Marilyn Monroe's Monkey Business
5 September 1952
Marilyn’s Silly Secretary Trilogy, Movie No. 3
Let’s see … there’s Arsenic and Old Lace and Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday. There are several others, but those three are all great comedies starring Cary Grant, arguably one of the best comic actors to ever appear on film. The first one, a fast-paced and dark comedy directed by Frank Capra, just happens to be one of my all-time favorite picture shows. The other two, both directed by Howard Hawks, are equally wonderful comedies. MM’s Monkey Business is the Grant comedy that often goes unnoticed, even unmentioned unless in relation to Bringing Up Baby. Some misguided dismissives dismiss Marilyn Monroe’s Monkey Business as a B-grade movie, featuring an unbelievable gag that loses its punch quickly. Bosley Crowther, who judged the movie as messageless, wrote for the New York Times in 1952:
The trouble, we’d say―if trouble is what you’d call an extended barrage of whooping childish behavior by a film full of grown-up clowns―is that a screwball idea like this one can be kept funny just so long, which is maybe thirty-five or forty minutes, and then it blows up and that’s the end.
In 1953, however, Jacques Rivette countered with this opinion:
The evidence on the screen is the proof of Howard Hawks’s genius: you only have to watch Monkey Business to know that it is a brilliant film. Some people refuse to admit this, however; they refuse to be satisfied by proof. There can’t be any other reason why they don’t recognize it.
And in 2007, Dennis Grunes offered the following estimation:
Monkey Business is easily the funniest American film comedy of the ’50s; its only real rival, in fact, is Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959) ―and that film is total make-believe, while Hawks’s grabs at darker, more serious implications.
Despite Bosley’s opinion, and undoubtedly because of those expressed by Rivette and Grunes, we are compelled to ask ourselves this question: are there, in fact, deep and pertinent messages tucked adroitly within the comic scenes and the silly shenanigans depicted in Marilyn Monroe’s Monkey Business? And this question: did the most influential movie critic of all time simply overlook the messages? If not, and if so, what remains, nevertheless, is a screwball comedy, funny from beginning to end and a pleasure to watch, if for no other reason than it features two of the most indelible comic actors, not to mention Hollywood screen legends, working together: Archibald Alexander Leach and Norma Jeane Mortenson.
First, let’s give credit to Howard Hawks for an unusual and imaginative opening to his screwball movie. Twice Cary Grant opens the front door of what is obviously his house, at least his house in the movie, and appears briefly, only to have a voice from behind the camera, apparently Hawks’ voice, tell him: Not yet, Cary. During this sequence, the director deftly dispenses the often perfunctory business of opening credits and proceeds to inform his audience, and not in a subtle way, that this movie, featuring Cary Grant the actor, is one big gag. But there are those who see this opening as a misdirection play. As usual for Howard Hawks, the tale of monkey business is told lineally without benefit of flashback or commentary, except what occurs as dialogue. Structured around six sections or vignettes, as the tale proceeds, each subsequent section is more screwball than the one preceding it. The final sections acts as the summary, like the final, resolving cadence that returns a piece of music to the home key.
During Section 1, we meet Barnaby and Edwina Fulton, a childless, middle-age, apparently happily married couple who are preparing to leave for a party. We learn that Barnaby is very absent-minded, virtually blind without his glasses, but also a genius chemist who is working on a chemical formula that he hopes will slow, possibly even permanently reverse, the effects of human aging. Barnaby is so engrossed in his thoughts about the formula that he cannot even follow the most basic instructions delivered by Edwina so they can leave the house. As a result, Edwina decides they should skip the party.
Obviously the Fulton’s love each other, but the youthful desire they once felt has diminished with time and aging. Soon Hank Entwhistle, attorney and a family friend with whom the Fulton’s had agreed to attend the party, arrives to complain about being stood up. If there is a villain in this movie, Hank is it. Once Edwina’s love interest, he carries a torch for her and secretly hopes that the Fulton’s marriage will fail so he can then slip into Barnaby’s shoes and, we conclude, also his pajamas.
