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.