Films in Focus
By Ed Garea
The Cocoanuts (Paramount, 1929) – Directors: Robert Florey & Joseph Santley. Writers: George S. Kaufman (book), and Morrie Ryskind (adaptation). Stars: Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, Zeppo Marx, Margaret Dumont, Kay Francis, Oscar Shaw, Mary Eaton, Cyril Ring, Basil Ruysdael, Gamby-Hale Ballet Girls, & Allan K. Foster Girls. B&W, 96 minutes.
Until such time, if ever, that their legendary lost film, Humor Risk (1921) is discovered, The Cocoanuts will stand at the Marx Brothers’ first film.
The Brothers had been established on Broadway since 1924 and their first stage hit was I’ll Say She Is. It was a hodgepodge of old Marx Brothers vaudeville routines and musical numbers held together by the story of a rich girl looking for excitement as presented by a succession of new suitors. The climax of the show was a long sketch with Groucho as Napoleon, which the Brothers regarded as the funniest thing they ever did and parts of which would appear in later films.
The show ran from May 19, 1924, at the Casino Theatre in New York City and closed on February 7, 1925, after 313 performances. The Marxs next went on later that year to star in The Cocoanuts, which opened on Broadway at the Lyric Theatre on December 8, 1925, and closed on August 7, 1926, after 276 performances, and then it went on tour. It came back to Broadway for a limited revival at the Century Theatre from May 16 to May 28, 1927, after which the Brothers moved on to Animal Crackers.
Once Hollywood determined that sound was here to stay, the studios descended upon Broadway like a swarm of locusts, looking for talent, as many stars of the silent screen could not make the transition to sound. Given their Broadway success, the Marxs were snapped up by Paramount, which had also bought the film rights to both The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers. (I’ll Say She Is was considered unfilmable.)
As part of their Paramount deal, The Cocoanuts was filmed at the Paramount studio in Astoria Studios in Queens, while the Brothers performed Animal Crackers in the evening. Wednesdays were taken off from filming for matinees. The film was one of the first sound movies to be shot at Paramount’s Astoria Studios. (The studio had recently been refurbished to accommodate sound.) Monta Bell was chosen as producer.
Bell decided to split the role of director between Robert Florey, who would handle the main duties, and Joseph Santley, who would handle the musical numbers. Apparently, Florey was hired because of his success in keeping budgets within limits and the studio was afraid that, with the Marxs’ reputation, that the film was a sure bet to go over budget. To handle the camera work, cinematographer George Folsey was assigned to the project.
Of the original Broadway cast, only Margaret Dumont (Mrs. Potter) and Basil Ruysdael (Detective Hennessey) were cast in the film version in addition to the Marxs. Stage veteran Mary Eaton was brought in to play Polly Potter, Oscar Shaw was given the role of lead Robert Adams, Cyril Ring was brought on as villain Harvey Yates, and neophyte Kay Francis appeared in her first movie as Penelope. Finally, Morrie Ryskind was brought in to adapt the play to the screen. He made several changes:
Groucho’s character, named Henry Schlemmer in the play, is renamed as Mr. Hammer. Chico goes from “Willie the Wop” in the play to “Signor Pastrami,” referred to by that name by Groucho and Dumont, and Harpo goes from “Silent Sam” to “Silent Red.” The only reference to Harpo’s character’s name comes from a wanted poster. Only Zeppo’s character keeps his name: Jamison.
The play originally opened with musical numbers, followed by a sequence of dialogues between Eddie the Bellhop (Georgie Hale in the play), Jamison, Mrs. Potter, Harvey Yates, and Polly to establish their characters. Instead, the film opens with a brief musical interlude followed by the entrance of Mr. Hammer.
Eddie’s role was cut completely, and Sylvan Lee appears, uncredited, as “Bell Captain.” Penelope’s role is more sharply refined to bring out her shadier aspects, and the tune “When My Dreams Come True” replaced the frequently reprised “A Little Bungalow.”
Most importantly, Ryskind added the “Why-a-duck” routine, which would go on to become one of the Marxs’ most famous and quoted routines.
