Appellate Judge James A. Stewart likes cocoa, but he's very sane about it.
"What is the first number?"
The Marx Brothers' first feature-length movie wasn't called Number One, although that would have made it easier for viewers. The Cocoanuts is a musical with music by Irving Berlin and book by George S. Kaufman that followed The Marx Brothers from stage to screen in the early days of talkies. I can't say any of the songs were unforgettable, but it has lots of dance numbers, so much so that two troupes—the Gamby-Hale Girls and the Allan K. Foster Girls—were cast.
Facts of the Case
Hammer (Groucho Marx, Duck Soup) is running a Florida hotel, at least until he can sell the place and run away. Among the guests are young lovers Bob (Oscar Shaw, Upstage) and Polly (Mary Eaton, Glorifying the American Girl), thieves Yates (Cyril Ring, Monkey Business) and Penelope (Kay Francis, Another Dawn), rich Mrs. Potter (Margaret Dumont, A Night at the Opera), and two petty criminals played by Harpo and Chico Marx. Somewhere among the guests, there's a stolen diamond necklace.
Even though there's a plot that mixes romance and burglary, Groucho's flair for one-liners ("Money will never make you happy, and happy will never make you money"), Chico's slow-wittedness ("Why a duck?"), and Harpo's just plain strangeness (he eats flowers and a telephone) are all in evidence, as is Zeppo's blandness in the role of a desk clerk. Harpo does his standard woman-chasing bit, trying to pursue a dozen female bellhops at once, but also gets a tender moment comforting a crying woman. It's no surprise The Cocoanuts launched The Marx Brothers' film career.
In the plot, The Marx Brothers are helping Polly Potter and Bob Adams get together, over the disapproval of Polly's mother. Mary Eaton seems likable enough as the female lead, but Oscar Shaw makes a dull leading man. Kay Francis as the villainous diamond thief and Basil Ruysdael (Blackboard Jungle) as a police inspector seem to be the liveliest of the cast members who aren't surnamed Marx. In fact, Ruysdael gets a great scene late in the film doing some operetta-style singing over a stolen shirt.
The Cocoanuts tends to feel like a stage musical, particularly in a farcical scene with characters running around two hotel rooms, slamming doors. There isn't much singing, but those two dance troupes get to spontaneously start dancing…a lot. An aerial camera view of a balletic dance number pops up, apparently just to do something you couldn't see on stage.
The 1.33:1 full frame transfer is watchable, but not great. Lines, spots, and flickering are seen often, and a couple of scenes looked worse than the rest of the film, as if they'd been cut and reinserted from a more decrepit print. I also noticed a couple of drops in the sound, but nothing major.
There are no extras, not even a worn-out trailer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Marx Brothers didn't take over this one. You'll be seeing a lot of actors who are forgotten today, while the song and dance and other musical interludes (including Harpo playing the harp) take up much of the running time. Thus, the comic pace is the slowest of The Marx Brothers films. While the boys began their careers with this one, I'd recommend it primarily to fans who've already seen a few of their films.
While The Cocoanuts is a fine debut for The Marx Brothers, make no mistake…this is a musical romance. If you like a little song and dance, that's icing on the cake.
Not guilty, even if they didn't think ahead enough to name it Number
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