I have a terrible memory in general, but one thing I have a great recall of are the various routines of the Marx Brothers. As a very young child, I was a fan of Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello, who I’d watch after school. It took me a few years to graduate to the Marx Brothers. In fact I discovered them by accident. An attempt to tape another movie lead to us accidentally getting A Night at the Opera at the end. After watching that movie thirty times, it was on to hunt for the other MGM pictures, and years later, I finally got to see the earlier Paramount movies.
The Cocoanuts is one of these earlier Paramount movies, in fact it’s the earliest, the first feature length movie the Marx Brothers ever released. Released in 1929, it was based on the hit musical comedy which the brothers starred in on the Broadway stage. Because of this, it has one of the finest pedigrees of any Marx Brothers film. It was written by George S. Kaufman, the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright of You Can’t Take It With You and Stage Door. The music, which is almost always strong in Marx movies, was written in this case by Irving Berlin. The classic Margaret Dumont is in attendance, and so is the very dry Zeppo Marx. Yet despite all the marks in the plus column and many of its important distinctions, The Cocoanuts is all too little seen.
For a while there even seemed to be a mini conspiracy at work. Universal left the picture off their first set of Paramount Marx R2 DVDs, though they did include the far inferior Horse Feathers* though this was soon rectified. Famously, Groucho himself did not like the film version of Cocoanuts and wanted to burn the negatives. Despite having a critic in the lead actor, the film was a big success at the box office, launched the brothers into their film careers, and is still very funny today. In fact, I believe the first three Paramount films, The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers and Monkey Business, are much funnier than the rather lame Duck Soup or many of the post-Thalberg MGM efforts.
The first two Marx Brothers pictures came from successful plays, with well-rehearsed and well-tuned jokes coming a mile a minute. They are some of the most bizarre certainly. Groucho’s “strange interlude” in Animal Crackers, in which he steps away and leaves Dumont in tableau while he gives a few odd soliloquies, is only rivalled in the realm of the surreal by the Duck Soup moment when a dog pops out of Harpo’s chest. Margaret Dumont is perfect right out of the gate, having played the character through two runs on Broadway. The horribly underrated Zeppo doesn’t have as much to do in Cocoanuts as he does in Monkey Business, but he sells all his scenes with his relaxed and casual delivery.
The Cocoanuts actually contains a couple of scenes which are more famous than the movie itself, especially the Viaduct / Why A Duck scene with Chico, which sets the template for many more similar routines in the later movies in which Chico and Groucho have some kind of gag based around protracted misunderstanding. Part of what makes the Marx Brothers so witty is how much of their humour is based around playing with language and ambiguity in English, such as when Bob delivers a message to Groucho ( “Mr Hammer, there’s a man outside wants to see you with a black moustache.” “Tell him I’ve got one.”). Actually, the brothers kept the format of almost this entire picture as their future model, the two young lovers, the villains, the musical numbers, Groucho’s relationship with Dumont, Chico’s relationship to Harpo, etc.
Naturally the film is not without its faults. Even amongst Marx Brothers pictures, this movie is saddled with a horrible plot, real matinee stuff that grinds to a halt when a Marx isn’t on screen, and they aren’t on screen for all too long of a stretch, as they have the most tangential relation to the plot imaginable until Harpo is framed. The musical numbers come out of nowhere, including a line of bellboys who break into a random Busby Berkeley style dance sequence all of a sudden. Everything stops at an auction so that Mary Eaton can sing and dance The Monkey Doodle Do. The male lover character Bob is played as solid wood by Oscar Shaw, a man who actually looks like Lon Chaney in Phantom of the Opera, without the aid of any makeup. The male lovers are usually pretty bad in Marx movies unless they are played by Zeppo, but Oscar Shaw is one of the worst, just missing out on the worst place thanks to the efforts of Kenny Baker (no, not that Kenny Baker) in At The Circus, who is so annoying I’d like to invent a time machine just so I could slap him in the face.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the picture is a technical one. The Cocoanuts was one of the earliest all-sound feature films, and it shows these days. For a picture which relies so much on the spoken word, Cocoanuts can be a strain to listen to. Words and sentences mush together, and often you need to actually have seen the movie several times to work out what is being said. I’m not sure what can be done about this in terms of re-mastering, as the original recordings were probably of very poor quality even at the time, but it’s a shame that this factor, which is no fault of the wonderful production, puts the picture at a disadvantage toward modern audiences right from the off.
As such, The Cocoanuts is probably not the best starting point of people new to the Brothers. Even if it served that role admirably in 1929, a movie like Monkey Business is probably better suited in 2008, with its more manic pace and less musical numbers. But for light fans of Marx, people only familiar with A Night at the Opera or A Day At The Races for example, the old Paramount pictures are essential watching. Remember, by the time the Marx Brothers got to MGM, they were already a bit older, being reshaped and formulated by Thalberg and, after Thalberg’s death, working out of a semi-hostile studio. So if you’re familiar with their act and want to see the brothers, including Zeppo who didn’t get his face on an MGM camera, vital and at full speed, Cocoanuts is a fine jumping off point for the Paramount efforts.
*I believe that the US DVDs always included The Cocoanuts in their set, and still does. You can now buy a set of the Paramount films and a set of the MGM films, the full real Marx filmography, for under 100 dollars, far under if you search around. The MGM movies were always frequently repeated on TCM in the UK, so you might get lucky with those in North America too, but the Paramount films are so rarely shown anywhere (apart from Duck Soup) so that you’ll most likely have to buy them if you want to watch them.