Adapted from a talk given May 10, 2014 at the Greater Astoria Historical Society as part of Marxfest.
By the late 1920s, the Marx Brothers had already been in show business (vaudeville and Broadway) for a quarter century. They already had well established patterns of (and reputations for) wild behavior, pranks, practical jokes, womanizing, gambling, and even petty theft. (Different brothers had different specialties).
It’s said that while on tour with Animal Crackers the brothers elaborately framed Margaret Dumont so a hotel detective would think she was a prostitute. And, as a benign example, Groucho once brought his son Arthur onstage with him in the litter, confusing audiences but delighting the little boy.
But the money was better in pictures and the constant travel of live theatre was exhausting so they had long hoped to transplant their act to the movies.
As we’ve written earlier, in 1921, the Marxes made their own self-financed silent movie called Humor Risk. A failed experiment (for more on that film here).
Then came success on the Broadway stage, with the shows I’ll Say She Is (1924), The Cocoanuts (1926), and Animal Crackers (1928).
The team had actually begun negotiating with United Artists for a silent version of The Cocoanuts, but the studio wouldn’t match their asking price.
In 1928 they made a deal with Paramount to shoot The Cocoanuts at their Astoria Studio facility. The studio had been built in 1920 to take advantage of Broadway talent. By then the movie industry, which had begun in New York just a few years earlier, was now based in Los Angeles. By the time the Marxes had made their deal Paramount had only made a couple of talkies (the studio was a bit behind Warner Brother and Fox in this department.) By the time the film came out in August 1929, the studio had made a couple of dozen talkies, including Abie’s Irish Rose and The Canary Murder Case.
The Cocoanuts started filming in February 1929. Shooting was done during the day, while the team performed in Animal Crackers on Broadway at night.
The Cocoanuts was the first full length musical film made in the U.S. (The Jazz Singer, 1927, was only a partial talkie). The Cocoanuts came before Gold Diggers of Broadway, The Hollywood Revue of 1929, The Love Parade and The Show of Shows. It’s one of the few places you can get a real glimpse of a 1920s Broadway show; it’s the one Marx Brothers film with a full chorus line, which was great news for Chico.
The film was co-directed by Robert Florey and Joseph Santley. The latter handled the dance elements, the former had been an assistant director to Max Linder and Rene Clair, two of the great comedy directors of all time.
Florey had been directing since 1925, had worked for Fox Sunshine comedies, had been as assistant to Louis Gasnier and William Beaudine, and worked with Norma Talmadge, Ronald Colman, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. In later interviews, Groucho was dismissive of Florey, saying that he couldn’t speak English and didn’t get their humor. The truth was that Florey understood his craft as well as anyone did at the time.
The technical problems at the time were immense. To keep the early microphones from picking up the sound of the noisy cameras, the machines were placed in air tight boxes…along with the poor camera men. The directors would have to periodically stop shooting in order to allow the camera men to breathe.
The machinery would also break down repeatedly, further complicating the process.
The film was shot with an orchestra on set to accompany the singers just as in a live stage show. Numerous cameras were used at once so there would be several matching shots to choose from for options in cutting.
To mute the rattling sound of paper in the film, props like maps and telegrams were soaked in water, giving them an oddly limp appearance.
In light of these challenges you’d probably want your stars to be dependable, disciplined professionals who always show up on time, always hit their marks and can generally be relied upon. This is not how people generally described the Marx Brothers. They could be relied upon to make you laugh, but that’s about it.
Before the cameras even rolled, the producers (Monta Bell and Walter Wanger) and director Florey wanted Groucho to replace his trademark greasepaint mustache with one of crepe paper, or even a real one. The shine caused legitimate technical difficulties, but Groucho refused to change it.
Exacerbating the Marx Brothers’ propensity toward anarchy was the fact that they were doing a play at night. They got to bed late every evening (early in the morning would be more accurate). Thus they would awaken late, miss their call, and show up late to the set the next day. And if one showed up and the others weren’t there, he would wander away again. Thus you could never get them in the same place at the same time. They all perpetually had to be hunted down.
