Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields featured by Northwest Chicago Film Society

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'Monkey Business'

'Monkey Business' (November 15, 2012)

The further we're pulled into the 21st century, the further we travel from the screen comedians of the early sound era. When I was growing up, all sorts of films (great, terrible, in between) featuring the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, W.C. Fields and others turned up regularly on, among other stations, WGN-TV. It would've been unthinkable for a comedy nerd, a budding cinephile or even a casual lover of movies not to know the majority of these comics' output.

Today, of course, well ... when they're not messing up your lawn, These Kids Today are saying things like, "You know, I've never seen a Marx Brothers film. Was Harpo the one with the horn?" or "I saw a Fields movie once. Was he the one with the nose?"

On Wednesday, the Northwest Chicago Film Society presents crisp Universal vault 35 mm prints of "Monkey Business," a prime 1931 Marx Brothers outing (77 minutes), and "Man on the Flying Trapeze" (1935), a 66-minute feature and one of Fields' sharpest portraits of marital purgatory. As film society programmer Kyle Westphal puts it, for Fields "every day is Black Friday." What better misanthrope to feature in a Thanksgiving eve double bill?

The Marxes and Fields developed their wildly different personae the old-fashioned way: in early 20th century vaudeville and, after some success, on the New York stage. Fields' silent movies led easily into sound; like Laurel and Hardy, his voice was made for the talkies, full of idiosyncrasy and bite, each disgruntled or astonished muttering ("Godfrey Daniel!") amplifying our understanding of the eccentric wonder audiences had come to know before sound came in.

Along with "It's a Gift," which preceded "Man on the Flying Trapeze" by a year, and the later Fields vehicle "The Bank Dick," this is one of the peak Fields achievements. He plays an applejack-swigging memory expert who has remarried, unhappily, for the sake of his grown daughter. Ambrose Wolfinger, the Fields character, hasn't taken a day off work since 1910, and wants only to avail himself of an afternoon at the visiting wrestling match. But life, including burglars in the cellar and a truly formidable crank of a mother-in-law, does its best to intervene. At one point, after informing his boss he'd like the day off for his in-law's funeral (she's still very much alive), Fields' secretary expresses her condolences.

"It must be hard to lose your mother-in-law," she says. "Yes," Fields ponders. "It is. It's very hard. It's almost impossible."

"Man on the Flying Trapeze" presents an image of a man confined, struggling to break free. In contrast "Monkey Business," the first feature the Marxes shot in Hollywood ("The Cocoanuts" and "Animal Crackers" came from their Broadway shows and were shot at Paramount's studios in Queens, N.Y.) runs freely all over an ocean liner, where the Marxes are stowaways, and then all over a bootlegger's mansion. S.J. Perelman contributed many of Groucho's choicest verbal flourishes ("Do you think girls think less of a boy if he lets himself be kissed?"). The Marxes made five of their 13 features for Paramount; the run from "Animal Crackers" (1930) to "Duck Soup" (1933) was never equaled, not even by their first and best for MGM, "A Night at the Opera."

Most of us know the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields. But for many people, of various ages, they remain discoveries for the taking.

7 p.m. Wednesday, Portage Theater, 4050 N. Milwaukee Ave.; tickets $5; for more information, go to northwestchicagofilmsociety.org or call 773-850-0141.

Movies on the radio: Michael plays the demanding role of the "Raiders of the Lost Ark" dissenter on this week's Steven Spielberg tribute episode of "Filmspotting." 11 p.m. Friday and midnight Saturday on WBEZ-FM 91.5. For the full podcast version, available Friday, go to filmspotting.net.

mjphillips@tribune.com

Twitter @phillipstribune

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