The play, as originally constructed by George S. Kaufman, was a satire of the Florida land boom of the 1920s. It’s set in the Hotel de Cocoanut, a resort hotel, run by Mr. Hammer (Groucho), assisted by Jamison (Zeppo), who is more hindrance than help. Harpo and Chico are two con men without funds looking to make their fortunes. The only paying guest at the hotel is Mrs. Potter (Dumont), a wealthy widow who is staying along with daughter Polly (Eaton). Polly is in love with struggling young architect Bob Adams (Shaw), who works as a clerk at the hotel, but in his spare time has drawn up plans for the development of the entire area as Cocoanut Manor. Polly and Bob wish to marry, but Mrs. Potter is convinced that Harvey Yates (Ring) is of higher social standing and therefore would make for a better husband. What Mrs. Potter does not know is that Yates is a con man planning to steal her diamond necklace with the help of partner-in-crime Penelope. The criminals pull off the heist and frame Bob, who is tossed in jail. Mrs. Potter announces Polly’s engagement to Yates. Meanwhile, Bob is freed by Chico and Harpo while Polly tricks Yates during the engagement party into revealing the truth behind the theft. Yates and Penelope are arrested and the engagement party goes on – only with the substitution of Bob as the prospective groom.
So much for the plot – it was always intended just as the framework in which the Marxs perform their patented routines. Marx Brothers legend has George Kaufman standing in the back of the theater while the play was going on. He was talking with a guest when he suddenly held up his hand. “Excuse me,” he told the bewildered guest, “but I think I just heard one of the original lines.”
Florey came to America in the early ‘20s as a correspondent for a French film magazine and began his career in film as a gag writer and soon after worked as director of foreign publicity for Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Rudolph Valentino. Working with the Marx Brothers came as a shock to his system. Shooting a stage play was not his idea of a good time to begin with, and working with four stars who kept changing the dialogue to suit themselves left him dazed and confused. Sound was new to Florey; The Cocoanuts was his second sound film. His request to shoot some of the film in Florida was nixed. Rehearsals were also useless. “What was there to rehearse with the Marx Brothers?” asked Florey. “They had performed the show a thousand times … They did what they did and that was that. Aside from directing traffic, which turned out to be my main function, I photographed it to the best of my ability.” Because he ceded control to his four stars, Florey didn’t bother prepping the supporting cast either, which shows in their confused performances, outside of Dumont and Ruysdael, who worked in the Broadway productions. Florey was more interested in experimenting with the music and dance scenes, even though Santley was brought in as choreographer. To his credit, Florey created some overhead shots that seem to be progenitors of Busby Berkeley’s famous numbers later for Warner Brothers and MGM. Cameraman Folsey said, “Florey had an eye. He knew it was interesting to shoot down on a bunch of chorus girls unfolding like flowers – we hadn’t done that before.”
A problem Florey could do nothing about was sound recording. The transition to sound had just begun and the microphones of the time were acutely sensitive. So much so, in fact, that the camera had to be enclosed in large soundproof booths with a glass panel in front so the microphones wouldn’t pick up the noise. As a result, the camera no longer moved, but remained static. Marks on the floor for the actors to hit were of prime importance to keep them in frame. As a result, the camera locks down on each scene as the Marxs run on and off, as if from the wings of a theater.
One of the things that infuriated cinematographer Folsey was the constant failure of the Brothers Marx to hit their spots, as they had a habit of wandering around, being used to the freedom of the stage. Another thing that bothered Folsey was the stifling heat in the booth that required him to limit filming to short periods.
The microphone was so sensitive that even the rustling and crinkling of paper was enough to cause a major distraction. During the famous “Why-a-duck” routine 27 takes were ruined by the crinkling of the blueprints Groucho uses to explain the layout to Chico until Florey finally got the idea of soaking them in water. The 28th take, using the soaked blueprints, came off smoothly. In fact, the blueprints are so limp and shiny that we can see they are dripping with water.
