The Cocoanuts (1929) was the Marx Brothers first feature-length film. It was also the first “talkie” to credit two directors, Robert Florey and Joseph Santley. It was adapted to the screen by Morrie Ryskind from a musical play by George S. Kaufman. The score and songs were by Irving Berlin. Unfortunately, the movie still often feels very much like a play with all the characters in a line at the front of the screen, and with a mostly stationary camera that is often so still the rapidly spinning Marx Brothers sometimes deliver their best lines off-screen.
In The Cocoanuts, Groucho plays the owner of the Hotel de Cocoanut, who is out of money and ready to find some anywhere. His current target is Mrs. Potter (Margaret Dumont). Harpo and Chico show up at the hotel as obvious grifters ready to meet the guests who are ready to “lose” their wallets. Zeppo is Groucho’s assistant. He likes to turn his back to the camera and pretend he is speaking with the extras in the background.
It is the Marx Brothers: It has funny bits, incomprehensible bits (even with the closed captions on and Wikipedia open, it can be hard to get a joke here and there), and musical bits. Harpo plays the harp, Chico plays the piano, Groucho plays the women, and Zeppo plays the dolt. To be fair, it is the character that Zeppo created. There are still some very funny moments, and the classic “viaduct” / “why a duck?” bit still holds up today. The musical numbers are beginning to age with out-dated references (the movie is nearly a century old, after all), and charming but dated dance numbers.
Groucho Marx once said that Margaret Dumont was the fifth Marx Brother, and you can really see why here. She is the consummate straight man, the role Zeppo should have considered from the start. Dumont is a real physical presence in each scene, towering over everyone. She demands attention and Groucho gives it to her in the form of non-stop banter.
- The Marx Brothers: Hollywood’s Kings of Chaos
- Feature Commentary with Film Scholar Anthony Slife
The bonus materials are excellent. There is much to be learned from The Marx Brothers: Hollywood’s Kings of Chaos; a documentary which clocks in at 80 minutes of interesting facts from all sorts of experts on the Marx Brothers.