Marx Brothers Go Coconuts

1929 cocoanuts 2The 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. Continue reading

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Horse Feathers (1932) Norman Z. McLeod

For The Marx Brothers the world and everyone in it is a target for ridicule. It makes no difference what ones position is in life: politician, policeman, intellectual, thug, society matron or bimbo, all are treated with equal irrelevance. No one is immune, all are exploited as asinine know nothings. Though the Marx’s share the same universal space as the rest of us, they are a law unto themselves and the first rule is…everything is irrelevant. As for all other rules, just refer back to rule number one. As Groucho sings in the opening minutes of Horse Feathers, their fourth film, Whatever It Is, I’m Against It.

The Marx Brothers world juxtaposes ideas that challenge the normal thought process. We have Groucho telling Harpo, “Young man, as you get older, you will find out you can’t burn the candle at both ends.” Harpo proceeds to quickly rebuke this piece of worldly advice by pulling out a candle from underneath his coat that is doing just that! The Marx’s also fracture the rules cinematically with Groucho breaking through the fourth wall. During Chico’s piano solo, he addresses the audience directly saying, “I’ve got to stay here, but there’s no reason why you folks shouldn’t go out to the lobby until this blows over.” Living in the world of The Marx Brothers can best be described as a dreamy surrealistic trip, no need for drugs, recreational or otherwise, to help you along. Continue reading

Animal Crackers (1930) Victor Heerman

In 1974, more than forty years after its initial release and decades of being unavailable due to copyright troubles, “Animal Crackers” opened in New York at the Sutton Theater to packed houses and continued to do so for an amazing eight weeks.   While many new films played to half empty houses, Marx mania brought in audiences that resulted in lines outside the theater waiting for the next showing.

“One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don’t know.” –  Captain Spaulding.     

Based on a stage musical with a book by George S. Kaufman and Morris Ryskind and music by Burt Kalmar and Harry Ruby that ran on Broadway for 191 performances during the 1928-29 season, “Animal Crackers” was the Marx Brothers second film (The Coconuts was the first). The films gives us the first of Groucho’s  many great characters, the great African explorer,  Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding, along with many of his most famous lines.

“You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen, which doesn’t say much for you.”

 

The plot, and calling it a plot is a stretch, (who needs a plot in a Marx Brothers film?), involves the return of Captain Spaulding from Africa where he attends a big gala in his honor at the Long Island estate of Mrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont). An expensive painting is stolen at the party and the Brothers assist in its recovery. The plot, like I said, is really incidental, minor, it’s there, is at best what can be said. The real joy of the film is the sheer Marxist brand of brilliant anarchistic humor that is laid before us. Harpo chasing women, Chico double talking, and Groucho, his lines drenched in sarcasm pouring out at a mile a minute, hitting at machine gun speed. And yes, Zeppo is there too as Groucho’s secretary Jamison, the same character name he used in the Brothers first film, but like the plot, he is incidental. Lillian Roth is on board as Mrs. Rittenhouse’s daughter, Arabella.

 

“Hello, I must be going/I cannot stay, I came to say I must be going/I’m glad I came, but just the same, I must be going, la-la!”

Filmed in the original Astoria studios, “Animal Crackers” is an odd film. In some ways, it could be seen as visually primitive today. The film is static, though not as bad as “The Coconuts,” their first film. This was a common problem in the early days of sound, and also reflects the films’ stage roots. Yet, it does contain at times, a post modern feel to it in scenes, where for example, Groucho breaks the fourth wall addressing the audience directly, apologizing for many bad jokes, or when Harpo pulls out a gun  and shoots a statue that turns out to be a real person. Adapting their own play, Kaufmann and Rykind wrote the screenplay, and songwriters Kalmar and Ruby came up with two now classic songs, “Hooray for Captain Spalding” and “Why Am I So Romantic.”

“Pardon me while I have a strange interlude”.

“Animal Crackers” remains a very funny film, just missing the pantheon of Marx Brothers films, reserved for works like, “Duck Soup,” “Horse Feathers”, “Monkey Business” and “A Night at the Opera.” The film remains essential Marx Brothers viewing. Long live Marxism!

***1/2

Duck Soup (1933) Leo McCarey

Revolution for the Hell of It, Abbie Hoffman wrote back in the late 1960’s but he was way too late in his call. Some thirty-five years earlier the Marx Brothers blew the lid off turning rebellion into a mischievous art form in Leo McCarey’s masterpiece of mayhem, Duck Soup. Marxist chaos rules in the land of Freedonia.

It is difficult to imagine what a depression era audience, the film was made in 1933, made of the pandemonium being presented to them on screen. Like in all previous films, the Marx Brothers have no respect for anything. All positions of authority are targets for ridicule. Anti-politics, anti-war, anti-authority; as Groucho once sang in an earlier film (Horse Feathers), Whatever It Is, I’m Against It.” To the Marx Brothers it was all fodder for their antics to exploit the self-righteous, the rich, and the pompous and most all themselves. Continue reading