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Cary Grant in Monkey Business

Monkey Business

1952. Twentieth Century-Fox. Directed by Howard Hawks. With Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers, Charles Coburn, Marilyn Monroe.


Howard Hawks's Monkey Business, a labored comedy in the classic style, opens with a credit sequence that must have seemed clever and modern at the time.

We see the front door of a suburban house. The door opens and Professor Barnaby Fulton, the distracted scientist played by Cary Grant, comes out. An offscreen voice immediately says, "Not yet, Cary." The man—I don't know what to call him at this point—shrugs and goes back into the house. Energetic screwball-comedy music starts up and the opening titles appear. Soon the door opens again and the same thing happens: "Not yet, Cary!" This time he gives a little "Hm!" before he retreats. The credits continue, and then the door opens for a third time and the movie's first scene, Fulton and his wife leaving their house for a dinner party, begins.

Who are the people in this curious little prologue? The man coming out of the door is patently not "Cary." Cary Grant does not wear coke-bottle glasses, mutter to himself, and project an air of utter preoccupation. It is, instead, absent-minded scientist Barnaby Fulton, assuming that there is such a person, and if there isn't, who is the rest of the movie about?

And who is that speaking to him? We never hear that off-screen voice again, nor does anything later in the movie give any hint that we're watching actors performing instead of characters behaving. So what is this consciousness that feels free to recognize and reprimand "Cary"? It's not the filmmaker—the voice is too humorously aggravated, the kind of voice that narrated newsreels about people doing wacky stunts. This person isn't directing Grant, he's patronizing him.

It's the voice of the public, I think, or at least what the studio feared was the voice of the public in 1952.

By this time, the influence of television was strongly felt in Hollywood. Among other things, TV brought audiences into a far more intimate, casual relationship with performers-a continuation of radio's informality. Uncle Miltie and Lucy came into the homes of viewers on a weekly basis, small and flickering, neighbors rather than gods and goddesses.

So here was one of the pre-war glamor stars in an old-fashioned screwball farce. Maybe the studio felt he needed to be demythologized a little, chided and joked with in Ozzie and Harriett style. "You all know this is a movie," this introduction says, flatteringly. "You recognize Cary Grant. You're smarter than we are, and we're not going to try to fool you." It may have seemed sophisticated, but it signals a lack of confidence that damages the integrity of the movie that follows.

This is not the only film of that era to fall victim to prefatory self-deflation. In Hollywood or Bust (1956), Dean and Jerry do a pre-credits sketch about moviegoers around the world. Before Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957) gets started, Tony Randall comes on to compare the size of the movie screen to the size of a TV. Jerry Lewis's The Errand Boy (1961) opens with a satirical tour of Hollywood. There must be other examples; I seem to recall a whole series of wide-screen comedies congratulating me for coming out to the movies.

The net effect is to tame the movie, to give us spectators a sort of power over it. In the Tashlin movies (and I'd put early Jerry Lewis into the Tashlin camp), this apparent cozying-up to the audience is part of a larger strategy of cynicism and self-mockery. But in Monkey Business, I think it's just a failure of nerve.

(5/18/1977)

 

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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein