"I don’t believe the premise of Monkey Business was really believable. I don’t think the audience believed a monkey could put those things together." - Howard Hawks on Monkey Business
Monkey Business (1952) Cary Grant / Marilyn Monroe scene
Monkey Business - 1952 (Original Poster)
Sometimes, the right story falls into the right hands at the right time. That’s how Howard Hawks must have felt in 1951 when 20th Century Fox studio head Daryl Zanuck and producer Sol Siegel showed him I.A.L. Diamond’s script based on a Harry Segall story called “Fountain of Youth.”
The 55-year old director, presently in the throes of a major romance with a woman in her mid-twenties, was instantly attracted to this story about the discovery of a serum which makes full grown adults feel and act much younger.
As soon as he finished filming “The Big Sky” in November, he brought in two of his favorite writers, Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, to adapt the tale to fit his unique vision.
Since his old friend and comic collaborator, Cary Grant, was already under contract with Fox, there was no question who was going to play the male lead in this comedy. Hawks, as was his usual preference, hoped to cast a young actress as the female lead. Much to his dismay, he encountered resistance from his old friend and from the studio.
Cary Grant was about to turn 51 and had announced his preference not to costar opposite women a lot younger than himself. This would be a battle Grant would wage with varying degrees of success and failure for the rest of his film career. In this case, he won because the studio already had an actress who they thought would be perfect for the part.
At the age of 41, Ginger Rogers was the oldest actress ever to appear in a lead role in a Howard Hawks film.
To say that Hawks was displeased with the choice would be an understatement. In his original vision for the movie, Cary Grant’s Professor Barnaby Fulton would be the only character to become younger. From long experience, the director trusted Grant’s comedic skills and ability to adlib physically and verbally to enhance the material.
When Ginger Rogers, backed up by studio head Daryl Zanuck, insisted that she also wanted to do “the getting younger thing,” Howard Hawks was exasperated. It seemed like his vision for the picture was being sabotaged and he began placing a lot of the blame on Rogers.
On set, he kept their relationship cold and formal. He refused to call her Ginger and insisted on referring to her by her real name, Virginia. He often had her redo scenes over and over again without telling her what to do.
Despite these handicaps, Rogers, the consummate professional, holds her own in a very talented cast that includes, in addition to Cary Grant, veteran character actor Charles Coburn, Hugh Marlowe, and a young Marilyn Monroe in her first film role as a platinum blonde.
The story that began as “Fountain of Youth” began shooting on March 5, 1952 as “Darling, I Am Growing Younger.” It wasn’t until late April, when the film was nearly completed, that it was renamed “Monkey Business.” Since the Marx Brothers released a classic comedy under the same name in twenty-one years earlier, this youth serum comedy is usually called “Howard Hawks’ Monkey Business.” The director, no doubt, found this a bit ironic as the studio had done so much to take the picture away from his personal concept of the material.
While a decent comedy with several truly amusing scenes, “Monkey Business” fails to live up to standards set by the more brilliant Howard Hawks screwball comedies.
Would it have been a better film if Hawks had been able to cast a younger actress as the female lead? We’ll never know for sure but director Peter Bogdanovich certainly thought so. In his opinion, the scenes that feature Cary Grant and Marilyn Monroe working together stand up so well that he wishes Monroe had played Edwina to Grant’s Barnaby.
Then again, if Howard Hawks had his choice, the role of Edwina in “Monkey Business” would not have gone to Marilyn Monroe. Hawks thought Marilyn was too unstable and unreliable. Many say his original preference for Edwina was the 29-year old Ava Gardner who was then married to Frank Sinatra.
“Monkey Business” remains an interesting comedy in the Howard Hawks canon but it certainly not one of the movies which Howard could claim he “did it my way.”
Director: Howard Hawks
Producer: Sol C. Siegel
Screenplay: Ben Hecht, Charles Lederer, I.A.L. Diamond and Howard Hawks (uncredited) Harry Segall (story)
Music: Leigh Harline
Cinematography: Milton Krasner
Editor: William B. Murphy
Art Directors: George Patrick and Lyle R. Wheeler
20th Century Fox
Released: September 5, 1952 Running time 97 minutes
By following the life and art of Howard Hawks one can capture the true essence of the Golden Age of Hollywood, as if slipping on special lenses that suddenly pull away the grain and glare to reveal an unforgettable time of Movie Magic.