Even the musical numbers had to be recorded live on the soundstage as they were shot (rather than pre-recorded) as Irving Berlin conducted an off-camera orchestra. As a result, the frequent interludes for the numbers became intrusive, breaking up the flow of the film. In the auction scene, Groucho is reduced to something of an emcee as he introduces Polly Potter singing “Monkey-Doodle-Doo.” The song pushed most in the film is one Berlin wrote especially for it, the dreadful “When My Dreams Come True,” (replacing “A Little Bungalow” from the play) which is sung at various times by Bob and Polly and even played by Harpo both on the clarinet and harp. None of the tunes in the film could be considered memorable nor was any of the music in the Broadway production. It was said that Kaufman didn’t care for music, as he didn’t write it. Marxian legend has it that, when the show was being prepared for Broadway, Kaufman kept throwing out Berlin‘s tunes, one of which was – supposedly – “Always.”
Face it, though, who pays attention to the music in a Marx Brothers film, except if played by Harpo or Chico? The perfect composers for the Brothers turned out to be Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby in their later Paramount films, which were nonsense ditties.
The performances in The Cocoanuts were a decidedly mixed bag. The Marxs were fine, though they do seem a might uncomfortable at first (except Harpo, who was not limited by having to recite dialogue) frequently stumbling and hesitating in delivering their lines. For performers used to live audiences for over 20 years, standing still on a soundstage with only an audience of studio hands was a bit unnerving. They were used to the instantaneous response of a crowd to let them know if the material was working. But take away Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo, and The Cocoanuts is unwatchable.
Aside from Dumont and Ruysdael, who were in the original play, none of the supporting cast, save for Francis, turns in a decent performance. As the romantic leads, Shaw and Eaton are totally forgettable. Shaw has no screen presence, and Eaton, aside from a few song and dance numbers, is practically invisible. Shaw returned to Broadway where he worked until his retirement in 1941. Aside from a silent comedy opposite Marion Davies after The Cocoanuts, Shaw didn’t appear in another film until 1940 when he appeared in a supporting role for Bing Crosby in Rhythm on the River.
Mary Eaton fared no better. Known as one of ‘The Seven Little Eatons’ of Broadway and Ziegfield fame, Paramount starred Mary in a follow-up production with Eddie Cantor and Helen Morgan called Glorifying the American Girl. It’s dreadful performance at the box office ended Mary’s film career and she returned to the stage. Her career ended in the ‘30s due to her alcoholism and she died in 1948 from severe cirrhosis of the liver.
As the main villain, Cyril Ring is as flat as last night’s beer. The reviews he received for his performance were so dreadful as to doom his career as an actor. Ring had 398 screen credits after appearing in The Cocoanuts, with about 99% of them being unbilled. He had become a professional extra. The only one of those especially hired for the film to survive was Kay Francis. It was her first film and she displayed enough presence to be brought back by Paramount. She would later go on to be Warner Brothers’ highest-paid actress in the ‘30s, not bad for someone who sounded as though she took speech lessons from Elmer Fudd.
Part of this could be attributed to the spontaneous ad-libbing of the Marxs, which makes it difficult to adjust, but blame must also be laid at the feet of director Florey, who did a horrible job of preparing his troops. When the film is not coming to a halt in order for someone to sing “When My Dreams Come True,” it’s stopping to explain the plot over and over. The audience is constantly reminded about the stolen necklace, the mysterious map, and Detective Hennessy snooping around for no apparent reason. Is it any wonder we can’t wait for the next bit from Groucho, Chico and Harpo?
And what of the Brothers themselves? The Cocoanuts is interesting in that it’s their first film and we get to see their film characters developing. We open with Groucho giving Zeppo instructions and Zeppo ignoring them. Groucho bemoans the lack of paying guests, but whenever one phones to make a reservation he puts them off with a wisecrack. The bellhops inform Groucho they want to be paid. Groucho responds by confusing them with a speech culminating in his asking them if all they want to do is to be wage slaves. When they reply “no,” he asks what is it that makes one a wage slave. When they can’t answer, Groucho tells them that it’s wages and not to worry, for they won’t get any from him. Not only does this answer satisfy them, they react by cheering. This is an easy crowd.
