The Cocoanuts was the first sound feature to star the Marx Brothers as they began to make their transition from the stage to screen.
“Three years ago I came to Florida without a nickel in my pocket. Now I’ve got a nickel in my pocket.” – Mr. Hammer (Groucho Marx)
My long-awaited Marx Brothers retrospective comes as Duck Soup turns 90 years old later this week. The journey starts with The Cocoanuts, a musical comedy released in 1929. While the film is not quite as funny as their later Paramount features, it’s prominent for being the first sound feature to credit a pair of directors. The great Irving Berlin composed the music.
The Cocoanuts does not feature too much of a plot. Mr. Hammer runs the 600-room Hotel de Cocoanut and also auctions off real estate. Jamison (Zeppo) assists Mr. Hammer at the hotel. Harpo and Chico soon arrive with empty luggage so that they can con other guests–this leads to anarchy as only they can provide. One of the film’s subplots focuses on Mrs. Potter (Margaret Dumont) wanting her daughter, Polly (Mary Eaton), to marry Harvey Yates (Cyril Ring) but Polly is in love with hotel clerk Bob Adams (Bob Shaw). Yates is–well, just watch the film for yourself and find out. One of the funniest moments is when Detective Hennessy (Basil Ruysdael) loses a shirt and the cast starts singing about it to a Carmen tune.
This is a film that strings together sequences with a number of musical productions. Morrie Ryskind had previously written the stage musical with George S. Kaufman and they write to the Marx’s strengths. Interestingly enough, the brothers hated the film when they watched the final cut–so much that they offered to buy the negative back. However, the film quickly made money because of repeat business–people talking fast in movies meant customers coming back just they can understand the dialogue. It put money in their pockets so what’s not to love about that?!?
One interesting aspect to the production is that co-director Robert Florey had never seen the Marx Brothers perform on stage. You might think okay, fine, but it makes it a bigger challenge to direct a film! As a result, he ended up getting placed in the soundproof booth. Otherwise, his laughter would have been all over the soundtrack. The Marx Brothers were actively performing Animal Crackers on Broadway while filming at Paramount’s Astoria studio. Groucho stops himself from Chico by his Animal Crackers character. Sets were built and torn down very quickly during the month-long production. Meanwhile, all of the music is recorded live to picture. Regardless of challenges in production, Paramount would soon be back in action with the Marx Brothers for their next feature.
The film is not great cinema but it doesn’t need to be. It exists solely as a vehicle for the Four Marx Brothers to do their thing. No more, no less. Despite George S. Kaufman and Irving Berlin’s involvement in the stage play, the brothers would need a few more films before cranking it up a notch. Only their first two features run over 90 minutes. By the time Duck Soup came around, they had really developed their screen persona and scripts that worked to their advantage.
It’s not on the same level of their later Paramount features but the Four Marx Brothers shine in The Cocoanuts.
DIRECTORS: Robert Florey and Joseph Santley
SCREENWRITER: Morrie Ryskind
CAST: Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, Zeppo Marx, with Oscar Shaw and Mary Eaton, Margaret Dumont, Kay Francis, Cyril Ring, Basil Ruysdael, Gamby-Hale Ballet Girls, and Allan K. Foster Girls