It’s the Holiday Season 2017. As the Drumpfocalypse and the Republican dominated Congress attempts to run the country in reverse, magical thinking trumps science (The Flat Earth Society actually exists,) and my sanity tries to take a holiday, what better way to escape today’s Alice in Wonderland insanity than in an almost 90 year old film? Released less than three months before Black Tuesday in 1929, (No Virginia, it was not a holiday sale.) The Cocoanuts was the Marx Brother’s first released film.
It’s the time of year to be thankful. Everyone has something to be thankful for — friends, family, good health (if you are so lucky,) a roof over your head, food to eat, a pot to piss in, and a window to throw it out of . . . One of the things I am thankful for in my life for is the Marx Brothers.
If you don’t know, comedy, and comedians are a kind of special lot to me. Keaton, Chaplin, Lloyd, Stan & Ollie, W.C. , et al., I look to them in times of trouble, not Mother Mary. A good Marx Brothers film can pull me out of the doldrums. A great one can make you feel that life is worth living after all. The Cocoanuts, may not be great “cinema,” but it’s terrific fun, and pretty damned funny. It’s an awakening.
The plot of The Cocoanuts–as if it really matters–is set in the Hotel de Cocoanut, a resort hotel in a not so booming part of the 1920’s Florida land boom. Groucho is Mr. Hammer the owner/manager, assisted by Jamison (Zeppo,) in trying to keep the hotel afloat. There’s the starving artist, in this case wannabe architect, Bob (40 year old juvenile, Oscar Shaw) working as a hotel clerk, in love with ingenue Polly (Mary Eaton,) the daughter of the wealthy Mrs. Potter (the indomitable Margaret Dumont.) Mrs. Potter having none of it, believes Harvey Yates (Cyril Ring) to be of a higher social standard, and a much better match. Harvey, of course, is a total rotter, con man in league with vamp Penelope (Kay Francis) to get at the Potter fortune, and steal Mrs. Potter’s diamond necklace. Twenty minutes into the film, Harpo and Chico finally barge into the picture, arriving with empty suitcases they’re looking to fill before they leave. Oh, and there is a detective hanging around (Basil Ruysdael.) That’s the setup. This being a musical-comedy, there are, of course, also song and dance numbers.
Now for some random, ramblings, and ruminations:
At heart, the Marx Brothers were a vaudeville act. The brothers had been performing together for years on the vaudeville circuit. First they were a purely musical act, that gradually evolved into a mad cap comedy act with music. Their stage names and personas were pretty much set by the time they hit Broadway in 1924 with I’ll Say She Is, which led to The Cocoanuts in 1925. (Their development is bit more involved than that, with a lot of conflicting, and apocryphal stories – maybe another time.)
The Cocoanuts, the first of the Marx, Paramount films, was the last of their five films made for the studio that I had a chance to watch. I’ve now seen it at least a dozen times. My first viewing was on a none to crisp imaged VHS. I wasn’t too enthused. It was funny, but the hazy, blurry image, rather clunky pacing, and very early sound film techniques, contributed to my underwhelming response. But it gets better and better with repeat viewings. My initial disappointment now gives way to the charm of whole. Maybe it is my familiarity with the bits, because I laugh just as hard, or harder now, at gags I’ve seen numerous times, as I did the first time. I always feel sorry for those who say, “Oh, I’ve seen that.” and pass on watching a particular film. Revisiting movies to re-enjoy their pleasures, and maybe discover something new I hadn’t noticed before, is one of the great rewards of watching films – whether it a Marx Brothers comedy, Bergman drama, Astaire musical, Hitchcock thriller, Fellini circus of life, or a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Maybe that is why I have so damned many DVDs/Blu-rays.
But I digress. Rambling ruminations, you know.
The play The Cocoanuts was written for the Marx Brothers by George S. Kaufman, with non-credited assist from Morrie Ryskind. The film screenplay was written by Morrie Ryskind, with an non-credited assist from George S. Kaufman.
