Sunday, September 6, 2009

Best Fun-Stupid Movie Of 1929-30: The Cocoanuts

My choice for the best Fun-Stupid movie of 1929-30 is a pretty easy one: the first Marx Brothers movie ever and one of their best, The Cocoanuts.

For the "Why A Duck" routine alone it would be a must-see.

As good as it is, it's hard to imagine now the impact it had on audiences of the day. This being a very early sound picture, it's safe to say no one had ever seen (or heard) such a display of verbal wit on the big screen before. The resulting movie was a tremendous hit, one of the biggest of the Marx Brothers' career.

The story, as if it matters, revolves around an incompetent hotel owner and a crooked land deal, but in fact, the plot is just an excuse for Groucho Marx to torment Margaret Dumont and for Chico and Harpo to torment Groucho. Throw in some songs and a romance between two people you couldn't care less about, and you've pretty much described the plot of every Marx Brothers movie ever made.

But as Roger Ebert often points out, you don't judge a movie based on what it's about but on how it goes about it. And the Marx Brothers go about it here as well as they ever went about anything in their career.

I have to admit, this represents an evolution of my opinion of The Cocoanuts. Being a rather conventional person, I had always subscribed to the conventional wisdom that the Marx Brothers started well but steadily improved and peaked somewhere around 1933-35 with Duck Soup and A Night At The Opera. I had always thought of The Cocoanuts, being the first Marx Brothers movie, as essential for a devoted fan such as myself, but a bit too saddled with plot and minor characters to recommend to the first timer or casual fan.

But in working on this blog, I've now re-watched the movie two or three times, and I have to say, I've now come around to the notion that The Cocoanuts is up there with Animal Crackers, Duck Soup and A Night At The Opera. Because they first performed most of this on stage (only the scenes where Harpo eats a phone and a flower were new), the comedy is the most polished of the entire Marx Brothers' oeuvre. Yes, there's too much plot and too many non-Marx Brothers moments, but when it's good, it really is great.

Question: While researching the Marx Brothers, I read the following statement at a website called "The Golden Age of Hollywood": "Zeppo, the youngest brother was considered the funniest offscreen but played a bland, juvenile straight man onscreen." It's not an unheard of phenomenon—for example I am brilliantly witty on the printed page, as you well know, but mind-numbingly dull in person—and it's possible that while Zeppo was undisputedly bland on screen, he was a hoot off it. Does anybody know? I encourage those readers who have read more about the Marx Brothers than I evidently have to leave a comment confirming or denying the assertion that Zeppo was "the funniest offscreen."


Who Am Us Anyway? said...

As someone who most definitely has not read more about the Marx Brothers than you – and probably has not read more about anything than you with the remotely possible exception of yellowed rock ‘n roll magazines of yore – all I can say is Zeppo’s scenes are indispensable.

They slow everything down, & just when you need it, both so that one can recover from Groucho and also so that when he cuts loose again the speed of the jokes will feel all the more incredible.

As a sincere aside, let me just mention that I am so very glad Mr. Mule turned me onto your blog. Your place has been a great attitude adjuster more times than I can count – if I come in stressed, I leave smiling (unless your entry is about poor Marie Prevost, in which case I am just sobered -- also a good thing to occasionally be).

mister muleboy said...

mister myth, as you are aware, I have always ranked this film *very* highly in the ouevre o' the brothers. It has placed second behind Duck Soup on my list.

I find it more madcap and lyrical than almost any of their other films -- there's little surreal or outre, just the funniest nonsense and idiocy [high praise indeed, coming from me] I can imagine.

I have a soft spot for Animal Crackers, and the set pieces featuring the brothers in A Night at the Opera remain classics, but this one touches my funny bone and m' heart.

Where are the pictures of Louise Brooks I was supposed to see? Is that Don on the phone. . . ?

Mister S. said...

The assertion that Zeppo was the funniest brother offscreen seems to originate from Groucho. While the Marx Brothers were appearing in Animal Crackers on stage, Groucho had appendicitis and was out of the show for two weeks. Zeppo went on in Groucho's role, and an understudy went on for Zeppo. Groucho reportedly told others that Zeppo was better in the role than he was. There's also a story (apocryphal, perhaps) that there's a scene in the film version of Animal Crackers (where the lights go out) in which Zeppo is actually playing Groucho's part.

Mythical Monkey said...

Wow, Mister S, I had no idea. Makes you wonder why the Marx Brothers' wasted Zeppo on nothing parts over the years ...

mister muleboy said...

Makes you wonder why the Marx Brothers' wasted Zeppo on nothing parts over the years ...

Zeppo was ann early-talkies version of Beefcake.

You know, Tom Selleck for the black-and-white world.

mister muleboy said...

[tapping foot whilst awaiting photos of Louise Brooks. . . .]


Who Am Us Anyway? said...

Here’s what’s bugging me. As far as I can tell, not one person in this film’s credits is actually British. So what the hell was Nilsson getting at when he said: “So let me get this straight: You put the limey in The Coconauts and then you’ll feel better”? I don’t see why getting a brit involved would have improved anything. If it aint broke don’t fix it, I say.

Unknown said...

I recently heard an interview with Harpo's son, Bill, and he said that Zeppo was very funny offscreen.

Follow this link to more info on Zeppo.