Animal Crackers

By George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind
Music and lyrics by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby

The Plot:

What, are you kidding me?

The scene is the Long Island estate of Mrs. Rittenhouse, a wealthy patroness of the arts with a marriageable daughter. Her celebrity weekend guest is the renowned Captain Jeffrey Spaulding, the African Explorer (Groucho). He arrives ("Hooray, hooray, hooray!") with his secretary, Horatio Jameson (Zeppo), followed by pair of "musicians": Ravelli (Chico) and the Professor (Harpo). What follows is typical Marxian lunacy, involving a stolen painting, a surreal bridge game, a Broadway gossip columnist named Wally Winston, a financial wizard formerly known as Abie the Fish Peddler, and a climatic burlesque of Marie Antoinette and the Three Musketeers. What transcends this errant nonsense are the verbal arabesques of Captain Spaulding ("Last night, I shot an elephant in my pyjamas. How he got into my pyjamas, I'll never know.") and the first-rate, skirt-chasing slapstick of Ravelli and the Professor.

About the Play:

Animal CrackersAfter the success of the 1925 stage vehicle for the Marx Brothers, The Cocoanuts, Kaufman was pressed into service again (somewhat against his will), along with co-librettist Morrie Ryskind and songwriting team Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, all of whom would continue to work with the Marx Brothers in years to come. By now, the former vaudeville team was a starring attraction of the Great White Way, something unimaginable--except perhaps by their mother, Minnie--only a decade earlier. Animal Crackers became a watershed show for them in many respects. Although it ran fewer performances than The Cocoanuts, it was still a hit (these were the days when anything over 100 performances was successful and the 1928-29 season had 225 productions). It revealed many more inside topical jokes than any other of their shows. For example, Wally Winston is clearly modelled on Walter Winchell (a fan of the Marxes) and Groucho repeatedly parodies Eugene O'Neill's psychological behemoth Strange Interlude, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1928, with its garrulous stream-of-consciousness asides (Kaufman thought O'Neill a bore). "Hooray for Captain Spaulding" became Groucho's theme song, long into the next five decades. During the show's road tour, the stock market crashed, practically ruining Groucho; that night, he began reciting precipitous stock quotations in the middle of a monologue.

Most important, during the run of Animal Crackers, the four brothers were commuting daily to Astoria, Queens, where they were filming their first real film, a version of The Cocoanuts. Another Marxian paradox: that a team with a silent partner became a natural for sound films, just introduced in 1927. Soon after the tour of Animal Crackers, the Marx Brothers filmed that show in Astoria, for a 1930 release. Hollywood beckoned, as well as sunshine and a chance to rebuild their finances after the Crash, and like their fellow vaudevillians W.C. Fields, Mae West, and Eddie Cantor, the Marx Brothers left--never to return. Broadway's loss was Hollywood's gain, but critic Brooks Atkinson once wrote that "[I]nside the boxlike structure of the Broadway stage, the buffoonery of the Marx Brothers was explosive."

Stage history

After a Philadelphia tryout, Animal Crackers opened on October 23, 1928 at the 44th Street Theater, and it ran 191 performances. The Marx Brothers toured the show for a year before committing it to film for a 1930 Paramount release. The film was revised somewhat by Ryskind and eliminates more than half of the amusing Kalmar/Ruby score (although it does maintain many of other leading actors, including the inestimable Margaret Dumont as Mrs. Rittenhouse). The show was kept off the boards until 1982, when director Douglas C. Wager revived the play at Washington's Arena Stage, while adding back much of the score and new dialogue from the film version. The new revision was a great success, playing at other regional theaters across the country, and Wager revived the show again at Arena in 2000, where it won the Helen Hayes Award for Best Production of a Musical. This version is printed and licensed by Samuel French; the complete text of the original musical is available in Kaufman & Co., published by the Library of America.

Production details

Cast size: 16 men, 10 women

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"Signor Ravelli's first selection will be 'Somewhere My Love Lies Sleeping' with a male chorus."

"We took some pictures of the native girls, but they weren't developed. But we're going back again."

"Delicious... A non-stop riot, a profusion of puns, gags and hysteria with only an occasional pause, or maybe, gasp, for breath." - The Washington Tribune

"This Marx Brothers romp is consistently funny, mercilessly madcap and altogether irresistible." The New York Times

Strip box:

The "spontaneous" ad-libs of the Marx Brothers were the product of George S. Kaufman's comic genius.