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When the Marx Brothers were shown the final cut of The Cocoanuts (1929), their first film, they were so appalled they tried to buy the negative back and prevent its release. The producing studio, Paramount, wisely resisted - the movie turned out to be a big hit and earned close to two million dollars profit. And it introduced audiences to a new brand of screen comedy that would make unlikely stars of the Marxes. Paramount went on to produce four more Marx Brothers movies until Duck Soup (1933), now generally considered their best film, bombed at the box office. The team left the studio and signed with MGM, where their surreal antics were toned down by production chief Irving Thalberg and tied to more conventional romance plots with the brothers acting as cupids for the likes of singers Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones. Even MGM couldn't totally tame the Marxes, however, and the five films they made there renewed their box office status for a time until the quality of the productions - and their audience appeal - began to drop off in the early 1940s.
Actually, The Cocoanuts wasn't the first film the vaudeville comedians made. They appeared in a silent, Humor Risk (1921), an apparently lost film about which little is known. Between that and their next venture on screen, they became a major stage attraction, moving from vaudeville to Broadway in loosely structured reviews and plays penned by talents no less acclaimed than playwright George S. Kaufman. They also became the darlings of the literary set, particularly the famous Algonquin Roundtable group. The Cocoanuts was their first major Broadway hit, and they were appearing in their second, Animal Crackers (destined to become their second movie, in 1930), when the call came from Paramount to make their talkie debut. The Cocoanuts was filmed at the studio's Astoria, N.Y., sound stages during the day, and in the evening the Marx Brothers raced back to Manhattan to appear in their stage show.
The plot of The Cocoanuts takes place at a resort hotel, giving Kaufman opportunities to lampoon the big Florida development boom of the 1920s. Groucho runs the place, assisted by "straight man" Zeppo (who has very little to do in the film). Chico and Harpo arrive with empty luggage, which they plan to fill by robbing the guests blind. Margaret Dumont, in the first of her many appearances as a stuffy dowager wooed and tormented by Groucho, is a guest. Her daughter is in love with a young architect, but Dumont wants her to marry a man she believes to be of higher social standing. He's actually a con man out to steal the dowager's diamond necklace with the help of his conniving partner, played by Kay Francis (the heavy-lidded glamour-puss with the Elmer Fudd speech impediment who went on to major, if brief, stardom at Warner Brothers in the early 1930s). But as anyone who has ever seen a Marx Brothers movie, particularly the early ones, knows, the plot is rather beside the point. The story and setting are little more than an excuse for the brothers to run rampant in their trademark style.
The Cocoanuts is best seen as a filmed record of what the Marxes did on stage, and it's interesting to note that producer Monta Bell almost discarded some of the trademark routines they had developed over the years on the live-audience circuit. His most notable objection was to Groucho's thick greasepaint "mustache." He thought the cinema audience would never believe anything as "phony-looking" as that. "The audience doesn't believe us anyhow," Groucho pointed out. "All they do is laugh at us, and isn't that what we're being paid for?" To direct the mayhem, Paramount brought in French-born Robert Florey for the dialogue sequences and Joseph Santley to handle the musical numbers written by Irving Berlin. The two had to forgo any thought of putting their own stamp on the material; the assignment was to stick to the original as closely as possible without attempting to open it out, as stage productions often were when transferred to screen. "Aside from directing traffic, I photographed it to the best of my ability," Florey said later. That had to have been an understatement. Directing the Marxes brand of "traffic" couldn't have been easy. They were known to be wildly uncontrollable on the set and in the habit of improvising as much as they had on stage. In the 1925 Broadway production of the show, Kaufman was heard to have muttered from the back of the theater, "I may be wrong, but I think I just heard one of the original lines." One bit destined to become a trademark was improvised in the Broadway run, too. One night, as Groucho was onstage doing his shtick, Harpo got one of the chorus girls to run across the stage while he chased her, honking his horn. Without flinching, Groucho ad-libbed, "First time I ever saw a taxi hail a passenger." The bit was used in the screen version and many films afterward.
Even diehard Marx Brothers fans have to admit The Cocoanuts is not great cinema. The camera locks down on each scene as the brothers run on and off, as if from the wings of a theater. This was one of the first waves of talkies to hit movie houses; the brilliant visuals of the silent era suddenly became subservient to the clunky mechanics of recording sound on film. The sound is not always good, and frequently scenes had to be reshot because background noises were picked up and drowned out the dialogue. Harpo's red wig photographed too darkly (it was changed to blonde in later films), and if the blueprints in the famous "viaduct/why a duck" scene seem a little limp, it's because they had to be soaked in water so the rustle of the paper wouldn't make too much noise for the primitive sound equipment. There are also some dull stretches, usually involving the other players (and what must be some of Irving Berlin's worst songs). But really, what does it matter? As film historian David Thompson has written: "It is irrelevant to praise or lament structure in their films."
What makes this so enjoyable is seeing the Marx Brothers in action for the first time, just as they were when theater audiences went wild for them, before studio bosses "refined" their act for the screen. For example, Harpo is less angelic and ditzy here and more simply the spirit of the unbridled trickster, a comic demon out of another universe. It's true that film comedy had depicted a crazy world before this; look at Buster Keaton's work as a stone-faced little man constantly at odds with the unpredictable physical world around him. But the Marx Brothers brought something new to the screen. In their world, inhibition and pretension were the cornerstones of the world they encountered, and together they dismantled it with an unparalleled zany anarchy.
Directors: Robert Florey, Joseph Santley
Producers: Monta Bell, James R. Cowan
Screenplay: Morrie Ryskind, based on the play by George S. Kaufman
Cinematography: George Folsey
Editing: Barney Rogan
Original Music: Irving Berlin
Cast: Groucho Marx (Hammer), Harpo Marx (Harpo), Chico Marx (Chico), Zeppo Marx (Jamison), Margaret Dumont (Mrs. Potter), Kay Francis (Penelope).
BW-93m. Closed captioning.
by Rob Nixon