Groucho is rather stiff and hesitant so far, without the quick patter and comebacks we’re used to, but as soon as Chico and Harpo arrive things pick up. Groucho and Zeppo go to welcome them with hands outstretched and all four end up chasing each other in a circle, stepping over chairs and the lobby sofa as they go. A bellhop tries to take Harpo’s suitcase to his room. Harpo resists and the suitcase pops open. “Hey,” says Groucho, “You know that suitcase is empty.” “That’s all right,” replies Chico. “We fill it up before we leave.” Harpo amuses himself by pulling the buttons off the bellboy’s uniform and eating them. Later he will eat a telephone and drink from an inkwell. Florey, in one of his few contributions to the film, devised the gags with Harpo: the phone (as well as the buttons) is chocolate and the “ink” is flat cola. Groucho and Chico engage in their first on-screen banter: “Now, would you like a suite on the third floor?” “I’ll take a Polack in the basement.”
Groucho later pursues Mrs. Potter after learning she’s not only a widow, but also filthy rich. He tries to seduce her in his inimitable way, proposing marriage, but she rejects his every advance. No wonder, with lines like “Your eyes, they shine like the pants of a blue serge suit.” “What?” “I’m sorry,” Groucho replies. “That isn’t a reflection on you, it’s a reflection on the pants.” When she tells him later that, “You wouldn’t love me if I was poor,” his response is, “I might, but I’d keep my mouth shut.”
Meanwhile, Penelope and Yates are working out plans to steal Mrs. Potter’s necklace, with Penelope planning to fix the blame on Chico and Harpo. She invites Chico to her room and later does the same with Harpo. The scene of her trying to vamp Harpo is precious. She drops her handkerchief. Harpo picks it up and pockets it. When she asks him if he’s seen it he broadly and slowly shakes his head “no.” She tells him if he finds to bring it to her room and asks if he knows where her room is. His reaction is to slowly, and with a lascivious look on his face, nods his head “yes.”
Yates comes to Penelope’s room and slips her Mrs. Potter’s keys. Now comes a scene reminiscent of the bedroom scene in I’ll Say She Is. As Penelope opens the door to Mrs. Potter’s adjoining room, Groucho opens the front door, looking for Mrs. Potter. The doors close. Chico enters and leaves, followed by Harpo, Hennessey, Mrs. Potter, and Groucho numerous times. Finally Penelope gets the chance to grab the necklace. She returns to her room and breathes a sigh of relief. “Alone at last,” she says, as Harpo comes up through her bed as the scene ends.
Having failed to interest Mrs. Potter in purchasing Cocoanut Manor, Groucho decides to hold an auction for the empty lots. To insure that the bidding is brisk, he brings in Chico and instructs him to how to bid. “If someone says ‘100’, you say ‘200’.” “Sure,” replies Chico. Groucho continues, “And if some says ‘300’, you say . . .” “400,” Chico replies, “I gotcha.” Groucho shows Chico the blueprints of the area, pointing out the highlights. When Groucho mentions the levees, Chico asks if that’s the Jewish neighborhood. “Well,” answers Groucho, “we’ll pass over that.” Soon, however, all goes for naught when Groucho points out a viaduct on the property. “Why-a duck?” Chico wants to know. “Why-a no chicken?” “I don’t know ‘why-a no chicken,” Groucho responds. “I’m a stranger here myself.” However no matter how many explanations Groucho tries to provide to the question, all fall upon deaf ears, for Chico can’t understand why-a no duck? It’s a classic routine and the timing is excellent, as if they’ve been doing it on the stage all along.
Come the actual auction, however, and all of Groucho’s plans have been for naught. Chico takes his instructions literally, topping every bid, even his own. Somehow, Bob Adams sneaks in to purchase Lot 26. Mrs. Potter then announces her necklace is missing. “I’ll offer a $1,000 reward to whoever finds it.” Chico, still on a roll, says “2,000.” Harpo hands her the necklace. When Hennessey questions Bob as to why he bought the lot on which Harpo found the necklace, Penelope breaks down and tells Bob she was only joking about him taking the necklace.
