The Set of 400: #261 – My Favorite Viaduct

Today! Because I’ve got a waiting list of fifty people at that cemetery just dying to get in. But I like you and I’m gonna shove you in ahead of all of them –

The Cocoanuts (1929)

Directed by Robert Florey and Joseph Santley

Starring Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx, Zeppo Marx, Margaret Dumont, Oscar Shaw, Mary Eaton, Cyril Ring, Kay Francis

The second oldest movie on this list, The Cocoanuts comes off as the worst, physically, due to the limitations of 1929 filmmaking. The advent of sound two years before afforded the Marx Brothers the chance to jump into motion pictures – too much of their comedy is wordplay to have functioned well in silents (And yet, their early lost silent short Humor Risk continues to fascinate with possibilities – if you’re harboring a copy, speak up!). However, the microphones in ’29 weren’t the greatest, so the movie does have an overall rickety feel that can be a bit distracting. Sopping wet papers are visible throughout the film, to dampen the crinkling being picked up by their super sensitive equipment, but that doesn’t help the other violent static and unintentional footstepping picked up. Also, technically, there is no known complete version of the film – what exists is a somewhat cobbled together assemblage of footage that runs fully seven minutes shorter than the purported original release.

There is still plenty of classic Marx Brothering going on

But these really are minor issues, only noticeable here and there. Cocoanuts was a rock solid Broadway smash for the brothers in ’25/’26, and a natural choice for their first film. Their characters were long established by years and years of vaudeville, followed by dynamite success on the Great White Way. They were performing in their follow-up, Animal Crackers, on stage nightly, while filming Cocoanuts at Paramount’s Astoria Studios in Queens during the day (purportedly the morning, to cut down on outside traffic noise). And the movie proved a strong hit as well, beginning their transition off the stage to full-time Hollywood stars.

It’s not all choreography, but the stage bits did translate almost intact

And while many of the early Marx vehicles have a bit of a joke-machine quality to them – the plots only becoming remotely important incrementally as the years went on – it still makes for a very funny picture. Cocoanuts, I’ve found in my experience as a Marx fan, is one that doesn’t get talked about a lot, from the group of their early pictures. Maybe it’s the overt staginess of the production? Animal Crackers is very stagey too, but that movie is a lot more iconic in the characters and songs than Cocoanuts. Is it really the physical quality of the film? I like to think it’s just that the next group of movies rapidly improved, as they managed to figure out how their comedy could best work on screen. Nonetheless, lots of good gags in Cocoanuts – the most famous routine probably being Groucho and Chico’s “Why a Duck?”, plus the first list appearances of longtime Marx foil Margaret Dumont, and quick to exit the act (after years on stage, too), youngest brother Zeppo!

The Cocoanuts made the long list for the AFI’s Top 100 Comedies in 2000, but otherwise has remarkably few awards to go along with its mountain of Pre-Stock Market Crash dough. Not even a nod for Best Edible Telephone? For shame!

Brothers Leonard, Arthur, and Julius (arranged by age) enter the Two-Timers club, following their roles in Go West, and keep that leg up on poor kid brother Herbert!

Chico, Harpo, Groucho, and Zeppo

Coming tomorrow! A man can convince anyone he’s somebody else, but never himself –

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