Monkey Business is a comedy about rejuvenation, a serious theme; however, director Howard Hawks's treatment of the subject does not emphasize this seriousness. His approach is to make the situations resulting from the premise as ridiculous as possible. It has often been observed that Hawks's comedies are the inversion of his dramas. He creates a pleasing balance in his work by alternating between disturbing comedies and warm-hearted adventure stories, sometimes in immediate sequence, as was the case with The Big Sky (1952) and Monkey Business. In his comedies, which are at their best when they are most outrageous, there is a giddiness which could make us forget that Hawks's lucidity never deserts him even in the face of lunacy. He looks on the silly antics of the characters in a film like Monkey Business with a straight face, observing perhaps that his adult men and women are less mature than certain children and less capable than certain monkeys.
Monkey Business is one Hawks comedy, however, that is more akin to a Hawks drama. When Hawks looks at a relationship seriously, he invariably finds some simple value which validates that relationship, such as an unselfish love which causes one friend to look out for another. In Monkey Business, he also validates the relationship between Barnaby Fulton (Cary Grant) and his wife Edwina (Ginger Rogers), and does so with an unmistakable warmth which gives the film's conclusion a very different feeling from that found in earlier Hawks comedies such as Twentieth Century (1934) or Bringing Up Baby (1938). Barnaby and Edwina are made to look extremely foolish during most of this film, but when they decide to accept themselves as they are, they do so in a positive spirit.
The story begins with Fulton's attempts to invent an elixir that causes rejuvenation. Although Barnaby is a scientist, he is one step away from helplessness when it comes to handling the practical details of life, and Edwina is guileless enough not to try to change him. If the artificially experienced youth which his formula makes possible has a positive effect, it is to take away a craving for a carefree existence of which they really have no need.
Actually, it is the monkey and not Barnaby who comes up with the right formula, a fact of which the principals are unaware until the final reel of the film, and which makes the entire experiment seem properly frivolous. One night when the laboratory is deserted, a monkey whose cage has inadvertently been left unlocked grabs the bars of the cage door and comes swinging out toward the camera. It follows that the monkey accidentally mixes the right formula, then expresses his contempt for it by dropping it in the water cooler.
The remainder of the film is structured around three distinct episodes of rejuvenation which successively release an increasingly wild frenzy of youthful activity. In the first episode, Barnaby takes the formula and reverts to his college days, getting a youthful haircut and buying a sports car, as well as having a lot of innocent fun with Lois Laurel (Marilyn Monroe), the sexy but not very proficient secretary of his boss, Mr. Oliver Oxley (Charles Coburn). In the second episode, Barnaby is back to normal and Edwina has seized her opportunity to drink the elixir. She drags Barnaby to their honeymoon hotel, dances the hours away until he is in a stupor, then becomes insecure and mistrustful and throws her husband out of their room. He ends up plunging down a laundry chute and sleeping with the hotel linen.
These first two episodes take place during one event-filled afternoon and the long and disturbing night which follows. The final and most elaborate episode occurs the, following day. Barnaby and Edwina have renounced the formula, but not knowing it is in the water cooler, they overdose on it in the belief that they are drinking coffee. They become crazed children with no thought for morality or propriety, and the result is a series of events which rival those. in Bringing Up Baby for sheer absurdity and abandon. Barnaby and Edwina turn Oxley's offices into a playground and cover each other with white paint on the way home. In their backyard, a group of children, who seem to have emerged from nowhere; are playing cowboys and. Indians. When Edwina goes to sleep after calling Barnaby's still-hopeful rival for her affections, Hank Entwhistle (Hugh Marlowe), Barnaby joins the children, who trick the hapless Entwhistle into being bound to a stake so that Barnaby can scalp him. Discovering a baby in bed with her, Edwina believes him to be Barnaby in a state of total regression. She takes him to the Oxley company, speaking hopeful words of love to him in the backseat of a taxi. Oxley and the scientists join Edwina in singing the couple's favorite song to the baby before they themselves unwittingly drink the formula and discover the bliss of becoming uninhibited and foolish, while the savage Barnaby finally gets some restorative sleep.
Although the film is ambiguous regarding the formula's redeeming value, its invention in the script has inspired Hawks and the three individually brilliant writers who collaborated with him. The cowboys and Indians sequence alone would be enough to justify admiration of this comedy since it features the solemn and inimitable George Winslow as one of the Indians, cagily tricking Entwhistle by asking the immortal questions, "What's the matter, mister; don't you like kids?" and "Why are you mean to 'em, then?" The sequence is further elevated by Hawks's perversity in permitting Barnaby actually to scalp Entwhistle (though not fatally). The concurrent action in¬volving Edwina and the baby makes this section even more hilarious. The spectacle of Charles Coburn and a group of mature men softly singing "Bah, bah, bah" in a circle as they anxiously regard an infant and the idiotic smile of its "wife" is an endearingly nonsensical image.
Monkey Business should not be praised immoderately. Some of its humor is strained, especially in scenes which depend on Ginger Rogers' imitation of an adolescent or child. Although she is amusing, she does not have the natural flair for these scenes that Cary Grant does. The film is most enjoyable when Grant is at the center of the comic frenzy. In all of the Hawks comedies in which he has starred, Grant manages to play the most ridiculous scenes with complete conviction and without a trace of self-consciousness.
Much of the charm of Monkey Business comes from Hawks's skill at com-position. The shot in the lobby of the honeymoon hotel is a good example. Barnaby is in the left foreground registering with the desk clerk while Edwina, acting shy and dreamy-eyed, holds the center of the image, lingering far enough in the background to seem amusingly vulnerable. A second example is the relatively long take of Barnaby and Edwina drinking coffee in the lab. Again, Barnaby is in left foreground, staring straight ahead and not seeing that Edwina, who moves freely in the background space given to her, has already started to regress. At this point in the film, the anticipated regression might have been dull; but as a result of Hawks's staging and framing, the absence of any reaction on the part of the unsmiling Barnaby as Edwina begins to cavort once more is engagingly humorous. These compositions, characteristic of Hawks's formal assurance, demonstrate no apparent complexity or virtuosity, but prove again what a master director he is.