Monday, February 19, 2007

The Marx Brothers: Cocoanuts

Needless to say I was a late-comer to the Marx Brothers. I'd always dismissed them as little more than the Three Stooges, who I have never been able to enjoy, partly because they're grotesque and they're lunkheads.

But when I worked at Generation X video I was determined to watch all the Classic films from the top of the shelf to the bottom, and the Marx Brothers were at the top.

The first film I saw was "Room Service," which is pretty awful but started two obsessions in one swoop: the need to find out who this "Ann Miller" person was (pre-nose job, only 15, terrorized by Harpo behind the scenes), and the inkling that there was more to the Marxes than I'd thought. And I was right.

It still amazes me that, by the time their first film had been released, they were already up in years and late in their careers. That film, of course, was "The Cocoanuts," and it stands up both as typical Marx insanity AND an example of Hollywood learning -- from scratch -- how to make a movie with this new sound technology.

Anyway, one great thing about reading "The New Yorker" is finding reviews of films and plays that were written when the films and plays first came out. It was fun reading about "Metropolis" ("gosh it's weird, those Germans are really on to something, it features a sexy robot") and now, on May 28, 1927:
The return engagement is the Marx Brothers in "The Cocoanuts," at the Century. It is now a platitude to say that no intellect has been found profound enough to drain the heady madness of "The Cocoanuts" at a single draught. True, the Florida real-estate theme on which "The Cocoanuts" is built has come to seem like a series of kicks at a pecurliarly destitute cripple, the music has died a little, and the settings and costumes were never much--still, "The Cocoanuts" must be seen again. An arabesque of wisecracking, clowning and satirization, reaching its climax in the immortal viaducts conference, "The Cocoanuts" can be relied on to induce a glorious condition somewhere between vertigo and hysteria.
And yes, from the very beginning (1925) this paper has been full of details about the "Florida real-estate theme." I didn't realize it until now, but "The Cocoanuts" must have been very topical when it first appeared on the stage. In 1927, when the stage show returned to New York, the theme was getting old. By 1929, when the film was actually made, it must have been positively out-of-date.


Anonymous said...

One of the reasons I sometimes don't comment is because I have too much to say. One of these days you and I are going to have to have a Marx Brothers marathon--or a marathon discussion--about Minnie's boys. At any, some spark from your steel off my flint:

1) That must be fun reading the reviews before history has had a chance to cull the classics from the chaff--or in the case of Shawn's New Yorker, when Kael did that all by herself. It's been a long time since I read about the early magazine, but weren't a lot of their writers responsible for some Marx screenplays?--Kaufman I can't remember, but Perelman certainly.

2) After the Florida land boom, there was a later boom in buying California "citrus groves," satirized in W. C. Fields's "It's a Gift." (And then to watch "The Grapes of Wrath"...) And I think a faint whiff of the Florida schemes is in the background of "Glengarry Glen Ross."

3) I wonder what other movies you discovered working through the Classic section. My version of that was the old Clark Theater in downtown Chicago, a revival house that run mini-festivals--Bergman, Eisenstein, Hitchcock, Garbo, and the Marx Bros. Very cheap too--which made it attractive for winos during the winter. Since then, every cold, grey winter afternoon in December carries for me a shiver from the battle on the ice in "Alexander Nevsky."

Professor Eric Adams Wagstaff

Anonymous said...

I am a life long marx brother fan and one of the great joys of the brothers is discovering the lives they led outside the movies. One of my favorite books of all time ironically is "Harpo speaks" harpos autobiography. It deals with the brothers rise to fame egged on by their mon through vaudiville film and stage. The best part is Harpo's life amongst the members of the algonquin round table: alexander wollcott, dorothy parker etc. all early new yorker founders and writers. check out reader book reviews in amazon to understand how amazing th ebok is. Not just a crappy movie star bio book.A moving and entertaining snapshot of a great bygone era

Anonymous said...

I'm up for the Marx Marathon! And I'll admit right off the bat that I like "Go West."

1) I haven't been looking too closely at the magazine's masthead...I don't believe that Kaufman or Perelman are involved by 1927 (if they are, they aren't getting credit) but many of the classic jokesters are writing "burlesques." Robert Benchley and E. B. White (I think?) are regulars, and to be honest they get a bit tiresome...I guess because I'm anxious to read "real news" and "serious fiction," as opposed to another goofy pun-filled story about riding the subway.

2) I suppose this is the time period that the "If you believe that, I've got some land in Florida for you" jokes come from. Certainly the 1925 magazines are packed with advertisments for Florida land opportunities, and by 1927 they've completely vanished. It's something I've never really looked into, and sadly I've never seen any W. C. Fields.

3) Alexander Nevsky is certainly a treat! Most of the cinema reviews are of what I assume to be forgotten fluff..."not another Lillian Gish film, don't even bother seeing it." They've gotten quite excited about "Nanouk of the North" and it's successors ("Chang" and then one set in Africa whose name slips my mind). They're very big on German cinema and Tod Browning. The talkies have yet to come, though they mention some movies with "sound introductions."

Anonymous said...

I've been on the lookout for "Harpo Speaks" for a long time, I'd love to read it! I hear he was the most thoughtful and gentle of the group (even if he DID torture poor Ann Miller) and I had no idea he was part of the Algonquin Round Table.

I'd also like to read some more about Groucho...I'm working my way through his "You Bet Your Life" radio shows and they're extremely funny.

Anonymous said...

Coupla notes:

I like "Go West" too--although I have to admit that it doesn't have a "Tenement Symphony" like "Room Service does (and let me interject for you, "Thank God for that!")

I saw "Go West" at a midnight showing at the University of Chicago in the late 1960s. It might have been the only time and place in history when the following line by Groucho (said during the stagecoach ride) got roars of laughter and applause: "I've never been on a trip like this before."

My favorite line (how they got it past the censors I don't know) is another Grouchoism: "Lulubelle--It's you! I didn't recognize you standing up!"

I never noticed Walter Wolf King's toupee until watching the DVD of the stagecoach ride and the hats gag.

e. quentin quale

(and how did they get that past the censors? "san quentin quail" is a slang synonym for "jailbait")

Adam Thornton said...

It does seem awfully strange that they got those lines past!

I haven't seen "Go West" for years, but I do remember enjoying two scenes in particular: Groucho interrupting Lulubelle's song, and the typical "men in one room, women in the other room with the Marxes" scene.

Oh yes, Room Service's tenement symphony. What the heck?