A Marx Brothers Classic, “Animal Crackers,” Re-released 50 Years Ago

Garry Berman
8 min readMar 23, 2024

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the re-release of the Marx Brothers film in 1974, after it had been unavailable for viewing in movie theaters or TV for nearly twenty years. It was a triumphant return for a film that offered the best of what the team could do.

We’ll get to the reasons behind its “disappearance” shortly. But first, a bit of background…

The brothers’ second film feature was adapted by Morrie Ryskind from the 1928 play he co-wrote with George S. Kaufman, which ran on Broadway for 191 performances. They had signed a five-picture contract with Paramount Studios, filming the first two at Astoria Studios in Queens, New York.

The overall look of the filmed version is much improved from that of its predecessor, The Cocoanuts, and the comedy sequences themselves are as memorable. Groucho’s dialogue in particular (as his most famous character, Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding) reaches new heights. Joe Adamson, in his book Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and sometimes Zeppo, wrote that the dialogue in Animal Crackers “reaches a level of literacy and wit that future Marx films can’t hope to rival.”

The plot, such as it is, takes place at a weekend party on the Long Island estate of Mrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont), during which a famous painting is unveiled and promptly stolen, leading to a search throughout the grounds of the mansion.

Highlights include the classic opening Kalmar & Ruby number “Hooray for Captain Spaulding,” in which Groucho arrives still in his explorer’s gear and carried on a reclining seat by four tribesmen.

Also memorable is his pun-filled monologue recounting his African adventures (it’s a good thing this was filmed before the creation of the Hays office, which was the de facto censor of Hollywood features — otherwise the last line of Groucho’s speech would never have made it).

Shortly thereafter, Chico at the piano attempts to entertain the guests with the song “Sugar in the Morning,” but can’t remember the finish, getting stuck like the needle of a record player.

We’re also treated to a chaotic bridge game between Harpo, Chico, Margaret Dumont and Margaret Whiting, which manages to turn into an all-out brawl.

Closing the film is Harpo’s famous knife-dropping scene, in which a drawer-full of stolen silverware slowly but surely cascades from his coat sleeve.

After the release of Animal Crackers, the brothers gave in to the temptations of Hollywood, and moved there to continue their legendary film career.

In 1958, Paramount films sold to MCA/Universal. Animal Crackers was included, but the rights had expired, and reverted back to the original authors [of the stage play: Kaufman, Ryskind, songwriters Kalmar & Ruby]. MCA/Universal didn’t think there was any money to be made by clearing the rights and re-issuing this lost Marx Bros. film.

In December 1973, UCLA student and Marx Brothers fan Steve Stoliar attended a rare screening in Anaheim of Animal Crackers, at the Old Town Music Hall theater. The print shown there was old and of poor quality, as the film had not been distributed for theatrical release since the early 1950s.

“But all of my friends were Marx Brothers fanatics and wanted to see it,” he explained on Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast in November of 2015, “so I started this petition drive at UCLA to put pressure on Universal to clear the rights.”

On February 7, 1974, Groucho and his assistant, Erin Fleming, visited UCLA to support Stoliar’s newly formed “Committee for the Re-release of Animal Crackers” (CRAC). The event drew around 200 students, over 2,000 signatures on re-release petitions. “And that’s when Groucho came to campus and I sat at his side,” Stoliar recalled, “pinching myself, firmly convinced that this was it, and I’d never get to see him again, but I should be grateful…”

Stoliar with Groucho.

Groucho’s appearance on the campus generated national press coverage, and shortly thereafter, an appearance on the nationally syndicated Merv Griffin Show.

Taking note of the efforts to re-introduce Animal Crackers to Marx Brothers fans and to the moviegoing public in general, a spokesman for Universal claimed that the studio was “delighted” by the interest, adding that he expected the film would soon be re-released, once the creators and/or their estates all signed the proper legal documents.

On May 23, 1974, Universal screened a sharp new print of the film at the UA Theater in Westwood, just south of the UCLA campus. Groucho made a personal appearance. “Then the film came out and broke the box office record at the U/A Westwood that had been set by The French Connection, and that was colossally gratifying.”

Encouraged by the response there — the lines reportedly stretched around the block for months —arrangements were made to screen the film on June 23, at the Sutton Theater in New York. Groucho attended that premiere as well, and was almost trampled to death by the crowds that showed up to greet him.

After successfully bringing the film back into the public consciousness, Stoliar then contacted Groucho’s assistant/confidante Erin Fleming to ask if there was anything else he could do for the comedy legend. She suggested that he could handle Groucho’s fan mail and organize his memorabilia at his home that would be donated to the Smithsonian. Stoliar jumped at the chance. “I worked for Groucho last 3 years of his life.”