The worst of the brothers was Chico, who might be found in the girls’ dressing rooms, on one of the nearby sound stages watching a shoot, at a popular nearby Italian restaurant and once he was even tracked down and located at the New York Bridge Club, which wasn’t even in the same borough.
Another difficulty, a new one for the film industry: crew and visitors would laugh at their cavorting, spoiling takes.
No laughter on set to buoy their performances seems to have rattled the brothers somewhat, this being their first film.
Another set-to with producers came about because Groucho wasn’t allowed to break the fourth wall and address the camera directly as he did in the theatre. And none of the brothers were allowed to improvise. They had to hit their marks so as not to spoil the set-ups. (Although there are a couple of occasions where they break that proscription; you can seen the camera’s uncertainty in following them). Fortunately, the multiple camera method meant that they could generally capture the action in spite of such outbursts.
The brothers’ performances seem oddly off in this movie. Granted The Cocoanuts is not their best script, but the comedians themselves seem off. Their timing and delivery seem sluggish and lacklustre. The lack of laughter was possibly one factor, but my personal theory is that were simply tired. Harpo and Chico were in their 40s; Groucho was nearly 40. They were performing at night and getting very little sleep. It must have been difficult to summon any sparkle under those conditions. Groucho said he was so punchy from the process he would often mix up which lines he said in which show.
Because of the difficulty in getting off a good take, many boo-boos remain in the film for us to enjoy today. Chico famously goes up on his lines in the jailbreak scene and is bailed out by Oscar Shaw. They had to keep it in the film; there was no shot to replace it with.
The film was originally 140 minutes long but was cut down to 96 after audience previews. The only extant version is 92 minutes long. Nearly an hour was cut, presumably several musical numbers and (one would hope) more scenes for Zeppo, given the fact that has only about four lines in the extant version.
The Cocoanuts was a hit, and thus the brothers were encouraged to follow it up with Animal Crackers.
The circumstances of this shoot were different. The Broadway show had closed months earlier. The team had nothing to concentrate on during this process but the film itself. Their energy is up.
The technology had already vastly improved. Paramount had made dozens more talkies since The Cocoanuts.
Here’s one of them:
Animal Crackers was directed by Victor Heerman, As with Florey, Groucho was later dismissive of the man and his talents. Yet, like Florey, Heerman was as experienced as they come. He had been raised in the theatre. His mother was David Belasco’s head costumer. Heerman had been an actor and theatre manager, then started working at Thanhouser Studios as a scout around 1910. Then he worked as an assistant to Henry Lehrman at L-KO. By 1916 he was writing and directing comedies for Mack Sennett and Fox Sunshine and other comedies.
Heerman directed very few talkies. He then went into screenwriting with his wife Sarah Mason. They won an Oscar for their screenplay for Little Women. They also wrote Imitation of Life, Magnificent Obsession and Stella Dallas. It was Heerman who made a manageable movie vehicle out of the unwieldy play that had been Animal Crackers, cutting a substantial portion out of the script before the camera even started rolling.
Heerman was specifically hired with the thought that his disciplined working methods would keep the brothers under control. He assigned each brother his own assistant director whose entire job was to keep tabs on him and make sure he was on set when he needed to be.
Ingenue Lillian Roth is said to have been given the Animal Crackers assignment as a punishment for throwing tantrums on the set of Cecil B. Demille’s Madame Satan. Roth told the story that the Marx Brothers had to be locked into special jail cells, in the sets left over from The Cocoanuts, but Heerman denied that.
Still, the brothers managed to come in late, wander off and so forth, though not as much as during The Cocoanuts. They are freer with ad libbing in this one, within Heerman’s restrictions, and less intimidated by the process.
Here’s a cool color test made during the filming. Harpo (sans costume) is in his bathrobe.
After Animal Crackers the Marx Brothers moved to Hollywood, and spent the rest of their lives there. Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers would end up being the most famous movies shot at the Astoria Studios. Paramount sold the facility in 1933.
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