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 team’s 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.
It’s 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 team’s 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 Americana- that most difficult of bows, was Groucho?
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 film’s 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. It’s 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 Florida hotel, Hotel de Cocoanut, during the 1929 Florida land boom, which preceded the stock market crash. His hotel is in shambles and his staff is demanding pay. When Groucho cons them into not being "wage slaves" they break into song and dance. Margaret Dumont makes her debut as Groucho’s eternal love interest and foil, the (of course) wealthy widow Mrs. Potter, and she is staying at the hotel with her comely young daughter Polly, played by Mary Eaton, who is in love with a (really not so) young architect, Bob Adams, played by Oscar Shaw. Both are woefully miscast and consistently butcher Berlin’s songs, but a better faring couple, played by Kay Francis and Cyril Ring, are the film’s bad guys, who plot to steal Dumont’s $100,000 necklace. It’s all pretty silly and harmless, and just a thread to hang the brothers’ gags upon, but it works more often than not. Basil Ruysdael plays the local detective, but, of course, it is the brothers, mainly Harpo and Chico, who foil the bad guys and save the day, while Groucho keeps the film rolling in hilarious scene after scene. There’s little drama or suspense, but such is superfluous when the gags keep coming. Some of the classics include the Why A Duck? bit:
Groucho: Now here is a little peninsula, and here is a viaduct leading over to the mainland.
Chico: Why a duck? Why-a no chicken?
Groucho: You try and cross over there on a chicken and you’ll find out why a duck!
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 day’s 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 isn’t even up to the typical gags the Three Stooges used.
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 Groucho’s sexual innuendoes and political jabbery that still appeal to viewers today, long after Harpo’s inane mugging and Chico’s 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.