The very first Marx Brothers film was Humor Risk, a 1921 two-reel silent comedy the Brothers produced themselves, with a script by Russian-born newspaperman Jo Swerling, who would later go on to do writing work on Hitchcock’s Lifeboat and Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Like so many other milestones in the Marxian saga, there is more than one version of the story behind the film. Groucho later claimed that it had only one showing, during a kiddy matinee at a theater in the Bronx, which the juvenile audience simply ignored it. The leading lady was either Jobyna Ralston or Mildred Davis, who frequently paired with Harold Lloyd, or Helen Kane, the model for Betty Boop, or possibly Esther Ralston who appeared in Chaplin’s The Kid—no one is really sure about the casting, and the plot is equally hazy. Several years after the short was produced, Harpo had become a member of the Algonquin Round Table, and Alexander Woollcott, Dorothy Parker et al demanded a private screening of the celluloid curiosity. After securing a screening room, they found the film can contained only a negative, only the dust of a completely disintegrated film, or was completely empty—again it depends on whose story you go by. All that remains today of Humor Risk is a photo taken on the set, featuring the Brothers, looking very youthful and almost unrecognizable without their makeup, alongside the rest of the cast, a number of film distributors and their wives.
And so the first Marx Brothers film that we can actually watch today was made a full eight years later. For devoted fans like myself, who have read virtually every book by and about the Brothers, and have reveled in the stories of 15-year-old Groucho joining a tour the Midwest with the Leroy Trio during which the cross-dressing Leroy was fined half of their take of the box office when his high-heeled shoe flew into the audience, or of the boys conspiring to get a decent meal at the boarding houses they called home during their trying Vaudeville days, The Cocoanuts is finally a chance to see our heroes in the flesh, brought to life on the screen, indulging in horseplay, and, Harpo aside, verbal acrobatics. Collectively, the boys had already enjoyed two successful careers—one on the Vaudeville circuits that stretched across most of the country, and a second one back in their hometown of New York, with their successful Broadway reviews. At the time of filming their first talkie, Harpo and Chico’s ages were north of 40, Groucho was 39, Zeppo 28, and even the most ardent fans must admit that they were already past their prime, at least in the sense of the physical roughhouse that had long been a trademark of the stage act. Nevertheless, the Brothers spring to life on the screen.
While Humor Risk was made in two weeks for a laugh, and abandoned when, well, it didn’t get any, the road to the movie version of The Cocoanuts was much longer. As The Three Nightingales, The Four Nightingales, the Six Mascots, and finally the Four Marx Brothers, the family had endured nearly 20 years of hardships of touring the bottom rungs of the Vaudeville circuit, and it looked as if their show business dreams where over for good when a revue they put together themselves went into bankruptcy in 1923. Chico wooed a pretzel manufacturer he met in a card game who wanted to get his girlfriend into a show. The result was the enigmatically named I’ll Say She Is, which opened on Broadway in 1923. Their audience was no longer hick farmers in Peru, Indiana, but the crème of New York, including Irving Berlin, Alexander Woolllcott, The New Yorker founder Harold Ross and others. Thanks to rave reviews by Woollcott and his pals, the production was a huge success and made the boys rich. It seemed the Marxes had arrived at the top, and the only direction they could take would be to team up with big-name collaborators. They worked with two of the biggest names, George S. Kaufman, and Irving Berlin, on their next stage production, The Cocoanuts. Kaufman was the most sought-after writer on Broadway, having produced ten big hits in as many years, and Berlin was already cementing his reputation as America’s most important songwriter. Kaufman brought in cowriter, Morrie Ryskind, who would become a friend of Groucho and frequent writer for the Brothers. Irving Berlin wrote the song “Always”, one of his biggest hits, for the show, but pulled in during out-of-town try outs. This was a long way from wearing sailor suits to sing on Coney Island.
Opening in December, 1925 the stage version of The Cocoanuts was a smash hit, playing for 375 performances on Broadway and then going on the road for two years. In 1928, the Marx Brothers moved on to their next Kaufman-Ryskind play, Animal Crackers. Around the same time, talking pictures became a reality and it was not long before the Marx Brothers were presented with a contract with Paramont Pictures. The film version of The Cocoanuts was filmed at Astoria studios on Long Island during the day, after which the Brothers would return to Broadway to star in the evening’s production of Animal Crackers. The filming was made difficult by the primitive sound equipment and the fact the noisy cameras had to be isolated from their own sound by being placed in heavy glass boxes, which rendered them more or less motionless. Filming was presided over by not one, but two directors American Joseph Santley and Frenchman Robert Florey. In later years, Groucho liked to recall that one of the directors didn’t understand English and the other didn’t understand Harpo. Harpo, writing about the filming over 30 years later, recalled that they “simply filmed the play.” But the direction is adequate, though far from amazing. We get close-ups at the appropriate time to show us Groucho’s raised eyebrows, Chico’s pistol finger shooting the piano keys, and Harpo’s face deep in concentration as he strums his harp. If anything, the film suffers from awkwardness in front of the camera on the part of the Brothers, who for 20 years had been performing in front of live audiences, whose reactions they used to pace the comedy. Cinematographer George Folsey, who was to go on to great things himself, reportedly had trouble getting the boys to hit their marks and to keep them the frame and in focus. Perhaps because of this the trademark Marxian anarchy seems a bit too reigned in on the screen. Also, the story backdrop of the Florida land boom, in which greedy New Englanders snatched up housing lots that often proved to be worthless, was very timely when the play premiered, but was more or less over when the film was shot, and the Brothers were likely tired of the story and its gags.
Another key collaborator the Marx Brothers teamed up with during the stage version of The Cocoanuts was Margaret Dumont, who would go on to appear in seven Marx Brothers films. All great comedians need a great comedic foil, and Dumont seemed made-to-order for the Brothers—tall, full of pride and sang-froid, representing the last vestiges of Victorian respectability, while the Brothers wore their immigrant origins on their sleeves. Dumont, like Groucho, Harpo and Chico, essentially played the same character in all of the films they did together, able to slightly twist her role to play a patron of the arts, the piggy bank of a fictional country, the heiress of a department store, in order fit whatever the current story required. In The Cocoanuts we are able to sit back and enjoy as Groucho spares verbally with her for the first time—“Your eyes sparkle like the pants of a blue serge suit.” When she has finally had enough and gets up to leave, Groucho jumps her, hanging from her statuesque frame like a city boy awkwardly climbing his first tree. Throughout their films together, Dumont would politely smile off the terrible indignities inflicted on her, setting herself up for the next attack, which would come in a matter of seconds.