Mrs. Potter: I don’t think you’d love me if I were poor.
Groucho Marx: I might, but I’d keep my mouth shut.
Anarchy at the Cocoanut Hotel
One of the awkward inconveniences the Marx Brothers faced when starting out in the movie business was trying to coherently integrate their nonsensical comedy into a narrative format. In fact, they faced many drawbacks and ran into many obstacles, not only with the primitive and rigid limitations of the fledgling sound medium but also with the incompatibility that many of their anarchic gags had with a restricted and cumbersome new cinema. Still, I’m not sure how compatible silent cinema would have been with their subversive comedy routines that belonged more to the vaudeville milieu. You see, the Marx Brothers have no discernible influences from my perspective. They are eclectic entertainers who recycle slapstick with a quite quirky and modern humor, unique in style and controversial in essence.
Groucho Marx is the most verbose and quick-witted of all his brothers. Harpo is the funniest and craziest. Chico is a freakish conjunction of the two previous ones. And Zeppo, well, he’s just Zeppo. Their successful Broadway shows are based on a satire of American society, a riotous spectacle of disruptive physical comedy. However, there is something we can unequivocally specify, something that distinguishes them physically and metaphysically, in soul and body: the burlesque style they opt for is fiercely anarchic. Consequently, many of their gags are slightly reminiscent of the popular period of the fast-paced, frenetic one-reel or two-reel comedies of the 1910s. Still, the idiosyncrasies of the Marx Brothers are unclassifiable as they are unfathomable to categorize; they are so diverse in their insubordinate multifaceted gifts. Having said that, it is intuitive to understand that “fast and wild” is not at all reciprocal with the filmmaking methodology of early talkies.
In 1929, the Marx Brothers made their first film with Paramount Pictures, with which they signed a contract that would end with their greatest masterpiece, the boisterously groovy Duck Soup (1933). Fundamentally, I would dare to say that the Marx Brothers’ first film is a rehearsal, a failed experiment that attempts to reciprocate Marxian comedy with the audiovisual medium. Later it would be demonstrated -as with many of their films of the 30’s- that this so called failed experiment turned out to be more than beneficial; because evidently, in many of their subsequent films it would be proved that the Marx Brothers’ comedy could be effectively adapted to the medium. Thus, to be strictly critical about The Cocoanuts is inconsequential.
I really think this film is an interesting relic, beyond its palpable flaws as both a work of cinema and a work of the Marx Brothers. Like many of its contemporaries, this film suffered the disadvantages of the advent of the new sound technology in the medium. The early years of sound film illustrate the dire regression that cinema suffered from the addition of sound to a medium that relied on its visuals alone. The camera here is infuriatingly clumsy and static, the mise-en-scène feels inhibited and the editing annoyingly catatonic. While these shortcomings inherent in the constraints of the early days of sound synchronization are conspicuous, there are many, many aspects to note that make the Marx Brothers’ first film an essential curiosity.
In short, the story is dissected as follows: Groucho runs a hotel in which an endless number of subplots take place. The romance of a millionaire woman’s daughter with an architect, the furtive theft of an extravagant necklace, a crazy auction, and in the midst of all these events coexisting in the same absurdity, Harpo and Chico unleash chaos whenever they can, that is, every time. To capitalize on the success of the musical trend in the industry, the film is replete with flamboyant musical numbers. With these incongruous elements The Cocoanuts unfolds and evolves into a riveting mayhem. Ostensibly, the absence of a cohesive narrative makes the film more of a motley collection of gags than a film in and of itself. As I’ve been stating since the beginning, the Marx Brothers’ irreverent humor collides with the logic of a dramatic storytelling, leaving gaps of incoherence and counterproductive unintelligible slapstick. These blatant and outrageous errors slow down the film making it a sluggish descent into lunacy for two reasons: for its soporific and unnecessary length and for its irrational beauty. As you can tell from my literary expressions, this is a film I enjoy more for what it could have been than for what it is. Groucho is phenomenal with his rapid-fire humor and loquacious verve, yet the dearth of dramatic utterance from the camera and the deadpan languor of a sterile mise-en-scene trivializes the monumentality of the comedy. It downplays it in a nutshell.
The criminally underrated Robert Florey, a specialist in avant-garde arts and cinematic Europeanisms, co-directs this film with Joseph Santley. Tragically, neither can show off their talents for the reasons already mentioned above ad nauseam. Nevertheless, I would like to point out that there are two sections in the film that I find sublimely directed. The first is just after the opening credits, where we see a ridiculous sequence on a studio-built artificial beach. The second is almost by the final acts, in a bombastic celebration at the hotel. In these two sequences, there are two musical acts with kaleidoscopic choreographies, very harmonious and contemplative; but what should be emphasized here is the classy compositional system chosen by Florey and Santley. In a highly sophisticated optical language -mostly staged in depth- the musicality of the sequence is framed with perfectly coordinated movements and geometrically sharp camera angles to evoke the theatricality of such a spectacular moment. It is sensual and festive.
The creativity of the Marx Brothers is so colossal, that sometimes even with the operational and technical deficiencies, it is not ruined. Just position a camera in a full shot capturing the goofy mannerisms of these talented brothers and presto, you have an extraordinarily amusing scene. The Cocoanuts has plenty of those scenes, but they wear thin quickly when the pacing becomes erratic, and the comedic iteration becomes tedious. While I still believe this is an objectively flawed film, I have immense respect for it for what it represents. This is the picture that showed the Marx Brothers to the world, transcending the ordinariness of vaudeville and moving into the universality of cinema. It is a prelude to their magnificent works that would see the light of day just a few years later, when the audiovisual medium was established with better technology and greater sophistication in its experimental language.