Chico and Harpo arrive at the jail to spring Bob. Harpo places a chisel on the lock, but keeps hitting his hand with the mallet until he smiles and suddenly remembers he had the key in his pocket all along. Once back at the hotel, Groucho and Bob try to figure out the crime while Harpo picks both their pockets, including Groucho’s bridgework.
At the party Mrs. Potter laughs at Groucho’s costume while Harpo steals Hennessey’s shirt. This leads to Hennessey breaking into song about getting his shirt back, a ditty called “I Want My Shirt,” sung to the tune of Bizet’s Carmen. Groucho proceeds to deliver a speech that parodies every speech made at various functions, thanking everyone for the retirement watch for his 20 years on the railroad, “which reminds me of the story of the Irishman,” as everyone laughs, “It’s so funny,” he continues, “I wish I could remember it.”
Mrs. Potter is asked to speak. Harpo gets up from his seat with an annoyed look on his face and shortly returns looking mellower. Yates is asked to speak. Once again Harpo rises and leaves. We then see his destination is the punch bowl, from which he drinks liberally. Yates replies that he doesn’t know what to say. “Then shut up,” Chico advises. Groucho shakes his hand. Chico walks to the piano. “Senor Pastrami, what is the first number?” asks Mrs. Potter. “Number one,” replies Chico, and proceeds to launch into Victor Herbert’s “Gypsy Love Song,” displaying the tricks with his right hand that would become commonplace in later Marx films.
When it becomes Polly’s turn to speak, she produces the map in Yates’ handwriting that led Penelope to the hiding place to stash the necklace. Yates and Hammer are arrested and Mrs. Potter announces that Polly will marry Bob Adams, who has won the job to design Cocoanut Manor, instead. The film ends with Yates and Penelope handcuffed to each other, the Marx Brothers waving to the audience, and Bob and Polly singing the dreadful “When My Dreams Come True” as the film fades to black.
It’s interesting to see each Marx brother as he develops his character. Groucho starts off hesitatingly, but picks up steam as the move progresses. Groucho’s genius is in subverting any semblance of a rational conversation by beginning normally, but soon breaking it down into a maze of puns, invented words, asides, thoughts spoken aloud, and statements contradicting each other. Because of this, he needs a foil. Fortunately, he has one of the very best in Margaret Dumont, who in their pictures always personified the epitome of class, good manners and social graces. It was Groucho’s job to tear her down and leave her confused, which he did with panache. In The Cocoanuts, their scenes together are somewhat on the stiff side; seemingly they are getting used to each other in the new medium of film. In later films, she is charmed by his raffishness, but here she is merely insulted and flustered. She also has a brief, but funny scene with Harpo during the bedroom scene. He lies on the bed and pats it for her to join him. “What?” she asks. “Certainly not!”
Of course, the one person Groucho cannot get the best of with his patter is Chico, who always gets the better of him. Chico’s use of language is not for communication, except in the case of Harpo. For everyone else, it is an instrument of obfuscation, especially Groucho. Take the “Why-a-duck” routine. Chico’s almost gleeful response to Groucho’s attempt at a rational explanation is to pose a question that Groucho cannot answer because there simply is no answer. In later films he will hone this to a fine point, causing Groucho to respond with lines such as, “There’s my argument, restrict immigration,” (Monkey Business) and “Chicolini here may look like an idiot, and talk like an idiot, but don’t let that fool you. He really is an idiot.” (Duck Soup) The only time he ever came close to being bested was in Animal Crackers, when he noticed that philanthropist Roscoe W. Chandler (Louis Sorin) is really Abie Kabbible, a fish peddler. When Chico asks, “How did you get to be Roscoe W. Chandler?” Chandler fires back, “How did you get to be an Italian?” It didn’t matter because Chico gets the better of him anyway.
