Wednesday, December 20, 2017

#2,478. The Cocoanuts (1929)

Directed By: Robert Florey, Joseph Santley

Starring: Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx

Tag line: "Paramount's All Talking-Singing Musical Comedy Hit!"

Trivia: When The Marx Brothers were shown the final cut of the film, they were so horrified they tried to buy the negative back and prevent its release.

I recently picked up a Blu-Ray set that features the five movies the Marx Brothers (aka Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo) made for Universal Studios between 1929 and 1933, a group that includes Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers and Duck Soup. All four of these films are classics, and contain some of the Marx’s finest cinematic routines. But of all the movies in this set, the title I was most anxious to watch was the one I had never seen in its entirety: 1929’s The Cocoanuts, the first picture the quartet ever made. 

Mr. Hammer (Groucho) is the proprietor of Florida’s Cocoanut Hotel, but despite its beachside location neither he nor his assistant Jamison (Zeppo) has been able to drum up any real business. 

Mrs. Potter (Margaret Dumont), one of the Cocoanut’s few guests, is busy trying to convince her daughter Polly (Mary Eaton) to break her engagement to Bob Adams (Oscar Shaw), a hotel clerk who hopes to one day be a successful architect. Instead, Mrs. Potter wants Polly to marry Harvey Yates (Cyril Ring), who claims to come from a prestigious family. 

What Mrs. Potter doesn’t know, however, is that Yates is actually a con man, and with the help of his partner in crime Penelope (Kay Francis), he intends to steal a valuable diamond necklace that’s been in the Potter family for generations. The situation gets even more chaotic when a pair of bumbling thieves (Chico and Harpo Marx) check into the Cocoanut and are immediately pulled into the whole sordid affair. 

The Cocoanuts was based on the Brothers’ stage show of the same name, and because it was the first of its kind I suppose it’s only natural that the movie feels a little stage-bound (though director Florey, who was also shooting Skyscraper Symphony while this film was in production, does try to liven things up with some nifty camera angles). 

One issue I had with The Cocoanuts that I couldn’t overlook, however, was the fact that the Marx Brothers aren’t in it nearly as much as they should have been! 

Along with its romantic entanglements (Polly is forced by her mother to choose between Bob and Yates), the film has a variety of dance numbers (some well-choreographed, others bland) and several songs written by Irving Berlin that are performed throughout. Romantic subplots always feel out of place in a Marx Brothers picture (their next outing, Animal Crackers, also features one that never quite clicks), but the love story in The Cocoanuts is especially cloying (during Bob and Polly’s first scene together, they sing “When My Dreams Come True” as a duet, after which Bob launches into a long, unnecessary diatribe about how he would fix up the Cocoanut Hotel). 

As usual, both Harpo and Chico are given a chance to show off their musical skills (Chico on piano, Harpo with both a harp and a clarinet), but otherwise the four brothers are pushed into the background when the song and dance numbers kick in, and the film suffers as a result. 

When Groucho, Harpo and Chico are on-screen, The Cocoanuts soars, and we see the beginnings of what would become their regular routines (Groucho’s and Chico’s spirited wordplay; Groucho simultaneously flirting with and insulting Margaret Dumont; Harpo’s side-splitting pantomime; and Zeppo acting as Groucho’s straight man). I only wish there was more scenes with the brothers, and less of everything else.

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