The Coconuts began its life as a Broadway musical comedy. Written by George S. Kaufman with music by Irving Berlin, it was the Marx Brothers second appearance on Broadway, the first being a musical revue called, I’ll Say She Is. According to the IBDB, The Coconuts opened in late December 1925 and closed in August of the following year. A revival opened in May 1927 and ran for a successful one year. Before being cemented forever on celluloid, Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo would do one more play, Animal Crackers, which would become their second film.
Though set in Southern Florida, the film was shot in New York at the Astoria Studios. It’s interesting to note a few things that make this film different from the Marx Brothers later Paramount films. First and foremost, the Brothers are part of an ensemble cast. Second, The Coconuts contains more musical numbers than their other Paramount films forecasting their future with MGM. It’s also has the distinction of being the only film with Irving Berlin music that did not result in a hit song for the songwriter.
In the 1920’s through a series of questionable laws, questionable loans and a lot of shady characters, Florida became a haven for selling useless land to suckers thinking they were going to get rich quick. Sight unseen, out of state “investors” were buying land, causing property values to inflate with promises of big money to come. That much of the land sold turned out to be in the swamps didn’t seem to matter. The land boom began in South Florida but would eventually spread across the state as financially well off northerners kept arriving with money falling out of their pockets.
The first film that I am aware of to tackle the crooked Florida land boom came out in 1926. It was a silent flick called The New Klondike and dealt with, as expected, a bunch of Florida con artists selling worthless land to unsuspecting out-of-state suckers. Now with the help of George S. Kaufman, the Marx Brothers took on the occasion with their film debut to satirize the insanity.
The play was a huge hit, both on Broadway and on the road. The Brothers were uncontrollable on stage, both ad-libbing as well as adding and changing physical bits all the time. The film itself is filled with wonderful bits, however, in between there are some painstaking dull musical numbers and a just as dull romantic sub plot. These were just the kind of things the remaining Paramount films happily avoided but were reinserted after the team moved to MGM under Irving Thalberg. The film is also hindered by the large noisy sound cameras which due to their size left the film static; a problem in many early sound films.
Despite these impediments the highlights are still plenty. The standouts are Groucho’s nonsensical, yet weirdly sometimes making some sort of sense, word play that runs amok. Groucho is the owner/manager of a failing hotel in South Florida. He has little concern for his staff or his guests especially Margaret Dumont’s stuffy Mrs. Potter. Dumont was in her first of seven films with the comedy team.(1) As in all her films with the boys, Dumont’s character is unaffected by the continuous barrage of jokes and insults hurled at her expense. Through it all, she remains her stuffy, dignified, high minded self. As in future films, Groucho ‘romances’ her with a stream of shady come-on’s.
“Just think – tonight, tonight when the moon is sneaking around the clouds I’ll be sneaking around you. I’ll meet you tonight under the moon. Oh, I can see it now – you and the moon. Wear a neck-tie so I’ll know you.”
Being in debt, much of Groucho’s seductive motives toward Mrs. Potter are purely money oriented. “You’ve got money, haven’t you? If not, we can quit right now!”
Groucho also spends part of the film attempting to convince his staff they do not want to be paid a salary. He preaches, “Wages? Do you want to be wage slaves? Answer me that! No, of course not. But what makes wage slaves? Wages!”
The rest of the time is spent attempting to sell off worthless land. He tells Mrs. Potter…
“Do you know that property values have increased since 1929 one thousand per cent? Do you know that this is the biggest development since Sophie Tucker? Do you know that Florida is the show spot of America and Cocoanut Manor the black spot of Florida?”
While holding an auction his doubletalk goes full speed ahead. As he explains the land is “the most exclusive district in Florida. Nobody lives there!” He goes on, “you can have any kind of home you want. You can even have stucco. Oh how, you can get stuck-oh!”
In still another scene he attempts to sell Chico some land but Chico gets the best of him.
Groucho: Do you know what a lot is?”
Chico: “Yeah, too much.”
Groucho: I don’t mean a whole lot. Just a little lot with nothing on it.
Chico: Any time you gotta too much, you gotta whole lot. Look, I’ll explain it to you. Some time you no gotta much; sometimes you gotta whole lot. You know that it’s a lot. Somebody else maybe thinka it’s too much; it’s a whole lot, too. Now, a whole lot is too much; too much is a whole lot; same thing.”
Groucho: “The next time I see you, remind not to talk to you, will you?”
In between all this mayhem are the musical numbers which, as I mentioned, are rather laborious. However, there is one number toward the end that is reminiscent of Busby Berkeley’s stylish chorography. Photographed from high above, the female dancers are in a circular pattern and “open up” like a flower blooming. This was all done prior to Berkeley’s screen career as a director and choreographer began by at least one year. Mary Eaton and Oscar Shaw co-star as the ingénues. The cast also includes Kay Francis and Cyril Ring as two shady characters.
The film was co-directed by Robert Florey and Joseph Santley. It’s been written that Groucho did not think either of them “got” the Marxist sort of comedy. Groucho once said, “One didn’t understand English and the other didn’t understand Harpo.”
In the following four Paramount films, the musical numbers were dumped, replaced by satirical songs like Whatever It Is, I’m Against It, as was the ingénue romance sub plots making for a funnier, unfiltered, anarchistic, anti-everything comedy. Pure Marxmania.
(1) Margaret Dumont also appeared in the Broadway production of The Coconuts.