Don't get your hopes up too high; "Monkey Business" is for diehard fans of screwball comedies who are willing to put up with a lot of tedium to reach several genuinely funny bits. Don't confuse it with the 1931 Marx Brothers film of the same name, though; that WAS genuinely funny. Nor get your hopes up that this 1952 release displays the talents of Cary Grant and Marilyn Monroe at their very best. Grant was in a lull period in his career, and Monroe was just starting on her way up, having only a small role in this movie. "Monkey Business" has its moments, but they may prove too few for the patience of many viewers.
The director and writers of "Monkey Business" were no strangers to comedy. Director Howard Hawks had already made a couple of the best screwball comedies of all time in "Bringing Up Baby" (1938) and "His Girl Friday" (1940), both with Grant. No doubt Hawks thought he could pull off another one. Writers Ben Hecht, Charles Lederer, and I.A.L. Diamond had already produced "The Front Page," "His Girl Friday," "I Was Male War Bride," "Love Crazy," and "The Love Nest" among them, and, of course, Diamond would go on to collaborate with Billy Wilder on some of the biggest hits ever made. But even good filmmakers have their off days, and trying to make a story about the goofy results of a youth serum stand up to ninety-seven minutes of scrutiny was apparently too much even for this gifted group.
OK, so Grant plays an absentminded professor, you see, Dr. Barnaby Fulton, a chemist working on a rejuvenation formula for the Oxly Chemical Corporation. For the first third of the movie he is dull and lifeless, supposedly a typical, middle-aged drone just plodding along, the flames of his youth having long since flickered out. His wife, Edwina, is played by Ginger Rogers, a sincere and honest sort of woman who is overshadowed in the movie by the few minutes' presence of Ms. Monroe's figure. It's imperative that both Dr. and Mrs. Fulton be as boring as possible at the beginning so that when the inevitable happens and they take the youth serum, they can seem as vigorous and spirited as possible by comparison. Monroe plays the boss's secretary, Miss Laurel, a straightforward, unapologetic dumb-blonde role. She is in the movie for nothing more than her good looks, which are considerable in any case. Charles Coburn plays the boss, Oliver Oxly, a lecherous old geezer who keeps Miss Laurel on his staff even though she's useless around the office. Coburn has the best line in the movie when he asks Miss Laurel to find somebody to type a letter for him and then remarks of her, "Anybody can TYPE."
The special formula, dubbed "B-4" as in "before and after," comes about when a chimp gets loose from his cage and concocts the stuff by accident. It turns out to be just the formula the doc was looking for all along, and he immediately tries it out on himself. Needless to say, the mild-mannered, forty-something doctor turns into a raging twenty-year-old hormone, begins acting silly and exuberant, gets a new, boyish haircut, buys a flashy sports coat and a new MG roadster, and takes Ms. Laurel out for a wild spin in the countryside.
When the formula wears off in about eight hours, Edwina tries it out and more shenanigans ensue. She starts acting frisky, wants to go dancing, and then decides to take hubby to relive their honeymoon. It all gets pretty silly pretty fast as eventually the doctor's fellow scientists and even old Oxly ingest the serum and start acting like kids.
Much as the characters in Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story, "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment," behaved absurdly when they were given a drink from the Fountain of Youth, so does everyone in "Monkey Business" learn that it's foolish to try to regain one's youth. The story idea is sound, but turning it into farce clearly didn't work very well. Grant and Rogers give it their all, relying mainly on their plentiful charm to keep our attention, but there is only so much even they can do with the limited material they're given, and the film totters on, oddly flat. Poor Marilyn has almost nothing to do but act ditsy and show off her curves. The chimps wind up making monkeys of them all.
The black-and-white picture is fairly well defined in this 1.33:1 full-screen production. Thanks to a newly restored print, there is more contrast in the image and greatly enhanced detail. A comparison of the original print with the restoration is included among the bonus items to give viewers an idea of just how much difference a good digital cleanup can accomplish. This is not to say the result is perfect, however. I found it somewhat dark, overall, even in scenes set in brightly lit rooms. A minimal amount of grain and line fluctuation remains in the final result, but the copy is admirably free of age marks or scratches. I would count the restoration and transfer a reasonable if not entire success.
The audio, too, has been brought up to speed with an extending of the original monaural sonics into something Fox calls "Dolby Stereo." I'd call it a widened mono soundscape. The two major virtues of the sound are its quietness and its clean midrange for the reproduction of dialogue. As for any so-called stereo effects, you could have fooled me, although by spreading the sound across the front speakers it does gives the impression of spaciousness. Just don't expect anything remarkable in the way of directional clues.
Bonus features on the disc are awfully slim, too. The main things are being able to see the movie restored and hear it in either Dolby stereo or its original monaural soundtrack. Then, there's a brief stills gallery, the aforementioned restoration comparison, and twenty scene selections. In addition, there are theatrical trailers for this film and several other Fox films starring Ms. Monroe. English and French are the spoken languages provided, with English and Spanish subtitles.
"Monkey Business" doesn't stand up well to the test of the time the way several other screwball comedies of yesteryear do, nor is it one of Grant's or Monroe's best films. Given so many great old movies competing for the DVD buyer's dollar, I'd have to say this one is destined for confirmed fans of the featured actors only. Having already released most of Monroe's popular films in their "Diamond Collection," the Fox studios are now offering "Monkey Business" simultaneously with a selection of other, minor Marilyn Monroe titles, including "Let's Make Love," "Niagara," "Don't Bother to Knock," and "River of No Return."