[To read Part One of this essay, click here. For Part Two, here.]
From Stage To Screen
After the success of I'll Say She Is!, the Marx Brothers had no shortage of producers willing to back their next Broadway show. They chose, however, the one producer who didn't come calling. Sam H. Harris was one of Broadway's most successful producers, with songwriters George M. Cohan and Irving Berlin in his stable and award-winning playwright George S. Kaufman recently put under contract.
With half a dozen hits in five years, Kaufman was one of the leading young playwrights working on Broadway and his quick wit turned out to be a perfect fit for Groucho, who years later referred to Kaufman as "his God." (He later went on to win two Pulitzer Prizes.) Kaufman built the play around the then-ongoing real estate boom in Florida and those of you familiar with the movie know the basic plot—with the help of a couple of disreputable guests (Chico and Harpo), the owner of a ramshackle hotel (Groucho) attempts to con a wealthy society maven (Margaret Dumont) into buying a worthless real estate development. As always, though, the plot of a Marx Brothers production is simply a framework for a lot of gags, and The Cocoanuts featured some of the best of the Brothers' career.
"Think of the opportunities here in Florida. Three years ago, I came to Florida without a nickel in my pocket. Now, I've got a nickel in my pocket."
"That's all very well, Mr. Hammer, but we haven't been paid in two weeks and we want our wages!"
"Wages? Do you want to be wage slaves, answer me that."
"No, of course not. Well, what makes wage slaves? Wages! I want you to be free. Remember, there's nothing like Liberty—except Collier's and The Saturday Evening Post. Be free, my friends. One for all, and all for me, and me for you, and three for five and six for a quarter."
To Kaufman's consternation, the Brothers also tended to ad lib throughout the show—"I think I just heard one of the original lines," he quipped at one performance—and in fact the "why a duck?" sequence evolved from just such an ad lib.
The show also featured an Irving Berlin song score—alas, not one of his best (it was the only show he ever wrote that failed to provide a hit song, although as I explained here, that wasn't necessarily his fault). In fact, the primary differences between the stage and film versions of The Cocoanuts centers on the elimination of many of these musical numbers, including two Groucho songs—"Why Am I A Hit With The Ladies" and a duet with Margaret Dumont called "A Little Bungalow." There was also a "black face" number involving members of the cast other than the Brothers and a subplot involving Harpo's scheme to defraud Dumont.
The Cocoanuts opened on the road in Boston, followed by two weeks in Philadelphia, an out-of-town tryout that revealed serious flaws in the production, not least of which was its gargantuan running time, with shows running well past midnight. After some cuts and restructuring, the show opened on Broadway at the Lyric Theatre on 42nd Street on December 8, 1925. (For those unfamiliar with the precise meaning of the term "Broadway show," the reference is not to a precise street location but to the size of the theater. To be consider a "Broadway" production, the theater must hold at least five hundred patrons. A theater with between 100 and 500 seats is an "off-Broadway" show, and one with fewer than 100 seats is "off-off Broadway.")
The Cocoanuts ran for 377 shows before heading out on the road, a stripped-down production Groucho called "inferior," by which he meant that the chorus girls were neither as pretty nor as willing as their Broadway counterparts. The audiences weren't inferior, though. The road show version of The Cocoanuts was big business, and the Los Angeles opening was attended by the likes of Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and Greta Garbo.
The Cocoa- nuts, by the way, marked the beginning of the end for Zeppo. Where in I'll Say She Is! he was part of the comedy, in Kaufman's new play he was relegated to straight man and occasional crooner. I have heard tell that Zeppo was actually a very funny guy and that from time to time he successfully understudied for Groucho, but the fact that the Brothers let Kaufman stand Zeppo in the corner without protest leads me to believe that either he was never that integral to the act or that he was already tired of performing and was looking forward to the day when he could work behind the scenes. He left the act after Duck Soup in 1933 to become a theatrical agent. A mechanical whiz, Zeppo also invented a watch to monitor the pulse rate of cardiac patients and founded Marman Products Co., which designed and manufactured, among other things, the Marman Twin motorcycle, and the Marman clamp which held the atomic bomb inside the B-29 used on the U.S. raid on Nagasaki.
After the success of The Cocoanuts, Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind set to work on a follow-up, added by songwriters Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmar. Concluding that the Marx Brothers played best as a collision of anarchy with high society, they set the play on Long Island at the estate of a stuffy socialite (Margaret Dumont again). Groucho, as African explorer Jeffrey T. Spaulding, was the guest of honor, with Chico as Emanuel Ravelli and Harpo as The Professor providing the weekend's musical entertainment.
"I used to know a fellow who looked exactly like you by the name of Emanuel Ravelli. Are you his brother?"
"I am Emanuel Ravelli."
"You're Emanuel Ravelli?"
"I am Emanuel Ravelli."
"Well, no wonder you look like him. But I still insist there is a resemblance."
"Heh, heh, he thinks I look alike."
"Well, if you do, it's a tough break for both of you."
The play included some of Groucho's most famous monologues, including a description of his most recent safari ("One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don't know"), a letter to his lawyer, and a spoof of the Eugene O'Neill play Strange Interlude, with Groucho addressing the audience directly.
