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THE COCOANUTS, 1929
Directed by Robert Florey, Joseph Santley
Starring: The Marx Brothers
Review by Steve Painter
During the Florida land boom, the Marx brothers run a hotel, auction off some land, thwart a jewel robbery, and generally act like themselves.
Vaudeville acts are dead now, but at the turn of the last century they were extremely popular. Some of the best performers in vaudeville still remain with us in the form of the movies they made. Actors like Charlie Chaplin and W.C. Fields, along with a lot of other comedy acts, cut their teeth on the vaudeville circuit. When Hollywood came calling for their popular acts, the actors obliged and became silent movie stars.When sound came to movies more popular vaudeville acts could make the jump from stage to screen. One of those acts was the Marx Brothers. The four brothers from New York had been performing in vaudeville since the mid-1910s. Eventually their collection of comedy routines was structured around a plot, although never too structured, and the Brothers took their comedy to Broadway.
Their first Broadway play became a hit. It was called I’ll Say She Is (1924). Unfortunately little of that play remains intact. There is a great YouTube video of a scene in it, but that is all. Instead we are left with the second Broadway musical comedy put on by the Marx Brothers. The Cocoanuts was a huge success in 1926, and once sound came in, it was decided that it could be filmed as a movie. The film version of the play introduced the Marx Brothers to audiences outside of New York.
For those who have seen other Marx Brothers movies The Cocoanuts might be a bit disappointing. First of all, like a lot of other Marx Brothers pictures, parts of the movie are missing. In the years that have passed some of the negative been destroyed, so there are jumps and even where there aren’t jumps the negative has some haze on it. But it is still the Marx Brothers, which is always a good thing.
Irving Berlin wrote the music for the comedy, he of “God Bless America” fame along with other serious songs. The beginning is full of songs, and really drags. But once you get past the first three numbers, things pick up.
Groucho plays the owner of The Cocoanuts Hotel in Florida. Zeppo, always the great straight man, plays Jamison the desk clerk for the hotel. Groucho and Zeppo talk for a bit in the beginning, allowing Groucho to get in some good one liners, but that is about all that is good in the first 10 minutes of the movie.
Margaret Dumont, also a great straight man, plays Mrs. Potter, a wealthy woman on vacation with her daughter. Groucho is after Dumont’s money as always and our story concerns the troubles of Dumont’s daughter, Polly, and her boyfriend Bob. Bob is a wannabe architect, which means that Mrs. Potter feels he is not good enough for her daughter. Instead, she wants her daughter to marry Harvey Yates, a more well-off man.
Of course plot doesn’t matter much in Marx Brothers movies and this one is no different. Things get good in the movie when Chico and Harpo show up for a stay at the hotel. As always, the two partners try their best to steal whatever they can. When their suitcase opens up and Groucho sees that there is nothing in it, Chico tells him “Don’t worry, we’ll fill it up before we leave.”
The tough thing about writing a review of a Marx Brothers movie is that the Marx Brothers are in it. Their brand of comedy movies so fast and is so visual, especially Harpo, that it is hard to recreate through words what is on the screen. I will mention a few of the good scenes here, but you will have to watch the movie to rightly appreciate them.
The first appearance of the popular rotating door comedy routine is in this movie. A woman, who has the room next to Mrs. Potter’s, invites Harpo and Chico to see her. Her idea is to have them be in her room, while she goes into Mrs. Potter’s to steal a necklace. Of course she does not count on Groucho trying to sneak into Mrs. Potter’s room to see Mrs. Potter. So Groucho and the woman are trying to sneak into Mrs. Potter’s room without being seen and Chico and Harpo are trying to get into the woman’s room without anyone noticing. The scene was redone in many other Marx Brothers movies, most notably A Night at the Opera.
In another scene, Groucho tries to auction off some swamp land to raise money. He goes over his plan to boost bids with Chico. The idea is that Chico will start the bidding and then bid up whenever someone joins in, so that Groucho can get as much as he can for the land. Well, this doesn’t go quite as planned since Chico ends up being the only one that bids on the land. Of course he has no money and Groucho’s plan for quick riches is a failure.
Lastly, the ending is memorable. Bob has been thrown in jail for apparently stealing Mrs. Potter’s necklace. But Harvey and his female accomplice did the deed. Only Harpo knows this, and of course, he can’t tell anyone. So at the end a dinner is being hosted in the hotel by Mrs. Potter’s for the engagement of her daughter with Harvey. As part of the celebration, everyone involved with the wedding makes a speech. Speeches are boring and Harpo makes this clear, by walking away from the table each time someone speaks so he can get some punch. He comes back to the table drunker and drunker each time.
The Cocoanuts is not the best Marx Brothers movie, but it is the first. There was enough good comedy here to warrant more movies. There is enough good comedy in it still to warrant viewings today, even if only to understand where some of the later Marx routines came from.
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