Though the Marx Brothers made a (now lost) short film in 1921, Humorrisk, their first true film was The Cocoanuts. It premièred 23 May 1929 in NYC, and went into general release on 3 August. Typical of their Paramount films, the plot is rather thin and ramshackle. It’s just a vehicle for their zany, anarchic brand of comedy.
Like most early talkies, there were a lot of technological drawbacks. However, to its advantage, The Cocoanuts, like their other early films, was based on a stage play. It works for the action to be limited to a few sets without a lot of movement from the camera.
In the very early sound era, with a few notable exceptions, cameras couldn’t move very far, and microphones had to stay as close to the actors as possible. Because these microphones picked up every little sound, all the paper used in The Cocoanuts had to be soaked in water to avoid rustling.
A longer transitional period could’ve worked out these technological kinks, but people were so eager to play with the shiny new toy, they didn’t care about anything but the excitement of sound cinema.
During the Florida land boom of the 1920s, Mr. Hammer (Groucho) and his assistant Jamison (Zeppo) manage the Hotel de Cocoanut as ineptly as you can imagine. Mr. Hammer hasn’t paid his employees for two weeks, and Jamison prefers to sleep at the front desk.
Wealthy guest Mrs. Potter (Margaret Dumont) is keen for her daughter Polly (Mary Eaton) to marry Harvey Yates (Cyril Ring), whom she believes will give Polly a big step up the social ladder. Polly, however, prefers struggling architect Bob Adams (Oscar Shaw), who works as a hotel clerk and dreams of turning the entire area into Cocoanut Manor.
Predictably, Yates is a conman scheming to steal Mrs. Potter’s diamond necklace, with assistance from his girlfriend Penelope (Kay Francis).
Two more conmen, Chico and Harpo, presently arrive, with plans to fill their empty suitcases by robbing and tricking the other guests. Also predictably, they drive Mr. Hammer, the employees, and the other guests crazy with their wacky antics.
Penelope realizes these guys are total dopes, and hatches a plan for them to take the fall for the theft of Mrs. Potter’s necklace.
Another predictable plot development is Mr. Hammer’s attempted wooing of Mrs. Potter.
Harpo is invited into Penelope’s room, and hides under her bed when Yates visits. He overhears them discussing their scheme, and holds out his hat to catch an incriminating note Penelope drops.
Penelope and Mrs. Potter, whose rooms are connected by a door, are quite bemused at Mr. Hammer, Harpo, and Chico running in and out. During this whirlwind back and forth, Penelope goes into Mrs. Potter’s room and steals the necklace.
Mr. Hammer tells Chico about his plans for a Cocoanut Manor auction, during which Mrs. Potter announces her necklace was stolen and offers a thousand-dollar reward.
Harpo presently produces the necklace, to Mrs. Potter’s great gratitude. A detective blames Bob, which spurs Penelope on to spin a wild fish story corroborating the accusation. Mrs. Potter believes Bob is guilty, but Polly believes in his innocence.
The situation worsens when Mrs. Potter orders Polly to stay away from Bob, and announces Polly’s engagement to Yates. Now it’s up to Harpo and Chico to get Bob out of jail and prove his innocence.
Typical of early talkies, there are a lot of musical and dance numbers. They feel kind of pointless and space-filling, much like the musical performances cluttering up the later MGM films. We can understand the story perfectly well without these interruptions! Seriously, you can skip all of them and not miss anything.
The film was shot at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, where follow-up Animal Crackers was also shot. Paramount moved all their production to Hollywood in 1932.
The Marxes were horrorstruck by the final cut, so much so they tried to buy back the negative. Paramount refused, and released the film to great critical success. It earned $1,800,000 gross ($26,962,421 today) and was one of the most successful early talkies.
Reviews were mostly positive, esp. regarding the Marxes. The other parts of the film garnered more mixed reactions. They felt the romantic subplot and musical performances were pointless. Critics also mentioned poor audio quality in spots and poorly-filmed dance sequences.
The audiovisual issues were finally corrected in a long overdue 2016 remastering of the Paramount films. The original 2004 boxed set was just embarrassing!