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A Marriage Plot (Monkey Business, 1952)

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Monkey Business could almost be a horror movie. A slightly different point-of-view and it’s virtually The Fly. (Yes, Cronenberg is still on my mind.) Instead of bodily disgust, however, the horror of the film is found in the loss of self, or rather at the loss of a mature self. The horror of youth is not that it’s an unknowable force threatening to overwhelm and destroy you (no clash of generations here); the horror of youth is that it is knowable, that we’ve been there, it was embarrassing, and we can’t remain functioning adults by returning to it.

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It’s a horror over our own fragile autonomy. But losing control over oneself can either be tragic or hilarious, and for Hawks this time it’s hilarious. Monkey Business is a comedy because, as is often the case with Hawks, the horror of the situation gives way to the saving power of the group, the community. In the case of Monkey Business, even though there is a larger community of scientists, secretaries, and bureaucrats, the real group at the heart of the story is that of a married couple, Barnaby and Edwina.

The exploration of that marriage – Cary Grant’s absent-minded but brilliant chemist and Ginger Rogers’ patient and level-headed wife – raises the film up to something special in Hawks’s oeuvre. Ranking Hawks’s comedies is difficult and ultimately not really useful, but in general I prefer those where the central relationship is pre-established to those where the relationship is brand new and developed over the course of the film. (I’d include Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in the former category, as the central relationship is between Dorothy and Lorelei, not between the girls and any of the men.) This is just a personal preference, and it certainly doesn’t make a film like Ball of Fire less great, but I’d rather a film explore a relationship than create one.

Romantic comedies, including many great ones, tend to rely on the “getting together” setup. After all, marriage (or some sense of permanent coupling) is an effective and time-tested way of ending a story. Even a film like His Girl Friday, which draws most of its comedy out on how well Hildy knows Walter and what she expects him to do, is able to end its plot this way by allowing its separated couple to reunite. (David Bordwell called this the “getting back together” plot, and was quite common in the 1940s.)

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Monkey Business is thus somewhat unique in that Barnaby and Edwina start and end the film a happily married couple, and the plot does not create tension out of whether or not they’ll stay together. It’s perfectly clear to the audience, even when Edwina kicks Barnaby out of their hotel room in hysterics, that they’re a good fit and aren’t going to be splitting up.

So the whole conflict – the whole comedy – of this film is not in what will happen to Barnaby and Edwina’s relationship but how that relationship will respond the loss of control and autonomy of adulthood. What happens when a marriage – the most quintessential of adult relationships – becomes uncontrollably childish?

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Like I said, it’s often quite horrifying: Barnaby and Edwina become rude, inconsiderate, spiteful, and sometimes downright cruel. And it’s not a Jekyll and Hyde transformation, either.* They aren’t becoming different people so much as less sophisticated versions of the same people. Thus, when Barnaby inquires as to whether Edwina really did kiss Hank Entwhistle (and begins to worry about her continued affections for him), his anxiety is not unfounded. He really does have some jealousy issues to work out. Likewise, Edwina truly feels that Barnaby may not fully respect her and may even look down on her. They may act irrational while using the formula but their feelings are still real.

The film doesn’t go in for a cheap ending, either, in which Barnaby and Edwina definitively resolve all of these problems. Drinking the formula is an enlightening experience but it doesn’t (indeed, it can’t) actually fix Barnaby and Edwina’s underlying issues. It can only make them aware of those problems; working them out is a long process which will never really be finished. That’s what Monkey Business gets right about marriage: it isn’t the “end” of a love story, as in so many films, but an ongoing one. Coming up against the limits of your own commitment just means that you can continue onward with each other wiser and better prepared, if still growing and evolving.

In the film’s final scene, Barnaby and Edwina are still married and in love, and they’re still basically the same couple we met in the film’s first scene. Their biggest change is that they are more aware of their own limits, as individuals and as a couple, and how maturity and shared experience is key to maintaining their own happiness and sense of self. The film’s general silliness, and the presence of an up-to-no-good animal, certainly makes Money Business feel like a cousin of sorts to Bringing Up Baby, but it’s a much more mature film, a romantic comedy that actually explores a living, evolving romance between adults.

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*Actually, this is a cliche and not really fair to Stevenson’s original novella, in which it’s made quite clear that Hyde is not a different person than Jekyll but merely his own worst instincts freed from the constraints of upper class, Victorian gentility. Very much like Monkey Business.

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