The Cocoanuts (1929):

The first image is a parasol twirled at the camera, followed by Jazz Age cheesecake, though this is a transplant from Broadway, so words take precedence, serviced by long takes and medium distances. Yet this is the Marx Brothers' debut picture, so Groucho makes sure the text is worth recording -- "Be free. One for all and all for me. And me for you, and three for five, and six for a quarter," enough to appease a revolt of bellhops. Stooped walk, greasepaint mustache, cigar and insults, and all set for the trickster uniform, running the Hotel de Cocoanut in Florida with more bellboys than guests; Zeppo is at the desk, like wallpaper. Chico and Harpo bring in an empty valise and rougher versions of their personas, Chico razzing the entire world and Harpo picking pockets, ripping mail, drinking ink, and humping the cash register -- promptly, the brothers get stuck in a circle trying to shake each other's hands. "O ye suckers," Groucho addresses potential buyers at the beachfront auction, to turn desperate later, "I'll wrestle anybody in the crowd for $5," the very tenuous link between his brothers and the civilized cosmos out there. Harpo swims in dry land to choreographed door-slamming, but pretzeling lunacy is to be diluted in the maiden launch, hence all the filler with lovebirds Mary Eaton and Oscar Shaw, Irving Berlin's score ("When My Dreams Come True" and "The Monkey Doodle-Do"), and an actual plot (Kay Francis and Cyril Ring as jewel thieves) and two filmmakers, English-challenged Robert Florey and humor-challenged Joseph Santley. Eaton's society mother, however, is the invaluable Margaret Dumont, "well-preserved and archly tickled" and squeezed like a pillow by Groucho, and zaniness gets democratically extended to Basil Ruysdael in at least one sublime bit, tic tac toe scribbled on his undershirt before segueing into a Carmen aria. Still, the Marx Brothers are the spectacle, fresh out of vaudeville and molding their own mise-en-scène (to say nothing of cinema comedy), Harpo's face and body scrunched versus poetry at the table, Chico demanding "Why a duck?" and Groucho comparing Dumont to the moon, "wear a necktie so I'll know you." From George S. Kaufman's play. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

Back to Reviews
Back Home