Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Cocoanuts (Paramount, 1929)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Cocoanuts, produced at Paramount’s Astoria studio in Queens, New York in 1929 and starring the Four Marx Brothers (as they were originally billed until Zeppo Marx dropped out of the act) in a film version of their hit 1925 stage musical, produced by Sam H. Harris (George M. Cohan’s former partner and, according to Marx Brothers biographer Joe Adamson, so terminally kind that the nastiest thing anyone could remember him saying about anybody was when he responded to the change of government in Germany in early 1933 with, “Hitler is not a nice fellow”) and written by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind. Apparently it was so extensively rewritten by the Marx Brothers, who according to some accounts were so fond of improvising and keeping their funniest improvisations in the script that when Kaufman and Ryskind went to see The Cocoanuts midway through its original run, Kaufman turned to Ryskind during the second act and said, “Hey, I think I just heard one of our original lines.” (According to other accounts, the Marx Brothers hated improvising and wanted their scripts in set form before they ever let the material near a paying audience or a movie camera. That was one reason that before A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races were filmed, they toured the shows so they could perform the key comedy scenes before live audiences and find out literally from the horses’ mouths what people would — and wouldn’t — think was funny.)

In his 1971 book about the Marx Brothers, Paul Zimmerman said that aside from the Marxes’ participation, The Cocoanuts was historically important as one of the few filmed records of a 1920’s Broadway show, complete with stilted song-and-dance numbers and awkward alternations between songs, dances, comic scenes and plot exposition. Later Richard Barrios said in his book on early musicals that that was so much nonsense: he argued that audiences in 1929 who went to see The Cocoanuts went for the same reasons anyone would want to see it today: to laugh at the Marx Brothers. The Cocoanuts certainly has some of the stage-bound flavor of early musicals; it begins with a big production number with a chorus singing the praises of “Florida by the Sea,” as Irving Berlin’s lyric has it — the show was a satire of the mid-1920’s Florida land boom, a classic “bubble” in which Northern promoters bought huge tracts of Florida real estate, promising buyers year-round sunshine and stable climates — and then a big hurricane hit, bursting the bubble and leaving hundreds of investors broke. The film casts Groucho as Mr. Hammer (no first name), owner of the Cocoanut Beach hotel and a lot of the land around it, which he’s trying to sell so Cocoanut Beach can become the next great Florida development and make him and his investors lots of money. Only no investors materialize — just Chico and Harpo (billed under their own names because the character names they had in the stage production, particular Chico’s billing as “Willy the Wop,” were too racially insensitive even for 1929), who arrive at the Cocoanut Beach Hotel penniless and with an empty suitcase. “Oh, that’s all right,” Chico says when Groucho points out his suitcase is empty. “We fill it up before we leave.” By the time they made this movie the Marx Brothers were already in their 30’s and had had at least two decades of success behind them, first on the vaudeville circuit (where they had started out as a musical act but drifted into comedy because comedians were paid more) and then on Broadway in the 1924 revue I’ll Say She Is (most of which is lost, but the famous sequence with Groucho as Napoleon bidding goodbye to Josephine as he heads off into battle was recorded years later and filmed as an animated cartoon with Groucho voicing his original role), The Cocoanuts and the follow-up, Animal Crackers, also by Kaufman and Ryskind and also filmed by Paramount in New York.

The Marxes were appearing in Animal Crackers by night and filming The Cocoanuts by day, and they make a few audible slips in their dialogue — the kinds that often creep into the performances of stage actors who have been playing the same damned script way too often — which the film’s two directors, Robert Florey and Joseph Santley, let slip and didn’t bother to retake. There are some O.K. songs by Irving Berlin — The Cocoanuts became famous as the only show Berlin ever worked on that didn’t generate at least one hit song for him; for the movie he added a big ballad, “When My Dreams Come True,” for romantic leads Mary Eaton (a protégée of Florenz Ziegfeld — he was grooming her to replace Marilyn Miller and that’s shown in her big number, “Monkey-Doodle-Doo,” a song Berlin wrote in the mold of his earlier “Shaking the Blues Away” and inserted a topical reference to monkey-gland treatments, which were supposed to rejuvenate people, doing a dance with the Gamby-Hale Ballet Girls and Allan K. Foster Girls very much in the Miller manner) and Oscar Shaw, but it didn’t become a hit either. The Cocoanuts suffers from its stage-bound production — even the opening shots of the Florida beaches are clearly studio interiors with painted backdrops representing sea and sky — and from musical interludes that are filmed rather dully, though at least co-director Santley (who seems to have been detailed to handle the musical numbers while Florey directed the plot and comedy scenes) uses some three-quarter views of the chorus line, rides a crane camera and in one scene even shoots down at the Gamby-Hale Ballet Girls from overhead and allows them to form a kaleidoscope formation. (This is usually associated with Busby Berkeley but there are at least three movies made before 1930, when Berkeley made his first film, Whoopee, that feature overhead kaleidoscope shots of choristers: this one, Wheeler and Woolsey’s Rio Rita and Albertina Rasch’s two-strip Technicolor ballets in the 1929 MGM flop Lord Byron of Broadway.)

