Movies You Might Have Missed: The Cocoanuts

Title: The Cocoanuts
Release Date: 1929
Rating: N/A
Length: 93 minutes
Director: Robert Florey and Joseph Santley
Starring: The Marx Bros., Oscar Shaw, Mary Eaton
Language: English
Country: USA

Most of the Marx Brothers’ best work was honed on the stage. It was either a touring comedy/vaudeville performance that was converted to a movie or they took their script on the road to refine the jokes prior to filming. It’s not universally the case, particularly with their later movies, I believe, but with the early and best work it was.

Like most Marx Bros. movies it’s formulaic, the plot is really only attended to by the straight men and the whole thing is a vehicle for the Groucho, Harpo, and Chico to engage in madcap antics around people who both are bemused by it, but forget immediately that it’s happened and expect them to behave normally at their next encounter. This film doesn’t quite reach the heights of genius  that later movies would (the mirror scene in Duck Soup, or the stateroom in A Night at the Opera, for example), but it is still very funny.

It is less purely devoted to the Marx Bros than their later films will be. There is a romantic subplot which is ultimately rather inconsequential other than as set dressing for the comedy, but still more in the foreground than later movies’ romantic/dramatic plots would be. The sound here is very poor, as one would expect for 1929. You can tell that every piece of paper is soaking wet; if it wasn’t the crackling would have overwhelmed the dialogue because the microphones were so primitive. Oscar Shaw as Bob and Mary Eaton as Polly are…fine, I guess. Kay Francis is a bit wasted as an inept villainess.

That there is genius present, however, is undeniable despite it being a bit more infrequent here. Chico’s role as foil to Groucho during their discussion of the viaduct has passed into comedy legend, Margaret Dumont’s slightly baffled indignation at Groucho’s antics, and Harpo’s absurdist slapstick have their moments to shine even if they don’t receive the full play they would in later movies.

Among all the movies I’d recommend, this would probably be one of the most foreign to modern audiences and their tastes. The “exteriors” are clearly still on a sound stage and most emphatically not in Florida. You can easily see that the scenery is painted on a wall in a lot of shots. Continuity isn’t perfect; changes from shot to shot can be a little jarring at times. The sound, as noted above, is abysmal and inconsistent in volume.

This, along with other, later Marx Bros. films languish in obscurity to some degree. Those later films though are different. In them, Zeppo had long since called it quits to be an agent. The Marx Bros are elderly men aping youth unconvincingly, painting stage makeup over the lines in their faces. Here, at least, they are younger, fresher, more energetic and using the available tools in the medium for all they’re worth. This movie might not be great, but it is one that is full of promise and excitement and dreams partly achieved rather than faded greatness, youth clung to, and genius only partly remembered.

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