I don’t know if this was the first sound film to have two directors, one to stage for the camera, and another for dialogue. But was it was fairly common in early sound films. (All Quiet on the Western Front, for instance was directed by Lewis Milestone; but George Cukor was imported from Broadway to act as dialogue director.) In this case, the French, Robert Florey, and Joseph Santley. Groucho was known to have famously said that one director didn’t understand English, and the other one that didn’t understand comedy. Florey continued directing up into the early 1960s, including Twilight Zone and Outer Limits episodes.
Irving Berlin wrote the music and eight songs for the play–five of which were used. Only one of those songs made it to the film: “Monkey Doodle-Doo”. Berlin composed one new song for the film: “When My Dreams Come True.” Instrumentation of the two songs comprise a majority of the film’s music. (As a side note: Berlin wrote one of his most famous songs, “Always” for the play. But Kaufman nixed it, saying something to the effect: Why always, why not just until next Tuesday? Double irony: “Always” became a major plot point in Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit.)
Joseph Santley was originally a choreographer, but all of the dance numbers were all directly lifted from the stage production. They certainly weren’t re-staged especially for the camera. Florey places the camera occasionally at a low side angle, or at a high angle so we can see the rows of chorines dancing away. Florey does stage one particularity interesting pre-Busby Berkeley over head shot with a human kaleidoscope effect.
For some reason, the brothers character names were changed from the stage to the film version. Henry W. Schlemmer became Mr. Hammer. Silent Red is now billed as Harpo. Wisely enough, Willie the Wop is now billed simply as Chico. Only Zeppo’s character Jamison remained the same.
It was in The Cocoanuts that Groucho and Margaret Dumont were first paired together. We can thank the fates for that. Their scenes together are pure comedy gold.
Groucho claimed that Margaret Dumont never got the jokes. I don’t believe that for one second. She never played the lines like her character had a clue. But Ms Dumont’s delivery and timing are so in sync with Groucho, that I think that she new exactly what she was doing. Margaret Dumont was the perfect foil for Groucho.
The elegant, soon to be star, Kay Francis, playing the vamp Penelope, works quite well opposite Harpo and Chico in their scenes together. She seems to understand what’s going on, and plays well the boys. That’s more than can be said for poor Cyril Ring, playing the cad Harvey. He is totally flatfooted and seems be at sea, as if he wandered in from a different film. Where Francis has some sass and charm, Ring is flat and dull. The Marx Brothers need pomp, bluster, and egos to puncture and deflate. There is no Louis Calhern, or Sig Ruman here. Too bad. But we still have Margaret Dumont.
The most famous scene in the movie wasn’t in the play, but was written directly for the film: the “Why a Duck” scene, where Groucho tries to explain to Chico his real estate plans, and the need to build a viaduct. It took 28 takes to get it down.
One of the things you might notice watching the scene, is the very floppy nature of the map Groucho is using (You’ll see it in any scene where someone is handling plans or maps in this picture.) The placement, and the limitations of the microphones that were being used, picked up all sorts of noises. The rattling of the paper made each take unusable – until director Florey came up with the solution to soak the paper in water to keep it from making noise -for take 28. The visual effect is quite weird, but you don’t hear the rattle of paper.
The Cocoanuts was shot at Paramount’s Astoria Studios in Queens, New York during the day while the brothers performed in Animal Crackers at night on Broadway – not to mention matinees.
The story goes that when the brothers saw a final cut of the film, they were so horrified that they tried to buy the negative of the film to prevent its release. The Paramount executives wisely did not give in the request. The Cocoanuts was one of the biggest films of the year, and the Marx Brothers were on their way to film history.
The new blu-ray disc (well, relatively new) makes the film look the best it is probably going to look–barring newly discovered primary source material. No complete original print of The Cocoanuts exists. The film, as presented, consists of cobbled together pieces from a number of different sources–looking great in places, to pretty good, to okay, to not so-okay, to dreadful. The image quality shifts from scene to scene, often times within a scene. Still, it all holds together, and there is only a small portion that looks truly dreadful. “Complete” versions can be found on YouTube, but I don’t know if I would recommend them.
Watching it today, The Cocoanuts is genuine time capsule. Made during the earliest stage of sound films. It is probably a pretty close approximation of what a recording of a Marx Brothers’ stage production would have been like. Or, at least as close as you are going to get.