Stoliar wrote of his years with Groucho in the book, Raised Eyebrows — My Years Inside Groucho’s House.

The re-release of the film didn’t necessarily result in a wide distribution across the country. It was at this time — in the days before home video, and even cable TV — when a New York film student, Richard J. Anobile, had been assembling and publishing a series of movie frame blow-up books of film classics and highlights, mostly by the great comedians of the Golden Age — such as W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, Abbott & Costello, and more.

While assembling Why A Duck? in which he carefully matched the actual frames of the Marx Brothers’ films with the corresponding dialogue, Animal Crackers was still in litigation. Once all of the issues were resolved and the film re-released, Anobile compiled Hooray For Captain Spaulding in 1975 (and, to this day, I still own my now rare copies of his books presenting the great comedians’ finest film moments).

You can read an excellent 2018 interview with Anobile here. Unfortunately, he died in 2023 at the age of 76:

Before Home Video Part 1- The Richard J. Anobile Interview: Photonovels, Fankenstein, Alien, Groucho and me. (braindeadlove.blogspot.com)

On a personal note, I had discovered the joys of the Marx Brothers’ films, and those of the other comedy greats of the 1930s, not long before Animal Crackers returned.

My childhood bedroom. You might notice a theme…

I was about 13, had quickly become a fanatic, and talked my parents into driving me to the Sutton Theatre where the grand re-release had taken place. It was an exhilarating experience. The theatre was beautiful, and the audience was revved up and ready to laugh, including me. It was the first of several times I returned to the Sutton to see the film, coercing a different family member to take me each time — and, if they so desired, to sit and enjoy it with me.

Such memories, and especially the sheer hilarity of the film itself, secured Animal Crackers as a sentimental favorite for me. It’s remarkable that, in not too many years, it will celebrate its 100th birthday. And few films in the past century have matched its brilliant wordplay, slapstick, and overall lunacy.

Hooray for Captain Spaulding, the Marx Brothers, and Hooray for Animal Crackers!

Until next time…

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Read my previous articles about comedy history at the links below, and at the links below:

“Hal Roach Studios’ 20th Anniversary Party” | by Garry Berman | Dec, 2023 | Medium

“Celebrating 100 Years of The Little Rascals” | by Garry Berman | Medium

“Happy 90th Birthday, ‘Duck Soup’! | by Garry Berman | Medium

“Comedy 101: Reliable Gags Used by the Legends” | by Garry Berman | Medium

“Pie in Your Eye: A History of the Pie-in-the-face Gag” https://garryberman.medium.com/pie-in-your-eye-a-history-of-the-pie-in-the-face-gag-4dd8c31286a0

“The Funniest Decade”| by Garry Berman | Medium

“Breaking the Fourth Wall (in comedy)” https://garryberman.medium.com/breaking-the-fourth-wall-in-comedy-51edfa9f88f0

“Whatever Happened to Comedy Teams?” https://garryberman.medium.com/whatever-happened-to-comedy-teams-7e243b5c9d45

“Halloween with Abbott & Costello” https://garryberman.medium.com/halloween-with-abbott-costello-2d39a21bbbba

“Buck Privates: An Appreciation” https://garryberman.medium.com/buck-privates-an-appreciation-da7b7d645fab

“Stars For a Cause: The Navy Relief Show of 1942” https://garryberman.medium.com/stars-for-a-cause-the-navy-relief-show-of-march-1942-af2ff6edf8d9

“Mary Kay and Johnny: Television’s First Sitcom” https://garryberman.medium.com/mary-kay-and-johnny-televisions-first-sitcom-835fec303b5e

“The First Person to be Censored on TV was…Eddie Cantor? https://garryberman.medium.com/eddie-cantor-the-first-person-to-be-censored-on-tv-78b56c68cae1

“A Tribute to Our Funniest Sitcom Moms” https://garryberman.medium.com/a-tribute-to-our-funniest-sitcom-moms-ed3f5757fe73

“Television’s Greatest Sitcom Dad?” https://garryberman.medium.com/televisions-greatest-sitcom-dad-ef2dab761525

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“Retro Review: ‘Local Hero” at 40’ | by Garry Berman | Medium

Please visit www.GarryBerman.com to read synopses and reviews of my books (including The Funniest Decade) and order them via the links to Amazon.com.



Garry Berman

Pop Culture historian, Freelance Writer, Author, specializing in American comedy history in films, radio, and TV. Beatles and jazz enthusiast, animal lover.