The Premise & Age Regression 1: The Male
Section 2 begins the following morning when Barnaby returns to work. We meet the elder Mr. Oxly, the chemical company owner, and Lois Laurel, Mr. Oxly’s slightly dimwitted but beautiful and buxom secretary. She allows Barnaby to closely examine the indestructible M41 acetate stockings he invented and helped develop. We also meet various lab assistants and a couple of chimpanzees.
After Barnaby mixes a new batch of his formula, X58, using the quantities of chemicals prescribed by his recipe, he leaves his lab to heat the concoction. During Barnaby’s brief absence, an unusually bright female chimpanzee, Ester, escapes from her cage and mimics Dr. Fulton, mixing chemicals in a beaker, only mixing them in a slightly more haphazard manner than the highly educated chemist. Ester then drops her concoction, beaker and all, into the drinking fountain, left temporarily open and unattended by a workman changing the water bottle.
Unaware of Ester’s shenanigans, Dr. Fulton decides to test x58 on himself. Its taste is so bitter that he tries to wash it out of his mouth by drinking some H20 from the water cooler which also has a bitter taste. It’s not long before Dr. Fulton begins to feel the effects of Ester’s serum and believes his x58 formula is why he no longer needs his glasses to see clearly, why he feels incredibly youthful and energetic and no longer suffers from bursitis in his right shoulder. A new and youthful Barnaby ducks out his office window to avoid a meeting with Mr. Oxly.
Once transformed and free, Barnaby gets a new, more youthful haircut, new, more youthful clothes and then heads to an automobile dealership to look at a new car. Sent to find Barnaby by Mr. Oxly, Lois catches up with him at the car lot where he has just purchased a new 1952 two seater MG TD. He recognizes her legs, visible beneath a sign board, so he invites her to join him for a ride in his new car. He places a cardboard box that contains his old clothes at her feet and they speed off together.
The doctor drives like a maniac. They end up in a minor accident which inflicts some minor damage to the MG; but according to the body shop, the car will be as good as new by 5:00 PM. Barnaby and Lois head to a nearby skating rink and then a public swimming pool where Barnaby clumsily shows off. Back in the repaired MG, they head toward the Oxly plant just as the effects of the serum begin to wane; and Barnaby, the fun-loving college boy, returns to being Barnaby the research chemist.
Age Regression 2: The Female
Section 3 starts when Edwina arrives at Barnaby’s office with a picnic basket full of goodies only to find him sleeping off the effects of the serum. After awaking, he attempts to describe for Edwina just how young and wonderful he felt during his transformation. She is more interested in the lipstick imprint placed on his cheek by Lois, but Edwina does not over react. Barnaby announces that he intends to test the formula again, Edwina intercepts the dose and drinks it. Like Barnaby, the bitter taste sends her to the water cooler for some cleansing H2O.
Mr. Oxly arrives. Soon, Edwina’s age regression begins, sending her back to an even younger point in her life than Barnaby’s regression sent him. She drops a fish down Mr. Oxly’s trousers and places a pie in his chair just before he sits down. When Miss Laurel arrives, Edwina almost starts a fist fight before Barnaby forces her outside and into the MG. At her suggestion, they go to the hotel where they spent the first night of their honeymoon.
Once in their room, she heads into the bathroom to change her clothes while Barnaby, like a good husband, waits patiently for her to appear. When she finally does, her plan to relive the first passionate night of their honeymoon gets short circuited because she thinks of her mother and begins to cry. A silly argument ensues and Edwina reveals a secret: her mother wanted her to marry Hank Entwhistle. She also reveals that Hank kissed her before she and Barnaby married. Eventually, after some additional wrangling between husband and wife, Barnaby finds himself locked out of the room without his classes.
