Pre Code Hollywood Season: FD Cinematheque
The Cocoanuts (1929)
Director: Robert Florey, Joseph Santley
Cast: Zeppo Marx, Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, Mary Eaton, Kay Francis, Oscar Shaw, Margaret Dumont, Cyril Ring, Barton MacLane
The Cocoanuts (1929) is the Marx Brothers‘ first feature-length film. Produced for Paramount Pictures by Walter Wanger, who is not credited, the musical comedy stars the four Marx Brothers, Oscar Shaw, Mary Eaton, and Margaret Dumont.
It was the first sound film to credit more than one director (Robert Florey and Joseph Santley), and was adapted to the screen by Morrie Ryskind from the George S. Kaufman Broadway musical play. Five of the film’s tunes were composed by Irving Berlin, including “When My Dreams Come True”, sung by Oscar Shaw and Mary Eaton.
The Cocoanuts is set in the Hotel de Cocoanut, a resort hotel, during the Florida land boom of the 1920s. Mr. Hammer (Groucho Marx) runs the place, assisted by Jamison (Zeppo Marx), who would rather sleep at the front desk than actually help him run it. Chico and Harpo arrive with empty luggage, which they apparently plan to fill by robbing and conning the guests.
Mrs. Potter (Margaret Dumont, in the first of seven film appearances with the Marxes) is one of the few paying customers. Her daughter Polly (Mary Eaton) is in love with struggling young architect Bob Adams (Oscar Shaw).
He works to support himself as a clerk at the hotel, but has plans for the development of the entire area as Cocoanut Manor. Mrs. Potter wants her daughter to marry Harvey Yates (Cyril Ring), whom she believes to be of higher social standing than the clerk. This suitor is actually a con man out to steal the dowager’s diamond necklace with the help of his conniving partner Penelope (Kay Francis).
The plot is almost beside the point, and the story and setting are little more than an excuse for the brothers to run amok. The film is notable for its musical “production numbers”, including techniques which were soon to become standard, such as overhead shots of dancing girls imitating the patterns of a kaleidoscope.
The musical numbers were recorded live on the soundstage as they were shot, rather than pre-recorded, using an off-camera orchestra. The main titles are superimposed over a negative image of the “Monkey-Doodle-Do” number photographed from an angle that does not appear in the body of the film.
One of the more famous gags in the film has Groucho giving directions to Chico, who keeps misunderstanding “viaduct” as “why-a-duck“. In another sequence Groucho is the auctioneer for some land of possibly questionable value (“You can have any kind of a home you want to; you can even get stucco!
Oh, how you can get stuck-oh!”) He has hired Chico to inflate the sale prices by making phony bids. To Groucho’s frustration, Chico keeps outbidding everyone, even himself. During the auction, Mrs. Potter announces that her necklace has been stolen and offers a thousand dollar reward, whereupon Chico offers two thousand. Still another sequence has Groucho, Mrs. Potter and Harvey Yates (the necklace thief) make formal speeches. Harpo repeatedly walks off, with a grimace on his face, to the punch bowl. (His staggering implies that the fruit punch has been spiked with alcohol.) Another highlight is when the cast, already dressed in traditional Spanish garb for a theme party, erupts into an operatic treatment about a lost shirt to music from Carmen (specifically, Habanera and the song of the Toreador). An earlier scene shows Harpo and Chico abusing a cash register while whistling the Anvil Chorus from Il trovatore, a piece also referenced in several other Marx Brothers films.
- Groucho Marx as Mr. Hammer
- Harpo Marx as Harpo
- Chico Marx as Chico
- Zeppo Marx as Jamison
- Mary Eaton as Polly Potter
- Oscar Shaw as Robert ‘Bob’ Adams
- Margaret Dumont as Mrs. Potter
- Kay Francis as Penelope
- Cyril Ring as Harvey Yates
- Basil Ruysdael as Detective Hennessey
Referring to directors Robert Florey and Joseph Santley, Groucho Marx remarked, “One of them didn’t understand English and the other didn’t understand comedy.”
As was common in the early days of sound film, to eliminate the sound of the camera motors the cameras and the cameramen were enclosed in large soundproof booths with glass fronts to allow filming, hence the largely static camera work. For many years, Marxian legend had it that Florey, who had never seen the Marxes’ work before, was put in the soundproof booth because he could not contain his laughter at the brothers’ spontaneous antics.
