Wednesday, July 24, 2013

FI: The Cocoanuts

The Cocoanuts
US, 1929
Directed by Robert Florey and Joseph Santley

On a certain level, a Marx Brothers film is a Marx Brothers film; the brothers are such cultural touchstones now that you know what to expect even if you've never seen their work. Groucho will chase women and wealth, bantering with and condescending to anyone that stands in his path. Chico's thick Italian accent will lead to malapropisms and misunderstandings. Harpo will be a mute clown and agent of chaos, yet break your heart with his musical skill. Zeppo will... be there, I guess? These personas, honed for years on the vaudeville and Broadway stage, were already in full effect by the time The Cocoanuts, their first feature film, was released.

Adapted from their hit stage musical of the same name, written by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind with music and lyrics by Irving Berlin, The Cocoanuts is probably the most stagey of the brothers' films, not least because it came out in the early days of sound cinema, before technique and technology allowed a freer hand. As ever, the plot—involving, in this case, Groucho managing a failing hotel, beset by thieves and schemers, in an unfashionable part of Florida—is just a skeleton on which to hang the brothers' zany, anarchic antics and musical numbers. So while The Cocoanuts may feel like the most dated of their films, it's still hilarious and as visually daring as they could make it at the time. And the brothers' subversive, high-speed, blink-and-you-miss-it comedy could hardly be stopped by a largely-static camera and dodgy sound.

There are some great gags here, most notably a famous bit involving a nonstop train of characters chasing each other through two interconnected hotel rooms while a jewel heist takes place, and another sequence involving Chico up-bidding himself at an auction—to say nothing of the classic "Why-a-duck?" routine. And though the Marx Brothers' style would only grow more refined and assured as they broke away from their stage shows and learned how best to work in cinema, at least one key ingredient is already in place: Margaret Dumont, Groucho's most famous foil, debuts here as the same sort of wealthy, uptight matron she would go on to play in most of their classic works. The Cocoanuts may not be as satirical or consistently uproarious as Duck Soup or Animal Crackers, but really, isn't any time with the Marxes time well spent?


  1. Room Service, A Night in Casablanca, The Cocoanuts, the lost scene from A Night at the Opera... it's hotels all the way down! heh

    1. That's true... they do seem to go back to the hotel well pretty often! But at least it's almost always funny when they do :)