(WARNING: Spoilers abound!)
If you go back to the first movies of comedians you’ve loved, the debuts might not be as great as the later movies, but you can still see how they became stars. In their first real movie as a team, Duck Soup (not the Marx Bros. one), Laurel and Hardy look rough around the edges, but they’re still the familiar Stan and Ollie. Kid Auto Races at Venice looks like a home movie, but Charlie Chaplin, in his first appearance in the Tramp outfit, wins you over by sheer force of personality. On the other hand, when you watch The Cocoanuts, you’ll either pinch yourself to keep from falling asleep or stare wide-eyed at the Marxes’ housebroken versions of their later, more wacko personas.
The Cocoanuts is reported to have been a satire of the 1925 Florida land boom, but only one scene actually relates to that scenario, and the satire in this scene is as curdled as old milk. Most of the action occurs around the Florida hotel where Mr. Hammer (Groucho) is manager, but his behavior is strangely self-defeating. He bemoans the lack of hotel guests, but whenever one of the current guests phones him at the lobby to request something for their room, Hammer puts them off with some stupid wisecrack that seems guaranteed to soon make them pack up and leave.
About the only people he manages to subdue are the bellhops who, in Groucho’s opening scene, haven’t been paid for two weeks and demand their salaries from him. Groucho makes a weak speech that boils down to, If you ever flirted with socialism, you might as well go whole-hog on it now because I have no intention of paying you. And the bellboys shut right up. Somebody at Paramount got it wrong–these are the Marxes that do comedy, not Communist speeches.
Those bellboys are a tad ambivalent, by the way. Although there’s no mistaking them for males, Groucho constantly refers to them as “boys” in his intro speech, but then when all of them are accosted by Harpo later, he chases them just as he usually chases girls. This can’t be a subtext that anyone truly intended for the movie.
But then, ambivalence seems the order of the day here. As male love interest Bob Adams, Oscar Shaw has lips as bee-stung, and carriage as fey, as any ’20s flapper. As Bob’s girlfriend Polly, Mary Eaton has a painfully prolonged dance number (titled, I kid you not, “The Monkey-Doodle-Doo”) that features many ant’s-eye-view camera shots of her dress swirling long enough to get a pretty clear assessment of her panties.
Most unforgivable of all is Margaret Dumont as Mrs. Potter, Polly’s mother. Mrs. P. disapproves of Bob because he’s not in the same social class as Polly, and her insistent demand that Polly marry a nearby rich guy (and not caring in the least whether or not Polly even likes it) is just this side of pimping.
If this sexual deconstruction of the movie seems a bit protracted, that’s only because nothing else of interest is going on in the movie. The Marx Brothers do some things that could have turned out pretty funny if only the pacing had been goosed up a bit, but since it’s an early talkie, it’s all the cameramen could do to keep the Marxes in the shot. Legend has it that the reason the Marxes’ Broadway shows had romantic relief to start with was because the Marxes were so anarchic, they needed more “normal” characters to offset their insanity. Here, their insanity is so offset that they hardly get to even do any comedy.
Legend also tells us that Irving Berlin, who wrote the show’s songs, despaired about not having a hit number for Cocoanuts. But it sure wasn’t for lack of trying. His song “The Skies Will All Be Blue When My Dream Comes True” gets repeated a few thousand times in the movie, even gumming up Harpo’s first movie-harp scene.
The Cocoanuts only proves that the Marx Brothers’ insanity is pointless without something to get insane about. You’d think sparks would fly when Groucho tries to woo Margaret Dumont in their first movie together. But the movie fails to either (a) connect Hammer’s wooing to the fact that he needs Mrs. Potter’s money to keep his hotel afloat, or (b) doesn’t even try to get Groucho to score points off of Mrs. Potter’s trying to pimp her daughter. (Indeed, it’s Hammer who caters Polly’s engagement party, which comedically bites the dust right after the Marxes make their entrance in funny costumes.)
It’s reported that when the Marx Brothers saw this movie version of their hit Broadway show, they were so appalled that they tried to buy the movie’s negative so that they could burn it. Happily, it still exists, if only for the pleasure of having future generations of film critics express their wish that the Marx Brothers should have burned the negative.