Harpo’s character is the most primal, completely nonverbal, and the most subversive. Seeing him in The Cocoanuts for the first time must have been revolutionary. He is on the screen for no more than a few minutes before he is eating a bellhop’s uniform buttons, tearing up the guests’ mail, eating a telephone and drinking ink. His taxi horn is not only used for communication, but also as a weapon. He is almost a pure primal force; only Harpo would come out of the middle of a bed. Chico acts as his interpreter and buffer, but once unleashed Harpo is capable of anything. He comes close to the trickster of folklore, making mischief for its own sake. He improvised his antics, as compared to his brothers, who had their material written for them. “How can you write for Harpo?” George S. Kaufman once mused. “All you can write is ‘Harpo enters.’ From that point, he’s on his own.”
Harpo’s red wig photographed darker in The Cocoanuts, which caused him to lighten it for subsequent films. It has been said that he donned a blonde wig, but the truth is that he lightened his usual red wig. This is noted in Horse Feathers and Duck Soup by his character’s name – Pinky. And in Go West from 1940, one of the saloon girls tells her co-workers to “watch out for the redhead. He’s a terror.”
For his part Groucho was fascinated with the jargon of filmmaking. As recounted by Joe Adamson in his authoritative Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo (the book of the films of the Marx Brothers), Groucho was taking a break on the set while the director and the cameraman tried to solve a problem of lighting a scene. It seems that the floodlight (called a “broad” in the technical lingo) wasn’t strong enough and it was suggested that perhaps a spotlight (known as a “baby”) could facilitate matters. Cameraman Joseph Folsey turned to director Robert Florey and assured him he would take care of the problem: “I’ll stick a baby in that broad before the afternoon’s over.” This caused Groucho no shortage of amusement as filming continued.
And what of Zeppo? He has little to do here, a trend that continued until he quit the act after Duck Soup in 1933. Zeppo’s problem was that by the time he joined his brothers there was no room for any character he could develop. Groucho was the fast-talker, Harpo the frantic mime, and Chico the dialect comedian. The common assumption today is that Zeppo had no talent. That wasn’t true. He was an excellent actor and was said to be the funniest of the brothers offstage. Zeppo’s true value to the act was in his ability to take over for his brothers if they were too ill to perform: He could sub for his brothers and frequently no one was the wiser. (It beat another, lesser understudy in the role or refunding the patrons’ money.) When Groucho underwent an appendectomy during the road trip for Animal Crackers, Zeppo took over his role. Groucho attended a performance in Chicago, and when he saw just how good his little brother was, he got well quickly. When the Marxs stopped performing in plays and limited themselves to the screen, there was no place for Zeppo to go, so he remained in his role as the Marx Brother with nothing to do.
The problem with The Cocoanuts lay in the direction. Florey saw himself as a traffic cop while Santley restricted himself to the musical numbers, wanting no part of the Marxs. Groucho was later quoted as saying, "One of them didn't understand English and the other didn't understand comedy." Florey also had a problem with sound film as well. There are too many shots in the movie that seem placed there simply to have a shot, such as in the banquet scene where Florey cuts to two close-ups of Kay Francis without any apparent connection. The main problem is that the movie just doesn’t move, remaining what it originally was, a filmed version of the play.
In Marx Brothers lore it’s said that when the film was screened for its stars they were appalled and wanted to buy the negative back to prevent its release. I could accept this were it not for the fact that the Brothers supposedly said the same thing about Humor Risk. Perhaps they got their way with that one, as it’s lost. At any rate, The Cocoanuts was a big hit at the box office with a gross of $1,800,000, which made it one of the most successful of the early taking films, and promising Paramount of future riches in subsequent films.
Trivia: Look for Barton MacLane in a cameo as a lifeguard at the end of the film’s opening number.
Legend has it that Paramount head Adolph Zukor balked at paying the Marxs $75,000 for starring in the film. He later met with Chico, who told Zukor it was a true honor to meet with one of the giants of the industry and it was such an honor that he and his brothers agreed to do The Cocoanuts for only $100,000. Zukor, completely flattered, agreed that was, indeed, a low price and signed the contracts.