Cast & Crew
Hammer, the stogey-chewing, mustachioed entrepreneur of the Hotel de Cocoanut, moonlights as an auctioneering real estate speculator during the Florida Land Boom of the Twenties. Though his 600-room establishment is filled with an assortment of guests, only one, the haughtily stuffed Mrs. Potter, is paying any rent. Meanwhile, her lovely daughter Polly is paying court to hotel clerk Bob Shaw, whose own ambitions towards architectural fame and love's reward are chronicled in the Irving Berlin tune, "When My Dreams Come True." Hammer's financial throes abound, precipitating ever more ingenious and whacky plots to salvage his position, the most ardently pursued of which is the wooing of the wealthy Mrs. Potter. The rascal even exhorts his employees to labor gratis in order to free themselves from "wage slavery." Guests Chico and Harpo, unable to pay their bill, cascade through the hotel, mischievously bent upon larcenous chicanery, stealing silverware, evading Hammer, fumbling uproariously with stock hotel props such as bellboys, luggage, roomkeys, and mailbins. Among Hammer's other guests are Harvey Yates and Penelope, two somewhat more dedicated miscreants who have designs on Mrs. Potter's lucre, plotting to purloin her precious necklace. She remains in the dark as to their devilish deviousness, duped to the point of promoting a match between the lovely Polly and Harvey, whom she regards as "one of the Boston Yates." The stolen necklace is discovered by Harpo, who cleverly produces it from the stump of a tree on the lot that Shaw buys at the Hammer's auction. Bob is tossed into jail, later to be freed by Chico and Harpo, while the precious Polly has so infatuated Yates that he is tricked into revealing the true tale of the theft. The jig finally up, the engagement party continues with only the substitution of Shaw as the prospective groom needed to change pretty Polly's perilous predicament to one of anticipated paradise.
Alan K. Foster Girls
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
The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection on DVD
While the movies are superb, enough reason to make this a must-own, Universal's presentation is somewhat lacking. They've taken the time to create a pleasing fold-out package with gorgeous photos and a small booklet attached to the spine, but the information therein is pretty sparse and the extras are, in a word, lame. Incredibly, the studio has included a stand-alone bonus disc with a whopping 15 minutes of material. Since most of the films run a little over an hour, this material could easily have been added to one of the other discs. Furthermore, the extra material just isn't that interesting - two interviews with Groucho and Harpo (no, he doesn't talk) on The Today Show from the 1960s, and one with Harpo's son William from the 1980s. The latter interview includes some snippets of Marx Brother home movies, but they're not terribly revealing. Obviously, since NBC owns Universal, these clips required little effort to secure.
By contrast, the Warner Home Video set of Marx Brothers MGM films, released last spring, had tons of extras including commentaries, documentaries, outtakes and cartoons, and they were interesting. More importantly, those movies were cleaned up and in terrific shape. Universal's titles, which are better films, are visibly in need of restoration, and it seems likely that Universal simply rushed out this collection in order to take advantage of the attention lavished on the Warner set. In the end, even though the prints are far from pristine, they do look and sound decent enough to be enjoyable. Here is a rundown by title:
"The first musical number on the program will be a piccolo solo, which we will skip."
The Marx Brothers made a one-reel short in 1926 called Humor Risk, but it was never released and is now a lost film. (Groucho claimed it wasn't very good.) This makes The Cocoanuts their earliest surviving movie, and it's the creakiest of the bunch. It finds Groucho running a Florida hotel and auctioning off parcels of land, and all four boys getting mixed up with jewel robbers. While not an essential Marx Bros. film, it certainly has its moments, like Chico continually raising his own bid at an auction, the "viaduct/why-a-duck" wordplay between Groucho and Chico, and a hilarious version of the theme from Carmen sung as "I want my shirt!" While all these pictures are full of music, The Cocoanuts is a full-blown musical with elaborate numbers. Typical of the first Hollywood sound films, the story (such as it is) stops in its tracks every time a number begins, and one number, "Monkey Doodle Do" is so ludicrous that it must be seen to be believed. It includes one camera angle which pretty much exists solely to look up Mary Eaton's skirt.
Margaret Dumont, the woman born to play the straight woman to Groucho Marx on stage and screen, does so here in their first feature, and she would continue to do so for many years ahead. Also in the cast, strangely enough, is Kay Francis, offering little hint of the sophisticated major star she would soon become. Harpo is a quite aggressive presence in The Cocoanuts, more amoral and devious than in the other movies, though no less funny. Zeppo has less to do here than in any other film, and that's saying something!
The Cocoanut was adapted from a George S. Kaufman hit play that the Marxes had performed on Broadway and on the road for nearly two years. This massive amount of performing allowed them to refine the timing of their gags perfectly and was a technique they would continue to use for future films. In fact, while shooting this film by day in New York, the Marx Brothers were performing Animal Crackers on stage at night, a play which would become their second film.
Technically, The Cocoanuts is in the worst shape of the five movies in this collection, with scratches, glitches, soft-focus, and rough spots galore. The elements are clearly in bad shape, and this does not help the stagy, static camerawork go down any easier.
