Skip to main content

This hotel not only has running water, it has running guests.

The Cocoanuts
(1929)

The first Marx Brothers movie proper – Humour Risk appears to be forever lost – and an adaptation of their 1925 Broadway musical, with music and lyrics by no less than Irving Berlin. The Cocoanuts is serviced with a fairly no-frills approach by directors Robert Florey and Joseph Santley (their only work with the brothers: “One of them didn’t understand English and the other didn’t understand comedy” quipped Groucho). Groucho, Harpo and Chico arrive on the big screen fully formed, as does Margaret Dumont’s Mrs Potter (Groucho would no doubt make a gag there), while Zeppo’s Jamison is as shapeless as ever (I’m being unkind, actually; in other films, he’s actually quite a welcome presence).

Hammer: Believe me, you gotta get up early if you want to get out of bed.

Notably set during the get-rich-quick Florida land boom, which was well and truly over by the time the film version came out (The Cocoanuts was released five months prior to the Wall Street Crash), Groucho’s Mr Hammer is manager of Hotel de Cocoanut, a role he fulfils with a diligent lack of due decorum and scruples (he hasn’t paid the bellhops: “You want to be wage slaves?” he asks, before advising them that what makes wage slaves are wages – “I want you to be free”).

Mrs Potter: I don’t think you’d love me if I were poor.
Hammer: I might, but I’d keep my mouth shut.

He wants to offload the place to Dumont, as “the most exclusive residential district in Florida. Nobody lives here”. And of course, he pursues this goal by persistently insulting her, to her mild amusement/horror (“Where will you be when you’re 65? That’s only about six months from now”; of her eyes “they shine like the pants of a blue serge suit”).

Chico: 'Ats-a my partner, but he no speak.
Hammer: Oh, he’s your silent partner.

Harpo and Chico don’t arrive until twenty minutes in, and it’s mostly the latter whose services Grouch employs, to mixed effect (asked to put in bids to raise the stakes at the auction, he keeps outbidding himself). Both are explicitly characterised as lower class here, in contrast to the surrounding high society– “I could kill those tramps” – making their messing with the best-laid plans even more of a delight.

Hammer (to Chico): The next time I see you, remind me not to talk to you, will you?

Harpo is up to his usual anarchistic activities, including his oft-decried sex-pest antics (he’s always struck me as far too abstract to really engender offence, with sequences and sketches that are virtual non sequitors). At one point, he eats the phone at the reception desk. At another, he locks himself in a prison cell, only to “break” one of the bars and exit (they’ve just rescued the protagonist from the chokey). He also plays the harp, while Chico gives us a bit on the piano, both to be par for the series’ course. It didn’t occur to me that he’s smoking a joint during the wedding party sequence, but since it’s in the Blu-ray booklet, I presume it’s true.

Hammer (to Chico): How is it you never got double pneumonia?

Chico’s most notable exchange is probably the extended viaduct/ ”Why a duck?” piece of misunderstanding with Groucho. There’s also extended business regarding resemblance to the Prince of Wales (first with Harpo, then Groucho to Dumont), suggested by nefarious Penelope (Kay Francis). Penelope has inveigled Harvey Yates (Cyril Ring) into stealing Dumont’s diamond necklace and pinning it on hapless Lon-Chaney-in-Phantom of the Opera-alike Bob Adams (Oscar Shaw), who wants to marry Dumont’s daughter Polly (Mary Eaton).

Hammer (to bellhop): Boy! It’s been reported to me there’s a poker game going on in room four-twenty. You go up there, knock on the door and see if you can get me a seat.

As Marx Brothers surrounding plots go, this is a fairly solid one, albeit it suffers from the usual issues of the nominal lead characters tending to the uninteresting. To be fair to Shaw, he makes a fairly good straight man to Groucho (certainly no worse than Zeppo) and is sporting at having his belongings continually nicked by Harpo. Francis meanwhile is really very good at delivering the duplicity.

