By 1928 the Marx Brothers were big Broadway stars and the technology of sound motion pictures had progressed to the point where it now looked feasible to bring one of their vehicles to the screen. (Initially there had been discussions with United Artists to bring The Cocoanuts out as a silent picture. I can only imagine that the result of such an effort would have been unsatisfactory, to say the least). As it happened, Paramount had a studio facility (recently upgraded for sound) in Astoria, Queens that would allow the team to film The Cocoanuts by day, while continuing to perform in the Broadway production of Animal Crackers on stage at night.
The Cocoanuts would prove to be a landmark film, not just for the Marx Brothers, but for Paramount and for the industry as a whole. Paramount was ahead of most of the industry when it came to sound, but it was still a bit behind Warner Brothers and Fox. When The Cocoanuts started filming in early 1929, the studio had only put out a couple of talkies, although by the time it was released a few months later, a couple of dozen other talkies had come out of the pipeline ahead of it. Still The Cocoanuts planted a very important flag: it was the first feature length musical released by an American studio. I’m not sure if many people know that. It came out earlier than several musical films that may be more commonly (but erroneously) suspected as first. Gold Diggers of Broadway, MGM’s Hollywood Revue of 1929, Ernest Lubitsch’s The Love Parade and Vitaphone’s Show of Shows all came out after The Cocoanuts.
And oddly, when I think of the film’s chief virtues, they have to do with this aspect. It’s a rare record of a 1920’s Broadway show. With a script by Kaufman and Ryskind, and a score by Irving Berlin, and above all, an army of chorus girls, an element we would not see in a Marx Brothers film again. Co-directors Robert Florey and Joseph Santley (later unfairly belittled by Groucho) pioneered several techniques in filming these choruses well ahead of Busby Berkley, including the overhead shot.
By modern standards, or even the standards of a few months later, the film is VERY static and stagebound, as one would logically expect from such an early experiment. The challenges of making a talking film at the time were extremely great. Among other things, there were no procedures for dubbing or sound editing, so the film was shot with a live orchestra just as at a stage show, with multiple cameras going at the same time so there would be more than one shot to choose from in the cutting room. Takes had to be short because the camera men were enclosed with their cameras in air-tight soundproof boxes, and they had to be allowed out to breathe once in a while.
“But what about the Marx Brothers?”, you justifiably ask. Well, as you saw in my listicle the other day, despite the fact that this is their historic debut, they are not exactly at their best. There are several reasons for this. One is that, though The Cocoanuts contains plenty of the Marx Brothers’ patented crazy comedy, the archetypal familiar template for a Marx Brothers vehicle that we all love so much hadn’t been established yet. That would happen with their next film Animal Crackers. Ironically, The Cocoanuts in format is something like their first two MGM films, in that the Marx Brothers are busted down to components of a much larger canvas that includes the aforementioned dance spectacles, an elevated romantic plot, villains, and attempt at commentary on current events (the Florida land boom). The next four Marx Brothers pictures would concentrate much more proportionally on the Marx Brothers and their comedy.
Personally, I also have a problem on some level with any Marx Brothers picture which subjects us to the depressing spectacle of Groucho-as-Loser (which, incredibly, is all but four of them). In The Cocoanuts he is indeed the proprietor of a hotel, but it is not doing well, and Groucho has to do a certain amount of grovelling and scheming and worrying in order to save it. You say that’s necessary for the plot? I say the Marx Brothers are the only force in dramatic history who are ABOVE plots and they proved it very successfully in their subsequent four vehicles. This depressing energy is reinforced in The Cocoanuts by the boys’ performances, which seem off somehow. They are oddly subdued, slow and quiet. One, obvious factor, of course is that this is their first movie. They were accustomed to doing what they did for an audible audience reaction. That had been their experience for nearly a quarter of a century. Now, if anyone laughed at what they did, it would spoil a take! In a way, it probably seemed like an existential hell for them. Another factor (my own personal theory) is that they were tired. They were performing in a Broadway show at night, and shooting this during the day. Surely they were exhausted.
Granted, the film contains some classic and memorable routines and bits, most famously Chico’s “Viaduct/ Why a Duck” confusion, and a terrific farcical interlude where the brothers run in and out of a lady’s hotel room. Harpo eats a telephone, drinks ink and rocks a clarinet. There’s that hilarious last scene with the “I Want My Shirt” opera take-off. Margaret Dumont’s in it, as are several minor stars of the day, Kay Francis, Mary Eaton and Oscar Shaw. I’ll be writing more about them in a few days. And poor Zeppo has less to do in this than any other picture, which is saying a lot. Nearly an hour was cut out of the film prior to its general release; it’s probable that he had a bit more to do that wound up on the cutting room floor.
Interestingly, the brothers saw all the flaws that I am reporting and considered trying to buy their way out of the film’s distribution. Fortunately they risked putting it out there, and it was one of the most successful films of the year, ensuring their continued movie career. A lucky thing for us.
For more on comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etcTo find out about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.