Monkey Business (1953) Directed by Howard Hawks. Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers, Charles Coburn, Marilyn Monroe (97 min).
A chimp inadvertently mixes a “fountain-of-youth” formula, and comic confusion results as a staid married couple devolve to teendom, childhood and then savagery. Monkey Business is one of the more bizarre cinematic responses to the repressive 1950s, when lack of self control was the ultimate sin. Sober maturity was a highly prized trait in the mid-century movie world. Adults were adults (and looked it) and children were children. Monkey Business tosses expectations of age-related behavior aside.
The script’s original title, The Fountain of Youth was
first changed to Darling, I am Growing Younger and then Monkey
Business (also the name of an early Marx Brothers film). I.A.L.
Diamond, soon to become Billy Wilder’s collaborator, did the first
rewrite on the original story and he was assisted by old Hollywood hands
Hecht and Charles Lederer. Hawks wanted to cast a young actress opposite
48 year old Grant, to show that Dr. Barnaby Fulton had “turned
into a sort of a fogey; then he was rejuvenated and remained younger
rest of his life. That was the point.” But, Grant resisted being
cast opposite a much younger actress. Hawks was in his 50s and was dating
(and would soon marry) a woman half his age. He took the line “You’re
only old when you forget you’re young” as personal gospel.
At 41, Ginger Rogers was the oldest leading lady he ever had in one of
his films, and he was mightily displeased at being unable to cast a younger
actress (he had Ava Gardner in mind). He treated Rogers impolitely on
the set, addressing her formally as “Virginia” her real name.
The Breen Office, in charge of film censorship, objected vehemently to the film’s entire premise. The plot indicated explicitly that the formula B-4, first named Cupidone, was primarily an aphrodisiac. Originally, Edwina’s primary interest in the drug was her hope of rekindling her husband’s amorous interests in her, and Mr. Oxley’s to aid his infatuation with the luscious Miss Laurel. Even so, there were a surprising number of racy remarks that evaded the unimaginative censors, double entendres evident only when spoken by a skilled comedian like Cary Grant.
Grant enjoyed working with the baby chimp much more than he had working with the leopard in Bringing Up Baby. Chimps were popular co-stars in the early 50s. J. Fred Muggs cavorted with David Garroway on the Today show, and Jerry Lewis as well as Ronald Reagan played second banana to primate performers in the movies. One of the supporting human actors, Robert Cornwaithe said, “Cary Grant contributed a lot to his part. He had a remarkable memory of the games he had played as a kid, which he used for his character, and he brought a wonderful childlike quality to it.” (McCarthy). One of the film’s highlights is Grant leading a group of little backyard Indians in a War Dance.
George Foghorn Winslow’s deep voice renders him a caricature of an adult, with an adult’s literal-mindedness. He’s contrasted with Marilyn Monroe, a grown woman with a little baby voice, who is seen as half-child, although as Rogers says tartly, “not the part that’s visible.”
Monkey Business was one of Marilyn’s pre-stardom films, but it was her 17th, so she was hardly a newcomer. Hawks saw Marilyn not as a femme fatale, but as a comic seductress, which he would exploit to great effect in her next film, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Marilyn understood very well how to use her body for maximum effect. Only twice in her career did she wear a full skirt in a film. In Monkey Business, she needed one to display her experimental stockings to Grant, and in The Seven Year Itch, her dress had to flutter in the breeze of a subway grate. The tan jersey dress Travilla designed for her in this film was the only costume he ever made for her that she hated, but she was not yet a big enough start to demand a change. Marilyn garnered a great deal of publicity during filming, but Grant was never threatened by the attention given to younger stars.
“Not yet, Cary,” the director’s voice cautions, before the credits even roll. Two cage doors are opened, both Esther the chimpanzee’s as well as the door of Dr. Barnaby Fulton’s suburban tract house, welcoming not just youth, but reckless youth. “Monkey Business takes the solid familiar images of well-known stars and progressively strips them of their respectability by exposing not only the underpinnings of their screen personas but also the foundations of the limited and marriage-centered world of their era.” (Sikov).Grant was a romantic leading man who wore his status lightly, never afraid to mock the conventions. Hawks delighted in dressing Grant in women’s clothes for subversive comic effect. Clothing is one of the signs of liberation, as Edwina sheds her stiff rustling gown for a sloppy shirt and pants, and Barnaby gets a brush cut and a plaid sport coat. The appearance of being an adult is part of the illusion of maturity, which B-4 removes, promoting silly behavior as psychotherapy. Stability and dullness, rather than contribute to the longevity of a marriage the film argues, can destroy it. An establish couple needs to remember what it was like B-4.
(Sources include Laughing Hysterically by Ed Sikov, Ginger: My Story by Ginger Rogers, Cary Grant: In Name Only by Guy Morcombe and Martin Sterling, Howard Hawks, Storyteller by Gerald Mast, Howard Hawks by Robin Wood, Howard Hawks by Todd McCarthy.