What does hold up about The Cocoanuts are, you guessed it, the Marx Brothers comedy sequences, which to some extent set the template for the entire rest of their career: the comic monologues by Groucho (who kicks off the auction of Cocoanut Beach lots by saying, “Florida, folks, land of perpetual sunshine. Let’s get the auction started before we have a tornado”), the confrontations between Groucho and Chico (including the famous “Why a duck?” sequence in which Groucho hires Chico to be a shill at his auction and bid the prices up, only when Groucho makes the mistake of telling Chico that a viaduct will be built across the property, Chico says, “All right, why-a-duck?,” and they riff on that hilariously for what seems like 15 minutes) and the demonic savagery of Harpo. It’s also somewhat ironic that Charles and I were watching The Cocoanuts just after I’d been commenting on this blog about the risks of hiring a relatively new director with a hot independent film just out and entrusting them with a big-budget studio blockbuster — like Gareth Edwards with the 2014 Godzilla remake and Josh Trank with the latest reboot of Fantastic Four — when something like that happened here. Robert Florey was an assistant director from France who had just jolted Hollywood with an indie short called The Life and Death of 9413 — A Hollywood Extra, and for the unexpected success of that film he was rewarded with the co-director assignment on The Cocoanuts. Only he didn’t find the Marx Brothers, except for Harpo, all that funny; he pretty much left Groucho and Chico to their own devices but worked on new silent gags for Harpo, including the marvelous scene in the lobby of the Cocoanut Manor Hotel in which Harpo drinks the ink out of the inkwells and then eats the desk telephone. (The ink was really Coca-Cola and the phone was made of chocolate.)

The Cocoanuts has been faulted not only for the staginess when the Marxes aren’t on the screen and the oddly belligerent characterizations they assume when they are (both Groucho and Harpo are considerably nastier here than they were in their later movies), but the Marxes’ scenes are hilarious and not only hold up beautifully but set the basic tropes they’d refine and make even funnier in their later films. Also present at the creation, as it were — The Cocoanuts was the Marxes’ first feature, unless you count a 1918 silent called Humorisk which they produced independently with their own money and then pulled from release when their one public showing took place at the epicenter of the 1918-19 flu epidemic in New York — was Margaret Dumont as Mrs. Potter, the only hotel guest who actually has money, whom of course Groucho is romancing in his always twisted way (which reaches its high point when Groucho invites her to make love to him outdoors under a full moon: “I can see it now: you and the moon. You wear a necktie so I’ll know you”) and whose daughter Polly (Mary Eaton) is caught between two suitors. One is Bob Adams (Oscar Shaw), the poor but honest guy — a hotel clerk with ambitions to be an architect and participate in a major Florda remodeling project; he’s the one Polly likes best but the one her mom wants her to marry is scapegrace Harvey Yates (Cyril Ring) because he’s “one of the Boston Yates,” even though he’s a slimeball, he has another girlfriend on the side — Penelope, played by Kay Francis in her film debut and showing herself ready for biggers and betters — and since he’s broke and doesn’t want to wait around to marry Polly Potter and inherit the Potter millions, he conceives the idea of stealing Mrs. Potter’s diamond necklace and framing Adams for the crime. Of course, it all turns out right in the end — Groucho attracts an out-of-town buyer who’s interested in taking over all of Cocoanut Beach and developing it; Bob Adams gets not only Polly Potter but the job of designing the new development; and Harvey Yates and Penelope get waltzed off into jail — but it’s certainly a lot of fun getting there.

The Cocoanuts is an uneven movie (though, aside from the great comedy sequences, the “Monkey-Doodle-Doo” number is fun and entertaining) that’s become even more uneven from the shabby condition in which it’s been preserved: though the version we were watching (from the MCA Universal boxed set of all five Marx Brothers’ movies for Paramount, which I want to run in alternation with the W. C. Fields and Mae West boxes to recreate the marvelous comedy lineup I remember from my teen days watching Channel 36, a San José station that for some reason came in excellently in Marin County when I was growing up and where I saw a lot of classic films) is quite the best-looking one I’ve ever seen, there are still startling gaps in the photographic quality from scene to scene. The reason is that, though The Cocoanuts was a major hit on its initial release, no one print survived complete. The version we have was pieced together in the 1950’s (either just before or just after MCA’s TV subsidiary, Revue Productions, bought the rights to virtually all Paramount’s output from 1929 to 1949 for TV showings, and later assigned the films to Universal when MCA absorbed Universal in 1962) from three partial prints, and the image quality takes some rather startling changes, particularly the sudden drop in clarity and definition just before “Monkey-Doodle-Doo.” Still, The Cocoanuts is nicely done and quite entertaining — the “Why a duck?” sequence alone would make the film worth watching — even though just about everything in it was refined and honed, and made sharper and funnier, in their later films.