#19 in my ranking of Howard Hawks’ filmography.
Written by Ben Hecht, Charles Lederer, and IAL Diamond, Howard Hawks’ Monkey Business feels like a combination of an Ealing Street Studios production like The Man in the White Suit with a Billy Wilder picture like One, Two, Three, run through the blender by Hawks himself. It’s a light, silly, and entertaining little comedy anchored by two wonderfully physical performances from Ginger Rogers and Cary Grant. Hawks apparently had no love for the film, finding its central premise too preposterous to believe, but he cast well enough to make it work in its own limited way.
Grant plays Dr. Barnaby Fulton, a chemist working on a formula hoped to be the fountain of youth. Rogers plays his wife, Edwina, happy to have married a scientist who can end up completely destroying their evening plans because he can’t get the issues with his formula out of his head long enough to get out the door. She finds him endearing as he obsesses over the mere 23% (or is it 27%?) absorption rate in his chimpanzee subjects. He has a new idea on how to make it work, and he prepares the new solution in the lab the next day. Here we are introduced to Marilyn Monroe’s Lois, the secretary to Barnaby’s boss. Barnaby has no interest in her, being happily married, beyond the effectiveness of a nylon stocking he developed that she’s wearing.
After Barnaby finishes one part of his mixture and goes off into another room to set the different elements into different temperatures for the final mix, one of the chimpanzees gets out of her cage and begins playing with the liquids at Barnaby’s station, eventually pouring it all into the water fountain. Barnaby drinks his own mixture then the water, eventually devolving to the mentality of a college student of the most rambunctious sort. He jumps out of the office window, gets a young man’s haircut, buys a sports car, and ends up picking up Lois. He’s carefree until the formula begins to wear off, He slouches his shoulders as he slows the car down and struggles to see, eventually crashing the car slightly. The change is all Grant just leaning into the change, and it’s a fun little moment.
The tales of Barnaby’s excursion spread to Edwina who listens with the calm of a wife who understands her husband’s nature and work. When Barnaby insists that he must continue to experiment, she sneakily takes the larger dosage herself, also washing it down with water from the same fountain, and she becomes a college girl herself. This is Ginger Rogers’ time to shine as she morphs into a younger woman in mentality, sneaking fish into Barnaby’s boss’s pants, dancing the night away at a club with an increasingly tired Barnaby, and becoming a nervous and shy young woman at the prospect of undressing in front of a grown man.
The whole experimental formula becomes an excuse for Grant and Rogers to act as increasingly younger children. It’s easy to see where Hawks would concentrate on this project he didn’t have much excitement for: allowing Rogers and Grant to discover comedic business to fill the screen with. The standout moment is when the two, having made a pot of coffee from the water fountain that they drink heavily, get younger than they have before, roughly 10 years old. Rogers balances a full cup on her forehead, descends to laying on the floor, and then rises up again to her feet without spilling a drop. It’s not highlighted while all in one shot on the side of the screen with Grant taking up as much space, but it’s a remarkable moment of physical comedy and prowess from Rogers.
The climax of the film is Barnaby’s boss trying to figure out the formula from Barnaby’s notes while Barnaby spends time with the local boys in an effort to kidnap and scalp the man from Edwina’s past who’s using the situation to try and get rid of Barnaby. While all of this is going on, Edwina becomes convinced that Barnaby has become a baby and doesn’t know how to fix it, so she takes the baby back to the office. It’s a rather madcap ending that sees the ante upped in fun ways all over the place, including the infantile Edwina deciding to go after Lois for being sweet on her husband.
Sure, Hawks’ heart might not have been in it, but he knew enough of what he was doing to get the right pieces into the right places. Grant and Rogers are wonderful both alone and together, bringing wonderfully physical performances to their characters. The set pieces of comedy are consistently entertaining and amusing. It’ may not be great entertainment, but it’s surprisingly solid as a comedy.