Howard Hawks’ 1952 “Monkey Business” was the last collaboration between the director and Cary Grant. Unfortunately, neither Hawks nor Grant liked the film very much. Compared to his other screwball comedies, Hawks thought it didn’t live up to the previous standard. It didn’t help that Hawks and one of the stars, Ginger Rogers, didn’t get along, owing mainly to Hawks’ peculiarities.
For Grant, making the movie almost seemed like the end of his acting career. According to Scott Eyman, “He was middle-aged and increasingly conscious of it. The fact that Hollywood was changing fast was not to his liking. The studios were retrenching, severely cutting back production and costs in the wake of television, and to top it off, the new breed of actors that had become stars were the antithesis of Cary Grant . . .”
Despite all these circumstances and reservations, “Monkey Business” ended up being a charming comedy—certainly one of its time. Yet given its combination of humor and implicit commentary on American marriage and morals, it deserves a reconsideration.
Cary Grant plays Dr. Barnaby Fulton, a scientist on the brink of a discovery: a youth elixir. He works for Oxly chemical company, and the company’s owner, Oliver Oxly, is waiting patiently for the discovery. Although slightly more subdued, Grant’s Barnaby Fulton is similar to Dr. David Huxley, an absent-minded paleontologist in Hawks’ “Bringing Up Baby” (1938). He wears Coke-bottle glasses, and he needs help completing simple tasks. His wife, Edwina (Ginger Rogers), helps him to act like a human being. Without her, it’s clear Barnaby would be lost.
The trouble starts when a monkey in Barnaby’s laboratory inadvertently mixes a few compounds. A little bit of dark liquid here, a little bit of light liquid solution there, and you got yourself a potent concoction. The monkey being a monkey hides his silliness by throwing the mixture into the water cooler.
While Barnaby is working on his own chemical solution, he attempts to be the guinea pig himself, and drinks it. The solution he made is bitter and in order to get rid of the bitterness, Barnaby takes a swig of water. One can only guess where this will go. The water cooler has become the fountain of youth, depending what your definition of youth is.
Barnaby begins to feel young, except he reverts to his 20-year-old self. He leaves the lab, buys a “fun” instead of a sensible and safe car, buys a rather ugly suit, gets a haircut, and goes on a series of adventures with Mr. Oxly’s secretary, Lois Laurel (Marilyn Monroe). The elixir eventually wears off, but not without consequences.
When Barnaby is himself, he doesn’t quite comprehend why he would have the slightest interest in Lois, his haircut, or his ridiculous suit. Later, while under the influence of the elixir, he wears a rather ratty long sleeve shirt and jeans! There is something indeed unsettling about seeing Cary Grant wear jeans, tennis shoes, while sporting a buzz cut.
No one appears to be safe from the elixir, and Edwina also indulges—although she assumes she is only drinking water. While influenced by the potion, she too reverts back to her teenage self. She engages in all kinds of pranks, and she’s definitely not acting very ladylike. She tries to rekindle an old flame with Hank Entwhitle (Hugh Marlowe), who clearly still likes her. Edwina’s mother finds Hank more suitable than Barnaby.
“Monkey Business” is funny but it is also a commentary on marriage in America. What kind of married couple are Barnaby and Edwina? Are they bored by their staid and upper class life? They are also childless, which raises another set of questions about their union. Is Barnaby’s interest in Miss Laurel real, or does he just need a bit of excitement?
Marilyn Monroe makes quite an appearance, similar to her minor role in Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1950 “All About Eve.” She is a “dumb blonde.” When Barnaby wonders why she’s not performing her secretarial duties, Mr. Oxly responds, “Anyone can type.”
Grant didn’t warm up to Monroe. According to Scott Eyman, Grant “seemed to take offense at the competition Marilyn gave him in the race for the Most Disastrous Childhood.” At some point, Grant said that Monroe “had no subtlety, no discretion. She was much too blatant for me.”
Clearly, there was no attraction between the two, despite the fact that Monroe allegedly tried to bed him. There is something uneasy about the scenes between Grant and Monroe; he’s not fully himself, and his immature version of Barnaby only adds to the disassociation Cary Grant has from Cary Grant.
Although “Monkey Business” sometimes feels stilted, it gave Grant an opportunity to go back to his vaudeville roots. He even does a superb cartwheel! Ginger Rogers also shines as a pranky, tomboy teenage girl. The two make a great pair. One of the most incongruous, yet beautiful parts in the film are scenes of intimacy between Grant and Rogers.
Their embraces and kisses are incredibly erotic, and it’s in those moments that Grant abandons both Dr. Barnaby Fulton the scientist and Barnaby the young man. There is no distance between the two, and Grant achieves erotic perfection unique only to him: charming, suave, interested in sex, but very civilized of course. Even his eroticism has discretion, and in this sense, he is ageless. In the final scene, as Barnaby and Edwina hold each other, and renew their love, Grant says, “you’re only old when you forget you’re young.” This certainly encapsulates Grant’s life, and it’s something that continues to speak to audiences.