He blindly falls down a laundry shoot and slides down into the basement laundry where he spends the night, knocked unconscious. The following morning, no longer under the spell of the serum, Edwina spots Barnaby as he is being led from the basement laundry by a couple of maids. They drive home in the cool morning air with Barnaby wearing Edwina’s coat. Once home, they encounter two reporters with questions. Barnaby has no idea what’s going on, so he thinks their questions are about his successful formula tests; but once inside, where he encounters Hank and Edwina’s mother, Barnaby learns that his wife telephoned Hank from their honeymoon suite and announced her plan to file for divorce. Hank notified the press. Eventually, husband and wife depart that screwball scene and end up once again in Barnaby’s lab.
Age Regression 3: The Male & The Female
Section 4 finds Barnaby and Edwina deciding to brew some coffee with water from the lab cooler. While doing so, Barnaby decides to destroy the formula because the transformation it engenders causes too many problems. He empties what he thinks is the serum into a lab sink and begins to rip his notes and the formula into pieces.
While waiting for the coffee to brew, Barnaby wants to know why Edwina considered a divorce during their honeymoon re-enactment the night before. Why did she telephone Hank? The topics of Hank’s kiss and Miss Laurel’s kiss almost lead the couple to another argument, but a concerned Edwina stops the discussion before that happens. Each drinks more than one cup of coffee and then regress to children. After appearing at a board meeting where they behave like petulant and mischievous children, they head home, stopping briefly to engage in a hilarious paint fight which sends Edwina tearfully home and leaves Barnaby’s face totally covered with dark paint. Once home, Edwina goes inside and telephones Hank, announcing once again that she intends to leave Barnaby because he is a brute. She then falls asleep.
Barnaby, who overheard Edwina’s divorce plan, decides to deal with Hank once and for all. After changing into some unpainted clothes, he applies war paint and heads out with a pair of garden shears to enlist the help of some children who are playing cowboys and Indians in a neighboring lot. They agree to help Red Eagle, Barnaby’s newly assumed identity, scallop the evil Hank Entwhistle.
Meanwhile, a neighbor of the Fulton’s appears with a toddler and asks their housekeeper to babysit. Shortly, he stands, loses his clothes, toddles into the house, nude, and climbs onto the bed with Edwina. Hank then arrives.
The young Indians trick him into capture, bind him to a tree and Red Eagle appears to scallop him. While the Indians noisily dance around their prisoner, Edwina awakens, discovers the baby and immediately assumes, after spotting Barnaby’s clothes piled on a nearby chair, that Barnaby has regressed to a toddler. She heads by taxi to Oxly chemical where she convinces Mr. Oxly, and several of Barnaby’s assistants, that Barnaby is now a baby. Meanwhile the police arrive to rescue Hank, whose coiffure has been transformed into a Mohawk. Red Eagle and his braves flee the fuzz.
Age Regression 4: The Group
Section 5 begins when Mr. Oxly decides he needs a drink. Waiting for the baby Barnaby, who is now laying quietly on the cot in the chemist’s office, waiting for the toddler to magically revert to the adult Barnaby, is taxing old Mr. Oxly. So all of Barnaby’s lab assistants, save one who does not imbibe, agree to join Mr. Oxly for a shot of booze. Edwina declines. Fortunately, or unfortunately, they decide to chase the booze with H2O from the cooler. The taste of the water is so bitter that Mr. Oxly orders the water bottle emptied and the cooler drained.
Adult Barnaby arrives and enters his office through the window. He joins baby Barnaby on the office cot and promptly falls asleep. A surprised Edwina arrives to awaken him. She thinks there are now two Barnaby’s. A commotion in the laboratory interrupts their conversation; so Barnaby, Edwina and the toddler go to investigate, only to find Oxly and the others behaving like rambunctious children. Who is this toddler? The sober assistant has deduced and concluded that a chimp actually mixed the elixir and dropped it into the water cooler. Oxly, who has a seltzer bottle, is spraying everybody while his fellow imbibers are also spraying each other with water using lab sink hoses. Hank arrives with the police and Miss Laurel. She immediately comes under attack by Mr. Oxly: he sprays his voluptuous secretary with seltzer directly on her backside. The scene ends with a screaming Miss Laurel attempting to escape Mr. Oxly’s seltzeration.
