In 1929, Paramount Studios signed Broadway stars The Marx Brothers (Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo) to recreate their hit musical comedy The Cocoanuts as a talking motion picture. As the brothers were currently appearing on Broadway in their follow-up stage hit Animal Crackers, they arrived each morning at Paramount’s studio in Astoria, Long Island City, New York to film The Cocoanuts and returned to Broadway each night to act in Animal Crackers. While not the first Hollywood musical to be filmed in the talkie era, The Cocoanuts is certainly one of the earliest Broadway musicals to be transferred from the stage to the screen.
Viewed today, The Cocoanuts can be a fascinating and frustrating experience. The Marx Brothers themselves are not always at the top of their game, which is to be expected considering they were working a cross-town double-shift each day. Groucho’s normally firecracker delivery of wise cracks is sometimes hesitant, while Chico has a scene late in the film where it is obvious he has nearly completely forgotten his lines. The silent brother Harpo suffers no such trouble and shines throughout, and the youngest brother Zeppo is barely in the film at all. Despite halting deliveries by Groucho and forgotten lines by Chico, most of the comedy routines are still funny, from hotel manager Groucho wooing rich widow Margaret Dumont, to Chico getting stuck on the word ‘viaduct’ (‘Why a duck? Why-a no chicken?’), to a dinner party finale where Harpo gets increasingly drunk while Groucho offers one nonsensical anecdote after another to confused party guests.
While directors Robert Florey and Joseph Santley filmed much of The Cocoanuts as if they were merely putting the play on film, they did manage a few remarkably artful shots for an early talkie. Most stunning of all may be a kaleidoscopic overhead view of a group of dancers that predates similar shots by Busby Berkeley by at least a year.
Weighed down by too much music (albeit music written by Irving Berlin) and too many slow scenes that don’t include the comedians, The Cocoanuts still holds up as a good showcase for the lunacy that The Marx Brothers - Groucho, Harpo and Chico - brought to the movies.