Every piece of paper in the movie is soaking wet, to keep crackling paper sounds from overloading the primitive recording equipment of the time. In fact, this did not occur to director Florey until 27 takes had been made (of the “Viaduct” scene) and disposed of because of the noise made by the paper. Florey finally got the idea to soak the paper in water; the 28th take of the “Viaduct” scene used soaked paper, and this take was quiet and used in the film.
The “ink” that Harpo drank from the hotel lobby inkwell was actually Coca-Cola, and the “telephone mouthpiece” that he nibbled was made of chocolate, both inventions of Robert Florey.
- “Florida by the Sea” (instrumental with brief vocal by chorus during opening montage)
- “When My Dreams Come True” (theme song, Mary Eaton and Oscar Shaw variously, several reprises)
- “The Bell-Hops” (instrumental, dance number)
- “Monkey Doodle Doo” (vocal by Mary Eaton and dance number)
- “Ballet Music” (instrumental, dance number)
- “Tale of the Shirt” (vocal by Basil Ruysdael, words set to music from Carmen by Georges Bizet)
- “Tango Melody” (vocal included in the stage production, used in the film as background music only)
- “Gypsy Love Song” (by Victor Herbert, piano solo by Chico Marx)
The Cocoanuts is one of the few Irving Berlin vehicles that did not yield any particularly memorable songs. Several songs from the stage play were omitted from the film: “Lucky Boy”, sung by the chorus to congratulate Bob on his engagement to Polly and “A Little Bungalow”, a love duet sung by Bob and Polly that was replaced with “When My Dreams Come True” in the film.
Irving Berlin wrote two songs entitled “Monkey Doodle Doo”. The first was published in 1913, the second introduced in the 1925 stage production and featured in the film. They are very different songs.
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. Paramount wisely resisted — the movie turned out to be a big box office hit, with a $1,800,000 gross making it one of the most successful early talking films.
It received mostly positive reviews from critics, with the Marx Brothers themselves earning most of the praise while other aspects of the film drew a more mixed reaction. Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times reported that the film “aroused considerable merriment” among the viewing audience, and that a sequence using an overhead shot was “so engaging that it elicited plaudits from many in the jammed theatre.”
However, he found the audio quality during some of the singing to be “none too good”, adding, “a deep-voiced bass’s tones almost fade into a whisper in a close-up. Mary Eaton is charming, but one obtains little impression of her real ability as a singer.”
Variety called it “a comedy hit for the regular picture houses. That’s all it has – comedy – but that’s enough.” It reported the sound had “a bit of muffling now and then” and that the dancers weren’t always filmed well: “When the full 48 were at work only 40 could be seen and those behind the first line could be seen but dimly.”
“It is as a funny picture and not as a musical comedy, not for its songs, pretty girls, or spectacular scenes, that The Cocoanuts succeeds”, wrote John Mosher in The New Yorker. “Neither Mary Eaton, nor Oscar Shaw, who contribute the “love interest”, is effective, nor are the chorus scenes in the least superior to others of the same sort in various musical-comedy-movies now running in town. To the Marxes belongs the success of the show, and their peculiar talents seem, surprisingly enough, even more manifest on the screen than on the stage.”
Film Daily called it “a good amount of fun, although some of it proves tiresome. This is another case of a musical comedy transferred almost bodily to the screen and motion picture treatment forgotten. The result is a good many inconsistencies which perhaps may be overlooked provided the audience accepts the offering for what it is.”
Awards and honors
American Film Institute recognition
• AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Laughs – Nominated
- “Big Sound Grosses”. Variety. New York. June 21, 1932. p. 62.
- Bowen, Peter (August 3, 2010). “The Cocoanuts Released”. Focus Features. Retrieved December 9, 2014.
- Paul Zimmerman, The Marx Brothers At The Movies. Putnam, 1968.
- Paul D. Zimmerman and Burt Goldblatt The Marx Brothers at the Movies,[page needed]
- Bader, Robert S. (2016). Four of the Three Musketeers: The Marx Brothers on Stage. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press. p. 309. ISBN 9780810134164.
- Nixon, Rob. “The Cocoanuts”. TCM.com. Turner Entertainment Networks, Inc. Retrieved December 9, 2014.
- Hall, Mordaunt (May 25, 1929). “Movie Review – The Cocoanuts”. The New York Times. Retrieved December 9, 2014.
- “The Cocoanuts”. Variety. New York: 14. May 29, 1929.
- Mosher, John (June 1, 1929). “The Current Cinema”. The New Yorker. p. 74.
- “The Cocoanuts”. Film Daily. New York: Wid’s Films and Film Folk, Inc. June 2, 1929. p. 9.