Section 6 opens with Barnaby and Edwina preparing, once again, for a party. Edwina questions Barnaby: why wasn’t he disappointed when he learned that Ester invented the formula? Barnaby admits that he has developed a new formula, just one that does not come in packages or bottles. You’re old only when you forget you’re young, he opines. It’s a word you keep in your heart, a light you have in your eyes, someone you hold in your arms. Edwina admits that she is glad to be going out with Barnaby: he is quite obviously a wonderful man. Fade to black as Barnaby and Edwina embrace then kiss.
Lots and lots of comedies, screwball and otherwise, have been made in Hollywood, both before and after the fifties; but it’s high praise for any comedy to be compared favorably with Some Like It Hot, as did Mr. Grunes, considering that farce regularly appears as numero uno on many best-comedy-of-all-time lists. As noted at the top, Mr. Grunes suggests that Marilyn Monroe’s Monkey Business is even better than Billy Wilder’s unrealistic comedy. I will only add this: any comedy featuring a scene in which Charles Coburn pursues a screaming Marilyn Monroe, while squirting her ample behind with seltzer, is worth the price of admission. And that is a feature Some Like It Hot does not have.
The Many Facets of Marilyn Monroe’s Monkey Business
The Messages Bosley Crowther Overlooked
Writing for “Only the Cinema” in December of 2008, Ed Howard offered the following observation: The movie’s theme, if such a light-hearted confection can be said to have one without sounding too pretentious, is the importance of retaining a youthful passion in relationships, even as youth itself recedes into the past. Considering what Barnaby says during the summation section as the movie ends, you might agree with Mr. Ed and merely let that be the end of it. But there are those among us who perceive even deeper themes and even cautionary messages.
When I encounter a movie that involves ingesting a chemical concoction to produce a psychological alteration, I automatically think of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the Stevenson novella and the 1941 movie, but mostly the movie. I immediately look for similarities or references to that cautionary tale about manipulating nature, the dangers and the consequences thereof, the dangers and the consequences of losing control of one’s self, leading to addiction, and the presence of good and evil in all human beings.
There is also a sexual element to the Jekyll and Hyde tragedy. Dr. Jekyll is a sexually repressed man and Mr. Hyde represents Jekyll’s released desires that find satisfaction in his cruel debasement of the barmaid Ivy. Certainly, the transformations experienced by Barnaby, Edwina, Mr. Oxly and all the others in no way approach the dark devolution into the primitive sort of evil and perverted sexuality experienced by Dr. Jekyll; but in Hawks’ movie, both Barnaby and Edwina devolve into a certain primitive state that Hawks conceals with childish antics. For example, Edwina wants to fist fight with Lois, shots her in the fanny with rubber bands; and while Barnaby wants to burn Hank at the stake, he settles for scalping him. It’s all made to seem very innocent and silly because the screen is filled with children and a grown man with a painted face, not something visually grotesque; and the use of the term scallop softens the grotesque nature of Barnaby’s intent. That Hank is only partially scalloped is humorous, not horrific; but the intent is still barbaric.
Our screwball comedy contains a substantial amount of sexual innuendo and metaphors representing repressed sexual desires as well as fears; and a majority of the sexual suggestiveness and desire revolve around Miss Laurel. She is certainly the object of old Oxly’s sexual ideations and the reason why he wants Barnaby to create a youth generating elixir in the first place. X58 or B4 is basically an aphrodisiac, a fifties version of Viagra or Cialis. In the penultimate scene, if old Mr. Oxly squirting the bodacious Miss Laurel’s derriere with seltzer is not a metaphor for the old man’s desire to ejaculate on her, then my moniker ain’t TheDoonce.
