US Release Date: 08-03-1929
Directed by: Robert Florey and Joseph Santley
- Groucho Marx, as
- Harpo Marx, as
- Chico Marx, as
- Oscar Shaw, as
- Bob Adams
- Mary Eaton, as
- Polly Potter
- Cyril Ring, as
- Harvey Yates
- Kay Francis, as
- Margaret Dumont, as
- Mrs. Potter
- Basil Ruysdael, as
- Detective Hennessy
- Zeppo Marx as
Groucho, Chico and Harpo Marx in The Cocoanuts.
The Cocoanuts marks the screen debut of the Marx Brothers. Adapted from the Broadway play written by George S. Kaufman, with music and lyrics by Irving Berlin, it is a very early example of a stage to screen talkie adaptation. Like most of the Marx Brothers films it is a combination of surrealist humor and the occasional musical number.
Plot is never very important in a Marx Brothers' film and the one here is paper thin. Groucho owns a hotel and some land in Florida that he's trying to sell by auction. Zeppo works for him in a very small part. Harpo and Chico are two con men who show up at the hotel looking to make a buck or two. There are some goings on at the hotel with Marx Brothers' constant co-star Margaret Dumont and her daughter, involving a jewel theft and an engagement, but those are just distractions from the real entertainment which is Groucho, Chico and Harpo doing their schtick.
The musical numbers are only okay. As in most Marx Brothers's films there are moments for Harpo to play the harp and Chico to play the piano. To me those are always the worst moments in their films. Yes, it's impressive that two such comedians can play music so well, but they always slow down the pacing. Likewise the other musical numbers here do little to enliven the story. I'm sure they were more impressive on stage and the poorly named "Monkey-Doodle-Doo" is rather catchy but I could have done without it.
As always, the brightest and funniest moments are provided by Groucho. His one-liners and zingers are great. "I don't think you'd love me if I were poor," Margaret DuMont says to him at one point. "I might," Groucho replies. "But I'd keep my mouth shut about it."
The film's most famous routine is the "Why a duck?" exchange between Groucho and Chico. It revolves around a conversation between the two of them where Chico's heavy accent causes much confusion. It's such a simple little gag but the two of them perform so well together that it's as funny now as it was then.
One interesting note about this movie is that being a very early talkie, the process of recording sound was still having the kinks worked out of it. The rustling and crinkling of paper, for instance, was causing the microphones so much trouble that to solve the problem all paper in the movie was soaked in water to keep it silent. You'll notice how limp all the newspapers are and the blueprints that Groucho holds during the "Why a duck?" scenes are clearly shiny and fairly dripping with water.
While not as polished as some of their later films, there are moments in The Cocoanuts that are as funny as anything the trio would do later. Their unique brand of surrealist comedy is already on full display as are their comic personas. They would just become more adept at presenting them in a professional manner as time and technology moved on.
The four Marx brothers in The Cocoanuts.
For the Marx Brothers sound came along just in the nick of time. When this movie was released Groucho, Harpo and Chico were 38, 40 and 42 respectively. They had been earning a decent living with a successful stage career on Broadway but until Al Jolson sang “Mammy” in The Jazz Singer the possibility of them becoming movie stars didn’t exist. Even the silent Harpo is funny because he is surrounded by talking characters. I don’t think he would have been successful on his own in silent movies.
The Cocoanuts is an Irving Berlin Musical starring the Marx Brothers. It has the dubious distinction of being the only Irving Berlin Musical to fail to produce a hit song. Besides the brothers occasional musical interludes there is a bevy of dancing chorus girls as well as several singers.
The dancers make there first appearance in skimpy bathing suits doing a callisthenic type dance on a beach. Later during a dance number onstage they are shot from above while creating a geometric pattern on the floor. I don’t know which of the two credited men directed this scene but it predates Busby Berkeley by several years and is thought to be the first such shot ever used in a Hollywood musical.
A tenor (and chorus including the brothers) sings a song called “The Tale of the Shirt” using music from Bizet’s opera Carmen. “I lost my shirt, I lost my shirt!” “He lost his shirt!” It is the best song in the movie being both catchy to sing along with and funny. Gilligan’s Island would copy the idea more than 35 years later.
The brothers are great when they are onscreen but this movie is more of an ensemble than their subsequent pictures would be. They were an unknown commodity to most of the country when The Cocoanuts came out. They still get plenty of jokes in of course. Groucho and Chico are especially good together. When Chico tries to get a room at Groucho’s hotel they have the following exchange. Groucho: “What would you like? Would you like a suite on the third floor?” Chico: “No. I'll take a Pollack in the basement.” Harpo has his usual surreal comedy bits like eating a telephone.
Like Scott said The Cocoanuts is not as polished as their later movies would be but it still manages to entertain and is a must see for fans of the Marx Brothers. Oh yeah and one more thing. While they filmed this movie during the day they were appearing onstage in Animal Crackers at night.
They have more bell hops than guests at this hotel.
Agreeing with what my brothers wrote, a half an hour of screen time could have been cut from this film as that much time is dedicated to musical interludes and songs. The dancing girls may have worked better on the stage. Chico and Harpo showing off their musical side demonstrates they have other talents. However, those scenes merely stop the film cold and are a good reason to keep the fast forward button handy.
That is exactly how I recommend you watch this. Fast forward through every scene that does not feature one of the brothers and every time someone sings or plays an instrument. You will regret watching it any other way.
I also liked the viaduct confusion. Later in the same conversation, Groucho says to Chico, "All along the river, those are all levees." Chico asks, "That's the Jewish neighborhood?" Glancing to the camera, Groucho says, "Well, we'll pass over that."
Scott, I never realized the paper was even supposed to be paper. All the maps and notes looked more like cloth. Sound was so new at the time that some silent movies were still being made in 1929.
Like my brothers wrote, The Cocoanuts is not the Marx brothers best film, but everyone has to start somewhere.
Photos © Copyright Paramount Pictures (1929)