The Marx Brothers. While their career together on-screen lasted barely two decades, these films have proven a fascinating study in comedy. In just a short time, their form evolved and changed so much and as a result, everyone has a different favorite. This week, we’re finishing our look at the legendary comedy team with a deep-dive into the place where it all started: The Cocoanuts.
It’s difficult to sum up the plot of The Cocoanuts…. There’s talk of a Florida land boom, auctions, a jewel robbery and a struggling hotel. Ultimately, the plot really is only fluff… the focus here is The Marx Brothers and everything that implies. The Brothers (including Zeppo!) co-star in the movie with Oscar Shaw, Mary Eaton, Margaret Dumont, and Kay Francis. Robert Florey and Joseph Santley direct the film from a script by Morrie Ryskind (coming from a play by George S. Kaufman).
So, as we drifted through the month, I planned to write this final piece on a few different movies throughout the Brothers’ early career. My plan shifted a few times. Ultimately, only one decision made sense in the vaguely historical structure that took over this series and that was to examine The Marx Brothers’ feature film debut: The Cocoanuts.
Of The Marx Brothers films, the first three I covered were personal favorites. Meanwhile, I do have a more complicated relationship with The Cocoanuts. I watched the movie a number of years ago, but outside some of its more well-known sequences, it just didn’t stick with me. With that being said though, the perspective of age (and the study of history) really changes how The Cocoanuts can and should be read in the context of their careers. Sure, it’s a challenge, but it’s a historically important challenge.
I’m not going to lie, The Cocoanuts is not an easy viewing, especially for fans of their later works. With a rewatch, it becomes clear just how much the film is a product of its time (not in problematic ways, by the way). While The Marx Brothers are known for their wild and zany stories, The Cocoanuts is clunky, static and slow-moving… despite their best efforts.
Period sources show The Cocoanuts hitting theaters throughout 1929, coming as early as April of that year. Film aficionados will recognize the importance of this, The Jazz Singer hit marquees less than two years before, coming at the end of 1927. That movie had the hallmark of being the first feature film to utilize synched sound in a number of sequences.
It took the studios time to not only master the production of ‘Talkies’, but to produce feature length ‘talking pictures’. Many of the early attempts only utilized the new art form in very specific sequences. In fact, an article dated May 22, 1929 in the Standard Union (out of Brooklyn New York names The Cocoanuts as Paramount’s first musical comedy… trust me, there were a lot of musical comedies in 1929. You couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a musical comedy.
This is a long way of showing how a study of film history shows just why The Cocoanuts has some technical struggles. Films had been “talking” for less than two years at this point. Heck, I can think of features coming two and three years after 1929 which not only struggled to overcome the static, staged feeling of the early talkies, but also struggles in sound quality. Yet, in tackling not only a full length musical comedy, but a Marx Brothers property at that, Paramount was going all in.
The movie was based on an existing property coming from The Marx’s show of the same name. The Cocoanuts played on Broadway in 1926. The team had, as has been mentioned in the pervious write-ups, made their name in Vaudeville before moving to the New York stage. Interestingly, The Standard Union reports (this time on February 23, 1929) that The Brothers shot The Cocoanuts during the day while appearing on stage in their second show Animal Crackers at night. The article writes:
When the Marx Brothers sleep is anybody’s guess what with their evening performances in “Animal Crackers”. Maybe they hibernate during the summer.
Watching the film, the team feel very much like themselves. Harpo’s look did undergo a little evolution between this and the later films, but their act is immediately recognizable as having reached its most recognizable form. Unfortunately though, the static construction of the movie does little to compliment their comedic style. Instead, they (particularly Groucho and Chico) feel largely weighed down by the cumbersome camera. However, they face down the long takes and boring medium shots unflinchingly. All one has to do is watch the “Why a Duck” scene in the second act. Despite this being so early in the team’s lore, the act would be remembered fondly in much the same way “Who’s on First” is for Abbott and Costello. This may be only their first film, but this is The Marx Brothers already at their most iconic.
Stepping away from the film’s notable leads, it also seems worthy of mention that The Cocoanuts features an early screen appearance by Kay Francis. The role is either her first or second depending on the source you read. At the same time, the film makes great use of Margaret Dumont as Mrs. Potter who is (of course!) a foil for Groucho. Unfortunately though, aside from these two, most of the supporting cast find themselves a bit lost in the action. Co-leads Oscar Shaw and Mary Eaton only exist to perform the occasional music number with a light romantic plot. Ultimately, the characters are thinly developed and when viewed from a 2021 perspective, the performances feel a bit dated as well. They’re not who we remember here.
All in all, it’s difficult to give a clear and concise verdict on The Cocoanuts. The movie hit theaters during the challenging period following the birth of talking pictures, so ultimately this isn’t ground breaking filmmaking. In fact, much of it feels like a very long a static viewing. However, this movie does hold a particularly important place in Marx Brothers and at the same time, comedy history. The Cocoanuts shows the path of the Hollywood comedy throughout the 1930s and 1940s. It’s a little awkward and there are some growing pains, but fans of the Marx Brothers should check this one out at least once.
This brings our October tribute to The Marx Brothers to a close. They worked steadily throughout the Depression era and carved out a special place for themselves in the history of American comedy. We’ve looked at a variety of their movies this month and there’s so much more which must be written. What are your favorites? Let us know in the comments.
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Podcaster, film historian, and general lover of all things classic film and television. Studying the contributions of women behind the camera in classic television.
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