Further demonstrated during Barnaby’s first age regression, he becomes sexually rejuvenated. When Miss Laurel arrives at the car lot, he sees her legs beneath a sign board. He recognizes them from his earlier examination of her assatates, the moment when Miss Laurel first nudged Barnaby’s libido; but at that time, he only saw her acetates. Now he sees the legs inside them and their sexy owner. Thus, Barnaby’s sexual ideations and attentions become focused squarely on the voluptuous Miss Laurel, her languorously bouncing derriere and her shapely legs. The playful afternoon they spend together is nothing less than chaste foreplay, the only type allowed by the Fifties Production Code. The little red sports car Barnaby purchases, while a phallic symbol, also doubles as a vaginal metaphor, a metaphor for Lois, a shiny young trinket who attracts Barnaby but who has a dark impact on his marriage to Edwina, almost resulting in a marital wreck. Here’s the rapid fire dialogue that occurs between Barnaby and his afternoon date after she has seated herself in his new sports car.
Lois: Is your motor running?
Barnaby: Is Yours? Takes a while to warm up.
Lois: Does me too.
Barnaby: Well, watch your head. I’ll watch everything else.
Also, the word box is often used as slang for a woman’s vagina. The cardboard box that Barnaby places at Lois’ feet after she is inside the car contains Barnaby’s clothes. One could argue that box is yet another vaginal metaphor: Lois’ box with Barnaby hanging around inside. When Barnaby reveals to Edwina that he and Lois went skating, she mentions the remarkable balance required to copulate while standing on roller skates. Intended as a facetious comment, perhaps; but the tone of her voice and her facial expression suggest concern. It can be argued, I think, that Edwina’s interest in taking the drug is her hope of generating the type of interest in her that Barnaby displayed for the younger, more nubile Miss Laurel. The only problem is Edwina does not actually change into Miss Laurel or get physically younger.
And what about Barnaby’s desire to burn Hank at the stake? When Hank arrives during the opening scene as Edwina, sans her dress, is busy preparing eggs for Barnaby in her undergarments, Barnaby hides her backside with an apron to prevent Hank from seeing her. (A similar cover-up happens in Bringing Up Baby.) Why is she preparing eggs at that time of night? Barnaby’s desire to kill Hank is clearly a reaction to his unstated belief and concern that Hank harbors sexual desires for Edwina. Hank is not only Barnaby’s sexual rival, but also a man who might successfully fertilize Edwina’s eggs, something Barnaby has not been able to do. The reason for their childless union is not revealed and while the movie implies the reason is Barnaby’s lack of fertility, husband and wife probably blame each other. The Fultons have not determined why they have not generated any off-springs out of fear. I must point out that Oxly refers to the discovery of the anti-aging elixir as Barnaby’s baby.
Barnaby feels compelled to destroy his youth generating potion and the formula for reproducing it. He calls it the most dubious discovery since itching powder and just about as useful. Edwina points out that it had some positive effects, improved his eyesight, cured his bursitis and made him feel young again. Barnaby questions whether being young is all that great: The dream of youth. We remember it as a time of nightingales and valentines and what are the facts? Maladjustment, near idiocy and a series of low comedy disasters. That’s what youth is. I don’t see how anyone survives it. Barnaby eventually gets to the crux of his concern when he asks Edwina to explain why she wanted a divorce. She, of course, blames the serum; but Barnaby realizes the serum revealed Edwina’s repressed feelings, her subconscious aversion to him. Barnaby’s perceptive realization upsets Edwina but the enlightened scientist pursues the issue and asks why she constantly mentioned Hank Entwhistle during their hotel argument. Why did she kiss him? Does she love him? She counters with questions about his subconscious discontent with her. Why did he gallivant, play paddy cake all over town with Lois. Does he love her? Doing a swan dive. Acting like a . . . She stops herself, commenting that they shouldn’t be fighting, having doubts about our marriage. Barnaby decides to destroy the serum and the formula.