There are also subplots involving the socialite's daughter, a painter named John Parker and a wealthy art collector who in a previous life was Abie the fish peddler. Unlike the movie version, there is also a journalist character modeled on gossip columnist Walter Winchell, several songs and a final act revolving around a costume party.
The play opened on October 23, 1928, at the Forty-Fourth Street Theatre and played 171 performances. As with its predecessor, Animal Crackers acquired several gags along the way, including this speech which a despondent Groucho ad libbed the night his savings were wiped out by the stock market crash of October 1929:
"Living with your folks. Living with your folks. The beginning of the end. Drab dead yesterdays shutting out beautiful tomorrows. Hideous, stumbling footsteps creaking along the misty corridors of time. And in those corridors I see figures, strange figures, weird figures: Steel 186, Anaconda 74, American Can 138..."
While performing Animal Crackers, the Brothers signed a deal with Paramount Pictures to make a film version of The Cocoanuts. United Artists had first approached the Brothers a year earlier about turning The Cocoanuts into a film (imagine the Marx Brothers and Charlie Chaplin working out of the same studio), but balked at the Brothers' asking price of $75,000 for the film rights. Paramount's Adolph Zukor balked, too, but then found himself upping the offer to $100,000 during dinner with a particularly eloquent Chico.
Actually The Cocoanuts was the Marx Brothers' second film, their first being something called Humor Risk, an attempt at a Chaplinesque "comedy with pathos" which the Brothers filmed in 1921. In it, Harpo played a dapper detective named Watson—according to biographer Kyle Crichton, making "his entrance in a high hat, sliding down a coal chute into the basement"—with Groucho as the villain, Chico his henchman and Zeppo a nightclub owner. Though a couple of reels were completed and exhibited, the film was never completed and was soon after lost, perhaps in a fire set by Groucho himself. Despite later attempts to find the film, including Groucho's offer of $50,000 to anyone who could locate a copy, Humor Risk has never turned up.
Frankly, I'm not sure I can imagine how an act that relied on quick verbal humor and musical interludes could succeed in a silent film. Apparently after one viewing, the Brothers couldn't imagine it either.
In January 1929, with the Brothers still performing Animal Crackers on Broadway every evening, filming of The Cocoanuts began at Paramount's Astoria Studio on Long Island, New York. Paramount's east coast studio had been used for years to film New York-based acts such as W.C. Fields, but it had yet to fully convert to sound (especially sound proofing) when principle photography began and most of the filming took place early in the morning before the noise of traffic made sound recording impossible.
As a finished product, The Cocoanuts suffered from all the problems associated with early sound pictures. Primative sound recording equipment required the camera—and thus the actors—to remain rooted in place, a particular problem for Groucho who had trouble finding his marks anyway. In addition, early microphones picked up sound indiscriminately. To muffle the sound of crinkling paper, every telegram, letter or map you see was soaked in water before each take (there was no muffling the sound of the crew's laughter, however, which ruined many takes).
The initial cut of The Cocoanuts ran nearly two-and-a-half hours, quickly trimmed after a preview to 96 minutes, mostly by dropping musical numbers. The film premiered in New York on May 3, 1929. The Brothers, who were performing down the street in Animal Crackers missed the show, but their mother Minnie was in attendance.
New York's critics were, at best, mixed in their reviews—prompting the Brothers to offer to buy back the negative from Paramount so as with Humor Risk they could burn it—but in the rest of the country, The Cocoanuts was a sensation. Only two years into the sound era, movie audiences had never before seen, or more to the point, heard anything like Groucho's nonstop wordplay, and the film wound up grossing $1.8 million on a budget of $500,000, enough to rank seventh on the year's list of top-grossing films. (Adjusting for differences in ticket prices and the population of the United States, a $1.8 million gross would be something like $103 million today; or looked at another way, the seventh ranked grossing film of 2009, The Twilight Saga: New Moon, grossed nearly $300 million domestically, more than $700 million worldwide. But however you put it, The Cocoanuts was very successful.)
After the success of The Cocoanuts, there was no question that the Marx Brothers would produce a film version of Animal Crackers. Filmed in Queens, New York, production began shortly after the road show in April 1930 and the film premiered at the Rialto in New York City on August 23, 1930. This time the critics were universal in their acclaim and the film grossed $1.5 million on its initial release (ticket prices were falling during the Depression), enough to rank fourth on the year's list of top grossing films.
In technical terms, Animal Crackers is far superior to The Cocoanuts—better sound, better sets, more movement—but where you rank it in the Marx Brothers' oeuvre depends in no small part on what it is you value in a Marx Brothers movie. Animal Crackers is the most quotable of all their films, with every line, particularly those from Groucho's monologues, a winner. And in terms of having worked out in advance what they were going to do, it's the most polished film they made before moving to MGM in 1935—personally, I rank it third behind Duck Soup and A Night At The Opera. But if what you respond to is the sense that anything can happen, as it often did when the Brothers were ad libbing, subverting not only the society the Brothers moved in but the conventions of film itself, then you might find the anarchic quality of their subsequent Paramount era pictures more to your taste—perhaps one of those the Marx Brothers made next, Monkey Business and Horse Feathers.
[To continue to Part Four, click here.]
Postscript: Did you know that color test footage was shot for Animal Crackers, with sixteen seconds being rediscovered in the mid-1990s. Note, there's no sound. That's Harpo sans wig in the bath robe: