Cocoanuts and the Marx Brothers

Cocoanuts was the first feature film starring the four Marx Brothers: Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo.  It may also have the distinction of being the first true movie musical, that is, a movie where the musical numbers were meant to be part of the story telling process rather than a performance for audience within the movie. It wasn’t that the studio didn’t plan to have a band playing with the musical scenes.  A “band” was hired for the first day of shooting.  Apparently they were to follow the actors around ready to play whenever someone was tempted to burst into song, but the director soon realized there was no reason to have them around and that they would distract from the plot of the movie; something that the Marx Brothers were already managing to do pretty well on their own.

Cocoanuts is set during the Florida land boom of the 1920’s. Groucho plays hotel manager Mr. Hammer who is who is preparing to auction off some land near his hotel to stave off bankruptcy.   His plans almost fall apart because of two lay-a-bouts played by Chico and Harpo. For those of you who know the Marx Brothers comedies you don’t really need me to tell you about them. Their parts varied little from one film to the next.  Groucho was the womanizing, greedy leech who was always ready to make a fast buck and provide a few zingers in the process. Chico always played a stereotypical Italian lack-about who has trouble with the English language.  Harpo was always silent, able to produce almost anything out of his coat pockets and was as adept at sight gags as Groucho and Chico were with spoken ones.  All of them deep down had the cliché “heart of gold,” which led them to help others even if, in the end, it costs them something.  Zeppo was the unusual Marx brother.  In this film he is simply a straight man for Groucho.  In later films he was cast as the leading man and love interest.  If there was a romantic song to be sung, he was the one to sing it.  If he wasn’t listed in the credits however you would never think of him as being related to the other three.  In fact Zeppo quit the team after making four films, leaving only the famous and more distinctive trio of Groucho, Chico and Harpo for the remaining five films in the Marx Brotherslegacy.  

Watching a Marx Brothers film is an experience of seeming chaos.  Their comedy is filled with one one-liner after another, usually at the expense of others, slap-stick, and puns. It is an experience that can almost overwhelm you with the flood of dialog.   My wife once described the experience this way, “No wonder I’ve never really watched them, you really have to pay attention or you miss the jokes.”   They are decidedly non-PC, but the films are still basically family-friendly.  You also have a sense, that much of the dialog is improvised. It certainly comes across that way and the Marx Brothers were well known for improvising lines.  However I was surprised to find out when I read a copy of the original musical script that many of the lines I thought were masterpieces of improvisation were in fact written in the script. It is a tribute to their acting skills that the lines were delivered as if they had just been made up on the spot.  If you have never seen a Marx Brothers film I encourage you to do so.  Some of the best of today’s comedians owe much to this team.  You may not like them, but you will never forget them.