Like Dr. Jekyll, Barnaby realizes his drug must be destroyed to prevent its widespread use by humanity because it is just too dangerous; but he destroys it primarily to save himself, his wife and their life together. Unlike Dr. Jekyll, Barnaby hasn’t reached the point of addiction to the transformation and a complete loss of self control. Accidentally, husband and wife experience one final regression, leading to their angry encounter in the conference room with Oxley’s Board of Directors and later, the paint fight, a fierce but humorous release of all the resentments they have harbored during the seven years of their marriage. It seems Edwina sacrificed her talents and her career in order to fundamentally babysit the absent-minded Barnaby and that is no doubt the basis of her resentment. She virtually treats him like a child, probably considers him to be a child occasionally, which is why she easily accepts his regression to near infancy. All in all, the shaky foundation of their marriage has been exposed; but there is no real way to resolve these issues: there is only acceptance. Fortunately, on Oxly’s orders, the lab technicians waste the water containing Ester’s serum and since a real formula or recipe for the chimpanzee’s concoction does not exist, Barnaby and Edwina, along with the whole of humanity, avoid destruction.
Order restored, husband and wife settle back into their ordered lives, which is not necessarily a bad state of being. Besides, they have changed and grown. I suggest that Barnaby’s slide down the laundry chute during Edwina’s initial age regression can be interpreted as a metaphor for his rebirth in so far that he will view Edwina in a different way henceforth; and the collision with the wall, which knocked him unconscious, both figuratively and literally knocked some sense into his head. Thus, he will awaken a more aware man. This motif receives an expansion the following morning when Barnaby dons a piece of Edwina’s clothing, suggesting that he will be able, or at least be more inclined, to see himself from Edwina’s perspective. Plus Barnaby realizes something that was actually proven by Ester’s concoction. He spoke of it after his first age regression when he said it seems to work on the mind. Being young, after all, is just an outlook, an attitude; being young is just a frame of mind.
Finally, in an article about the purpose of art and Marilyn Monroe’s Monkey Business, which appeared in Journey by Frame, Trevor Link suggested that Hawks’ advised against the intrusion of capitalism into our lives and thus made the movie political. He observed and wrote: Our paternalistic best wishes for art are often most apparent when dealing with political art, and in a very real way, in the way it can seem to subvert the foundations of Western civilization, Monkey Business is political. Mr. Link noted that our screwball comedy contains a
considerable amount of irresponsible behavior. Barnaby behaves irresponsibly during his first age regression, signified by his haircut, his clothes and the red sports car, not appropriate for a man of his age and position. He behaves irresponsibly with Miss Laurel. Productivity is the corner stone of Capitalism and Capitalism requires responsibility, requires responsible behavior.
The potential financial gain for Oxly Chemical, Mr. Oxly and Barnaby, should they succeed in developing a youth inducing drug, could not be measured. That is why Barnaby cannot stop thinking about his formula at the start of the movie, why he and Edwina don’t go to the party. Barnaby is driven to be productive, to succeed. Accordinmg to Mr.Link:
The opening scene depicts how easily it can be for creative people and intellectuals (Barnaby is a scientist) to be swept up and ensnared in capitalism’s forward thrust towards productivity, even when it seeps into and harms their personal lives. It seems, therefore, by rejecting the restraints of responsibility and productivity, true happiness can be achieved. In the end, husband and wife … find greater happiness by rejecting the social obligation of responsibility: Barnaby has passionately abandoned his project to find the formula for the drug. This idea that irresponsibility can lead us to liberation and happiness can be followed to an even more radical position if one is willing, as the argument that one should reject social and productive demands for “mere” pleasure and happiness (the “premise” of art in general) runs counter to the very foundations of modern, capitalist society. Monkey Business will not change that society, but it can help us change ourselves.
Amazing, for true. I wonder why Bosley Crowther didn’t perceive all that?