Monday, November 5, 2018

Kay Goes Cocoanuts

The four Marx Brothers enter film and the sound era with The Cocoanuts (1929). The plot, such as it is, (based on their Broadway musical, with a book by George F. Kaufman and music & lyrics by Irving Berlin) focuses on the brothers' antics in The Cocoanuts hotel in Florida. As hotel manager Mr. Hammer (Groucho Marx) tries to woo the wealthy Mrs. Potter (Margaret Dumont), Penelope (Kay Francis) has her eyes on Mrs. Potter's necklace.

Let's just admit from the start that there is precious little plot here. There's a jewel robbery, as well as our requisite young lovers (Mary Eaton as Polly Potter and Oscar Shaw as Bob) who are being thwarted by Mrs. Potter. But it's all superfluous to the antics of Harpo, Chico, and Groucho (Zeppo gets to play straight man to Groucho in a couple of scenes). Some of the routines can go on perhaps a bit longer than perhaps they should; regardless, it's still the Marx Brothers, and they are hilarious.

This was the Marx Brothers' first talking film - they had done a silent short (Humor Risk, which has since been lost) in 1921. The Cocoanuts film sticks very closely to the original musical, which was on Broadway from December 1925 to August 1926 (and revived for a week in 1927). So, while you have a lot of Marx Brothers' routines, you also have chorus girls kicking up their heels. While the Brothers were filming The Cocoanuts at the Paramount Studio in Astoria, New York, they were also appearing on Broadway in Animal Crackers. They were literally running from the sound stage to the 44th Street Theatre in time for the evening performance. (TCM article).
Perhaps one of the funniest sequences in the film involves Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Kay Francis and several doors. It's the kind of bedroom farce routine that would inspire plays like Noises Off and The Play That Goes Wrong.  The scene is impeccably timed, and in only her second screen role Kay Francis is a perfect foil for the routine. Unlike Margaret Dumont, she doesn't just let the mayhem happen around her. She reacts and participates. It's an crazily funny routine, and even moves a bit of the sparce plot forward.  If you are only used to Ms. Francis as the suffering lady, take a look at her here and get a whole new view of her range.
The film is, of course, bound to the limitations of the new sound process. Any scenes that involve talking are tied to a location with a microphone. In one scene, in which Hammer is reading a document to Chico, the actors had to use water- soaked paper so it wouldn't crackle. Musical numbers (of which there are many) are performed to an off-stage orchestra.

A highlight of this film (and most of the Brothers' films) is an interlude in which Harpo plays the harp. Watching him play is so enjoyable - you watch his face change as he plays; he becomes one with the beautiful music. Mr. Marx was pretty much a self-taught harpist (see this article from Vanity Fair in 1926 in which Alexander Woollcott discusses Harpo's playing) - his fingering is all wrong for a trained harpist. Regardless, his music is beautiful, and the audience is given a moment of calm to catch one's breath before the next onslaught of mania.
Though the film did not get great reviews (AFI catalog), and the Marx Brothers were highly displeased with it (so much so that they attempted to purchase the negative from Paramount, so they could destroy it), the film made nearly $2 million. This resulted in a total of five films made with Paramount, after which the three Marx Brothers moved on to MGM.  We'll leave you with a trailer from the film:

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