Hammer: He wants his shirt.
Hennessy (singing): I want my shirt.

Best of the non-regular guest cast, however, is Basil Ruysdael as Detective Hennessey, who enters as any other character destined to be given the run around by the main trio, all eyes on them being up to no good – which is fair enough – but comes into his own during a sequence in the final reel where he loses his shirt and pleads for its return via a full-throated appropriation of Habanera and the song of the Toreador from Carmen. It’s also quite amusing, in a wrap-up kind of way, that Dumont tells the assembled guests at engagement party that there’s been a “slight change” in plans as her daughter will now be marrying Bob.

Bob Adams: Oh Mr Hammer... There’s a man outside who wants to see you with a black moustache.
Hammer: Tell him I’ve got one.

The brothers filmed this while pulling double duties, appearing on stage in Animal Crackers in the evening (which would be their follow-up feature). The Cocoanuts may not be the best of their Paramount comedies, but those first five features are by far the most consistent and uncompromised the brothers were on the big screen (even including the two feted first two MGMs). What you’re really rating them for is consistency of inventiveness and amusement, in reverse order, for which The Cocoanuts more than comes through. And since you can never have enough Groucho lines accompanying a Marx Brothers review, here’s a few more in parting:

Mrs Potter: Mr Hammer, your costume’s wonderful.
Hammer: This costume has been condemned by Good Housekeeping.

Mrs Potter: My dear Mr Hammer, I shall never get married before my daughter.
Hammer: You did once.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

You must find the keys for me!

Doctor Who The Keys of Marinus
Most of the criticisms levelled at The Keys of Marinus over the past 50 years have been fair play, and yet it’s a story I return to as one of the more effortlessly watchable of the Hartnell era. Consequently, the one complaint I can’t really countenance is that it’s boring. While many a foray during this fledgling period drags its heels, even ones of undeniable quality in other areas, Marinus’ shifting soils and weekly adventures-in-miniature sustain interest, however inelegant the actual construction of those narratives may be. The quest premise also makes it a winner; it’s a format I have little resistance to, even when manifested, as here, in an often overtly budget-stricken manner.

Doctor Who has dabbled with the search structure elsewhere, most notably across The Key to Time season, and ultimately Marinus’ mission is even more of a MacGuffin than in that sextology, a means to string together what would otherwise be vignettes to little overall coherence…

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …

So you made contact with the French operative?

Atomic Blonde (2017)
(SPOILERS) Well, I can certainly see why Focus Features opted to change the title from The Coldest City (the name of the graphic novel from which this is adapted). The Coldest City evokes a noirish, dour, subdued tone, a movie of slow-burn intrigue in the vein of John Le Carré. Atomic Blonde, to paraphrase its introductory text, is not that movie. As such, there’s something of a mismatch here, of the kind of Cold War tale it has its roots in and the furious, pop-soaked action spectacle director David Leitch is intent on turning it into. In the main, his choices succeed, but the result isn’t quite the clean getaway of his earlier (co-directed) John Wick.

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013)
(SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

Nobody trusts anybody now. We’re all very tired.

The Thing (1982)
(SPOILERS) The Thing has been thesis fodder for years, as much so as any given pre-1990 Cronenberg movie, and has popularly been seen as a metaphor for AIDS and even climate change. Now, of course, provided we’re still in a world where film is studied in the aftermath and we haven’t ball been assimilated in one form or another, such staples are sure to be scrubbed away by an inundation of bids to apply the Coronavirus to any given text (much in the way Trump has been popularly overwritten onto any particular invidious fictional figure you care to mention in the most tedious shorthand). And sure, there’s fertile ground here, with rampant paranoia and social distancing being practised among those in Outpost 31 (the “virus” can even be passed on by pets). That flexibility, however, is the key to the picture’s longevity and effectiveness; ultimately, it is not the nature of the threat (as undeniably and iconically gruey and Lovecraftian as it is), but rather the response of…