her husband out of their room. He ends up plunging down a laundry chute and sleeping with the hotel linen.
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