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The Marx Brothers have never been as good as some other great comedy
teams, be it the verbal brilliance of Abbott & Costello, the pathos laden antics of
Laurel & Hardy, nor the violent slapstick of The Three Stooges. The reason is because
the teams success or failure basically falls all on the shoulders of its lone truly
brilliant member, Groucho Marx. The first film to feature the zany antics of the brothers
was the 1929 talkie film of their 1926 Broadway comedy hit, The Cocoanuts. They did, however, self-finance an
earlier silent film called Humorisk, which
was a critical disaster, in its lone showing, and of which no known copies seem to exist.
In a sense, the heart of the brothers act in all their films is not when the three
(or four, including the forgettable Zeppo, who plays a hotel desk clerk in this outing)
brothers interact, but when Groucho interacts with anyone in the film, most especially the
sublimely stolid Margaret Dumont.
Its not that the other brothers are not without talents, but they are simple old time vaudevillians who, sans their genius brother, would have been minor role players in film. Gummo, who never appeared in a single film, wisely chose a behind the scenes role; Zeppo retired after the teams fifth film, Duck Soup, never had an ounce of comic heft; Chico was a generic ethnic humorist who, without the team would never have lasted (even his piano playing is crude and uninspiring); and Harpo, despite his mimetic brilliance, and often soulful harpsichording, was simply a one trick pony with many antecedents. Groucho, the character, was without antecedent or descendent. Is it any wonder that the only one of the brothers to trot out a second act in
In short, he is the Marx Brothers and they are Groucho, Groucho, Groucho (and Groucho, in the first five films). This can be seen from the very first through last scene of The Cocoanuts. The hour and a half long film, directed by Robert Florey and Joseph Santley, from the George S. Kaufman play, adapted by Morrie Ryskind, and scored by Irving Berlin, is often derogated in comparison to later classics like the aforementioned Duck Soup, A Day At The Races, or A Night At The Opera, but despite all the waxing over those later films, The Cocoanuts is quintessential Marxist humor. Just as all of the other great comedy teams merely played slight variations of their personae, so do the Marxes in this and later films, which, to a degree, can be seen as one long running gag show, punctuated with silly plot asides, like the films stolen necklace and wan musical interludes. Yet, The Cocoanuts kicked off the whole Marx schtick, even if it is rough, and at times there are snippets of stray dialogue that was not supposed to be in the plot, or one of the boys looking at the wrong camera, or other actors deliberately speaking into hidden microphones, or extras who mug for the camera, but it is still chock with some classic gags and lines.
The DVD, part of The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Edition from Universal Pictures, is in horrendous shape. Released only a couple of years ago, the studio should hang its head in shame, especially considering the fact that far less well-financed DVD companies like The Criterion Collection and Anchor Bay have set a high standard, by doing pristine releases of obscure films with far less resources, including having worthwhile extras. Parts of The Cocoanuts are manifestly culled from inferior reels, with blurred images and no tonality, and atrocious sound quality, and even those parts of the film from better reels are laden with dust and scratches. There are twenty year old VHS tapes in better condition, and Universal should be condemned for a) not using computer technology to refurbish the print and b) having only a few paltry extras on a 6th disk for this set. Its artistically criminal that such a milestone film should not have a film critic nor historian of note commenting on the film and the gags.
Groucho plays Mr. Hammer, the shady proprietor of a failing
Groucho: Now here is a little peninsula, and here is a viaduct leading over to the mainland.
Groucho: You try and cross over there on a chicken and youll find out why a duck!
Others include Groucho giving a history lesson:
You all know who
Groucho always gets the best lines, and does
the most with them. His scene of professed love to Margaret Dumont, where he swoons over
coming home from a hard days work to her as a waiting wife, of course, gives way to
a revision with him as the waiting husband with her coming home from work. Only Groucho
could have pulled off such a scene without turning off the audience, and his likeability
as a cad is what propelled the film to great heights, critically and financially, and made
the brothers stars, whereas most of the routines where Harpo and Chico play off of each
other is time worn schtick that isnt even up to the typical gags the Three Stooges
The Cocoanuts is a crude but effective comedy, but without Groucho, it would have been long forgotten. The third or more of the film that is wholly dependent upon his presence is the film's backbone, and clearly all the boys later producers recognized this fact, if not in the boys salaries, certainly in screen time and billing, for Groucho Marx was the Marx Brothers. The others were merely his foils and the props that Groucho used to climb to superstardom. To deny that reality is to miss out on why the Marx Brothers are still relevant, for it is Grouchos sexual innuendoes and political jabbery that still appeal to viewers today, long after Harpos inane mugging and Chicos now often cringe-inducing ethnic humor has fallen to disrepute. Fortunately, The Cocoanuts highlighted the right brother, and the world of film comedy has had no reason to cringe since.
- Dan Schneider