The Cocoanuts

The CocoanutsSynopsis: In the Marx Brothers’ first feature film, Groucho portrays a hotel owner out to fleece everyone, from innocent bellboys to wealthy society matron Mrs. Potter. Chico and Harpo play resort hotel con men, whom Groucho recognizes instantly when their suitcase pops open – empty. “We’ll fill it up before we leave,” Chico assures him.

When Mrs. Potter discovers that her jewels are missing, Chico and Harpo rescue falsely accused hotel clerk Bob Adams, find the jewels, trap the real perpetrators and unite Bob with his sweetheart Polly Potter.

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The Cocoanuts 7.25

eyelights: Groucho Marx.
eyesores: Chico Marx. the poor audio.

“Right now I’d do anything for money. I’d kill somebody for money. I’d kill you for money. Ha ha ha. Ah, no. You’re my friend. I’d kill you for nothing.”

The Marx Brothers are to American comedy just as The Goons were to British comedy; they’re icons that have influenced generations of ground-breaking comedians. But I never really spent any time exploring them before; I was always put off by the sight of Groucho Marx and never felt compelled to. But I had a taste of ‘Duck Soup’ once. It left me spitting feathers.

Even though it’s now considered one of their great cinematic offerings, I didn’t like it. And thus I put the Marx Brothers back on the shelf quasi-permanently. But then I became a major Woody Allen fan and he often listed them as a tremendous influence. And when I read about comedy they always come up. So I figured that I had to give them a chance someday.

Thankfully, my local library has recently picked up a large number of their films – and all of the classics, at that.

I started with ‘The Cocoanuts’, the 1929 musical that saw them debut on the silver screen. Based on a hit Broadway musical that they starred in, it features a soundtrack of songs by none other than Irving Berlin. It was a smash upon release and it jump-started the Marx Brothers’ film career, propelling them through fourteen motion pictures over the course of twenty years.

‘The Cocoanuts’, which takes place in a fictional Florida resort called Hotel de Cocoanut, tells three concurrent stories: Mr. Hammer’s attempts to sell off the property to make money, the wooing of Polly by Bob, a wannabe architect, and the theft of Polly’s mother’s priceless necklace by Harvey (and his partner-in-crime, Penelope), the very man she’d like to see Polly marry.

Mr. Hammer, who, as the manager, is the centre of all the action, is played by Groucho. Zeppo plays his lazy assistant in a bit part of little note. And Chico and Harpo play two con artists who check into the hotel with the intention of looting it and robbing its guests. Naturally, all of the picture’s comedy revolves around the three main Marx Brothers’ various antics.

The same could be said for the entertainment value, actually: ‘The Cocoanuts’ has a contrived plot that is loosely knit together by mediocre musical numbers (all accounts are that these are not Irving Berlin’s finer numbers), and the performances are good, but not stellar. To make matters worse, the film is plagued by a variety of technical issues throughout.

Even though it was helmed by two directors at once, and arguably should have benefited from double the expertise, ‘The Cocoanuts’ is cut together with a hammer, featuring abrupt fade outs that segue into unrelated scenes. As well, the audio isn’t especially good, even for the period, and the picture is sometimes so poor that it was reminiscent of bad VHS.

But it’s not entirely inept. Hardly. In fact, it produced a couple of rather well choreographed sequences, in particular a lengthy routine with the three Marx Brothers going in and out of two adjoining rooms, through various doors that connects them and hiding under a bed. It’s actually rather good, although it’s pure nonsense that no one is seen or gets caught.

Considering that the shots were static (because, in the early days of sound, cameras had to be isolated in soundproof booths and, thus, were immobile), such sequences are pretty spectacular: they depend entirely on the performers’ skill to make the scenes work – there is no fancy editing or camera tricks to enhance them. The staging is more akin to theatre than cinema.

Of course, the Marx Bros. were old hands at theatre, with two decades of experience by then. This is highlighted in the musical numbers that they do, for instance, with both Chico and Harpo doing solo piano and harp numbers, respectively. It seemed out of place to me in the moment but, being accomplished musicians, it’s not surprising that they wanted to show off.

This doesn’t mean that everything they did was stellar, however. I had no idea what to make of Harpo’s recurring shtick of hooking his thigh in people’s hands – something he did maybe a dozen time, as though it was a timeless gag. Since his character is silent (he uses a horn to communicate), he’s obviously more prone to physical comedy than the others. But WTF?

Groucho was by far my favourite, although some of his routines hung tenuously on simplistic ideas. But when he was on, his material was actually quite clever and very much quotable – quite unlike Chico, who falls in between Groucho and Harpo but without either of their success. Add a thick accent to the character and he can be a chore to watch.

A perfect example of a routine that doesn’t work is the “why a duck” routine between Chico and Groucho. The whole thing hinges on Chico misunderstanding “viaduct” and asking Mr. Hammer “Why a duck?”, which the latter naturally misinterprets as well. After a couple of times, this was no longer amusing, feeling needlessly drawn out – quite unlike the “Who’s on first?” routine by Abbott and Costello.

But, all in all, ‘The Cocoanuts’ was a fun introduction to the Marx Brothers. They’re a bit goofy, and probably wouldn’t appeal to everyone, but there’s some cleverness there as well, and I’m very curious to see how deep it will go. I’m especially intrigued by Groucho, who seems to be a wordsmith of sorts. That could wind up being a lot of fun, if his routines are well-conceived.

My understanding is that their real classics are a little further down the line, that it only gets better, so I’m very much looking forward to exploring them more. If this isn’t even their best work (the Marx Brothers themselves considered buying and burning the prints before release), then I can only imagine what lies in wait. The next few weeks should prove interesting.

Date of viewing: May 18, 2015

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