Groucho talking with two ladies:
"What do you say? Are we all gonna get married?"
"But that's bigamy."
"Yes and that's big of me too. That's big of all of us."
The second Marx Brothers film is a winner, with Groucho playing Capt. Spaulding, a famous explorer just returned from Africa whom Margaret Dumont is honoring with a party. Eventually the plot turns on stolen artwork and the efforts of the boys to retrieve it. Along the way, Harpo tries to produce a "flash" (i.e. flashlight) from his pocket, and instead pulls out a flask, a flute, a flush of cards, a fish, etc. General madcap choas abounds. Though also adapted from a play, Animal Crackers is less stagy than its predecessor. The transfer is better, too, but some reels look soft in focus and portions are quite scratchy. An original trailer is included.
Groucho to ship's captain:
"I want to register a complaint. Do you know who sneaked into my stateroom at 3:00 this morning?"
"Who did that?"
"Nobody, and that's my complaint."
Here, the boys are stowaways on a ship, a setting that prefigures their later MGM masterpiece A Night at the Opera (1935). While constantly evading capture, two get hired by a mobster to be his bodyguards, while the other two are hired by another. The plot is thin even for a Marx Bros film, but the movie never slows down due to hilarious bits of business like Harpo putting on a puppet show for a room full of kids, and all four brothers trying to sing like Maurice Chevalier in order to get off the ship (even Harpo, in a manner of speaking.) Monkey Business is in relatively good shape technically, with fewer glitches and scratches than the previous films.
Groucho to Zeppo:
"What's all this talk I hear about you fooling around with a college widow? No wonder you can't get out of college. Twelve years in one college. I went to three colleges in twelve years and fooled around with three college widows."
Groucho is the newly elected president of Huxley College who tries to hire two football players to help his team win, but he ends up hiring Harpo and Chico instead. The climactic football game is an inspired bit of lunacy, and the picture as a whole is much more cinematic than the first three - it moves. Includes the classic bit of Groucho and Chico trying to enter the bar by saying the password. The print is somewhat scratchy with some sound skips, splices, frame jitter and speckling, but these problems come and go - one reel is especially bad, while others are quite good. For some reason, Universal has included a trailer made for a video release of the movie in the 1980s. It adds absolutely nothing.
Zeppo to Groucho, in war zone:
"General Smith reports a gas attack. He wants to know what to do."
"Tell him to take a teaspoon full of bicarbonate of soda and a half a glass of water."
The Marx Brothers' final Paramount film is a bona fide masterpiece and is technically in the best shape of all the movies in this set. Directed by Leo McCarey, it is brilliant political satire, especially the final sequence where the Marx Brothers are in combat. Groucho is president of Freedonia and declares war on a neighboring country in order to defend the honor of Freedonia and Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont). The sequence with three brothers dressed as Groucho, culminating in the famous mirror scene, is hysterical no matter how many times you see it.
Duck Soup was famously a flop upon release and nearly sank Paramount Pictures. Now it's hailed not just as the best Marx Brothers movie of all but as one of the finest comedies ever made, and it is listed in the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress. (It was one of the first 50 titles to be inducted.) The film was a turning point for the brothers. Zeppo retired to become a talent manager afterwards, and Paramount stopped producing Marx Brothers movies, clearing the way for MGM's Irving Thalberg to step in, sign the boys to a new contract, and significantly re-shape their films narratively. This resulted in one indisputable gem, A Night at the Opera, and then other films of steadily decreasing quality (though they all have their moments).
Thalberg thought the Paramount productions too madcap and unfocused, but in hindsight, that was not a problem. Seen today, these pictures are fresh and hilariously funny, whether you're 9 or 90, and this DVD set, despite its shortcomings, is one of the more notable releases of the year.
To order The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection, go to TCM Shopping.
by Jeremy Arnold
The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection on DVD
Right now I'd do anything for money. I'd kill somebody for money. I'd kill *you* for money.- Chico
Ha ha ha. Ah, no. You're my friend. I'd kill you for nothing.- Chico
Hey, hey! You know that suitcase is empty?- Hammer
That's all right. We fill it up before we leave.- Chico
I'm gonna put extra blankets, free, in all your rooms, and there'll be no cover charge.- Hammer
Three years ago I came to Florida without a nickel in my pocket. Now I've got a nickel in my pocket.- Hammer
Wages? Do you want to be wage slaves? Answer me that!- Hammer
No, of course not. But what makes wage slaves? Wages!- Hammer
All paper used as props is soaking wet. This was done to prevent overloading the early sound equipment with paper-crinkling noise.
Of the film's two directors, Groucho Marx once said, "One of them[French-born Robert Florey] didn't understand English, and the other one[former dance director Joseph Santley] didn't understand comedy."
Filmed on a stage in New York City. Sound films were still so new that soundproofing was not installed, so the film had to be shot in the early hours of the morning to reduce outside traffic noise.