There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.
Sometimes, it’s good to fall flat on your face!
Monkey Business (1952)
Distributed by: 20th Century Fox
Directed by: Howard Hawks
There are a number of ways you can tell a story about drug trials involving simians that go horribly wrong.
One way, of course, is to relay it as a horrific cautionary tale that leads to disaster and a franchise with two sequels to date:
Or, you can do it as a screwball comedy…
Our story concerns Dr. Barnaby Fulton (Cary Grant), a chemist with a mind that wanders even when he’s off the clock. Even if it does screw up his social life, his wife Edwina (Ginger Rogers) is very understanding when he gets so wrapped up in his work he can’t follow a simple IF-THEN routine when it comes to leaving the house.
His current big project at Oxly Chemicals is X-85, a formula that reverses the aging process, which his boss, Oliver Oxly (Charles Coburn), hopes to manufacture, believing it to be the “next big thing.” In the meantime, his secretary, Lois Laurel (Marilyn Monroe), looks like she may be hoping that Dr. Fulton could be for her the “next big thing,” in his own way.
Progress on the new drug goes pretty slowly until one of the test subject chimpanzees escape from the pen and mixes chemicals at Dr. Fulton’s station, then places the concoction in the water cooler. (Interestingly, everyone assumes it was Rudolph, when in fact the chimp who did the work was Esther. Unfortunately, this was not the last discovery by women back then who never got proper credit…)
Dr. Fulton, violating all proper lab protocol and ethical concerns, tests what he thinks is his formula on himself, unaware of Esther’s formula being in the water he uses as a chaser. The results are, at first, quite wondrous:
Finding himself in his mind back in college, however, has its drawbacks: he gets a “poodle” haircut, a loud jacket, and a roadster, with which he more easily falls for Lois’ charms, for the eight hours or so the drug affects him.
Doing examinations of the effects, Edwina decides that for the second (unethical) drug trial, that she becomes the subject, which reverts her to a repressed juvenile delinquent:
She shows further effects when she gets cold feet before she and Barnaby try to get intimate and panics like a young adult feeling in over her head. This brings a call to mother and her old boyfriend/current lawyer, Hank Entwistle (Hugh Marlowe), who misinterprets her panic as cause for divorce.
After a lot of misunderstanding and questions about their relationship being raised under their youthful states, both Barnaby and Edwina try and sort things out… over a pot of coffee made with water from the water cooler. Both of them take large enough doses that they’re closer in age mentally to seven-year-olds, which gives Barnaby enough empathy to form a gang of children to go after Hank:
Things get more chaotic before it all resolves itself, because this is a screwball comedy first, and a genre pic about mad science second. Although like genre, screwball comedy also gets put into service to discuss things obliquely that can’t be handled head-on, such as midlife crisis and challenging whether marriage is until death do you part, subjects the 1950s wasn’t willing to handle on a surface level yet. (As far as being a genre pic, Hawks was vocal about how little he liked working in that field; considering how badly he handled the science aspects inherent in Bringing Up Baby, we can take him at his word on this.)
If we look beyond the above matters Monkey Business skated over, and take as a given the craft and effective humor shown by Hawks and Grant in their last pairing, supported by a great cast that deliver on the abundance of gags in the script, there are issues that genre film fans are left to ponder:
- Is there any real value in trying to recapture our youth? And is that really what we want, or is it just some aspects of us during our more fertile years that we’re after? Which is actually addressed obliquely in a final conversation between Barnaby and Edwina, which you have to listen carefully for as the mores of the times wouldn’t allow so blunt consideration to be voiced then, the way they are today; which brings us to…
- Did the company really consider the effects of unleashing a product like X-85 on an unsuspecting world? The effect of Sildenafil years later on the drug industry and the culture at large might give some pause when one looks at this possibility…
- Is the pursuit of profits by a corporation worth the risk of endangering its employees and their loved ones the way Oxly Chemicals flaunted controls and safeties? Just because the subjects here didn’t become monsters as they might in an American International picture set in a chemical company doesn’t mean they got through this unscathed…
- And has enough consideration been given to the use of chimpanzees in drug trials, not to mention their possible contribution to research as collaborators? With recent efforts to grant personhood to great apes, and the recent consideration of granting apes copyright to their selfies, are we prepared to offer a drug that de-ages us for which all the rights holders are not Homo sapiens…?
There’s a lot of unanswered questions as to the downstream effects these actions could have had, which are not easy to answer.
On the other hand, there was one downstream effect that came about from the making of this film that we saw almost right away: Hawks was so impressed after working with her, that Marilyn Monroe was his first choice when it came time to cast the lead in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
So, it looks like something good did come out of these drug trials, then…
NEXT TIME: We remember George A. Romero, and his work with the other members of the undead community; yes, his work beyond just zombies…