The Cocoanuts

US (1929) Dirs. Robert Florey & Joseph Santley

I’ve been a Marx Brothers fan since I was a sprog yet this, their first film, is the one I have seen the least, since it was rarely included in any video/DVD collections of the brothers’ films. Thanks to Arrow’s new Blu-ray box set of the five films the brothers made for Paramount, I can now increase my total views of The Cocoanuts to two.

The story, as was the case with their early work, is practically non-existent, since it was based on the stage show which basically was the brothers doing their comedy in between musical numbers, featuring singers and dancers. This would be repeated for Animal Crackers a year later but all Marx Brothers films after that would have original scripts and, more importantly, less inert.

What plot there is involves the theft of a $100,000 necklace belonging to wealthy widow Mrs. Potter (Margaret Dumont), perpetrated by Penelope (Kay Francis) and Harvey Yates (Cyril Ring) at the Cocoanuts Hotel run by Mr. Hammer (Groucho Marx). Mrs. Potter wants her daughter Polly (Mary Eaton) to marry Yates, believing him to be of wealthy stock, but Polly instead is in love with budding architect Bob Adams (Oscar Shaw).

Chico and Harpo play their usual opportunist characters always on the make, unaware that the hotel is bombing and there’s nothing worth stealing, but stick around anyway, ending up inserting themselves in every situation. Zeppo Marx is Jamison, Hammer’s assistant in his smallest role of all their films, probably getting less than 10 minutes screen time in total. No wonder he quit when their Paramount contract ended.

In viewing The Cocoanuts after seeing the succeeding films first, it could be described as Animal Crackers-lite since so much of the format is duplicated in the second film, right down to some gags being repeated almost verbatim. The classic “Why a duck?” sketch with Groucho and Chico is replicated in Animal Crackers with a different (and funnier) script but the formula is exactly the same.

Naturally, with both films being based on established Broadway shows, and repetition being commonplace in entertainment back then, this is no surprise, so it requires some generosity when viewing this debut cinematic outing in taking this into consideration. Also, this is the first time the brothers were exposed to a wider audience, making this their big showcase moment to introduce their brand of anarchic comedy.

Therefore, just about every famous gag – Harpo’s honking horn, the leg gag and his lust for girls, Groucho’s pithy putdowns and wordy monologues and Chico’s malapropisms – are here in abundance. They were refined by the time Animal Crackers came around and became second nature to the brothers thereafter but here they are shared to the world for the first time, and the desire to make a big impression is evident.

And make a big impression they did, with the film grossing over $1.8 million, becoming one of the most successful of the early talkies. Looking at it now, and with knowledge of what was to follow, it’s not obvious why it succeeded yet with sound being new, it delivers much of what audiences in 1929 craved. Many of the songs were written by Irving Berlin, with the central tune When My Dreams Come True receiving a gorgeous instrumental interpretation from Harpo.

Before the film is ten minutes old two dance numbers have passed – sandwiched in the middle is a brief intro to Groucho and his quick-fire patter, which isn’t so convincing at first but he finds his rhythm as the film progresses –  which broke new ground in filming techniques. Later on, a staple in Busby Berkeley dance routines, the overhead shot of the girls in the kaleidoscope formation, is used for the first time on screen too.

Shaw and Eaton were more stage singers than actors (which showed), the latter given three numbers to sing during the film. The only song that truly works is the amusing take on the aria Habanera from Bizet’s Carmen, with the lyrics changed to lament the loss of a shirt by police Detective Hennessey (Basil Ruysdael). Chico gets his solo piano spot but only five minutes from the terribly rushed ending.

Perhaps the most inventive of the physical comedy sketches is the now-ubiquitous farcical running in and out of rooms, shot with a divide between the two sets as the brothers flit between the adjoining rooms of Penelope and Mrs. Potter. This is the arguably the only scene that loses nothing in the transition from stage to screen while also benefiting from film editing.

Despite the brothers being veterans of the stage there are still in their nascent form here as far as their cinematic persona goes, yet they are the most comfortable of all the cast, seemingly not giving a damn about microphones and the technical drawbacks sound brought to the film set (cameramen had to shoot from inside soundproof booths, mics were static, etc.) and just raising hell as usual.

Look beneath the staid and uncoordinated presentation and there is some prime Marx gems to be found here, mostly from Groucho (“I’ll not marry before me daughter!” “You did once!”) but Harpo is also wildly funny with his facial reactions and random tomfoolery. Chico was the only one who really had his shtick down pitch perfect already while poor Zeppo adds nothing. Margaret Dumont is as irrepressible as ever.

It’s an incredibly stiff film production wise, with the flimsiest of a story to drive it whilst the musical interruptions haven’t held up well at all, but it has a nostalgic and historical charm to it, as an early talkie that took a chance in exploiting this new gimmick.

Of course the real reason to see The Cocoanuts is to witness not the arrival of the Marx Brothers per se but to see them deliver their mission statement – “We’re here. Hang on to your hats cos it’s going to be a hell of a ride!”.