Tuesday, 31 March 2009

The Cocoanuts

I'd watched lots and lots of things before, but sometime in my early teens I fell hopelessly in love with The Marx Brothers and I think it was with them that I really joined the children of the light, and became a true follower of the Cinema. It occurred to me tonight, sitting in front of the computer screen with the whole internet to play with, that I'd never actually seen their first film (actually, pedantic 'don't I know a lot about them' note, virtually nobody saw their first first film, Humourisk, made in 1919 - they hated it and had it destroyed) but a few keystrokes later there it was snipped up into segments on YouTube. And I'd always meant to blog about a film in real time, as I watched it, so here we go, with the obvious warning that this is going to be a bit of a long ramble. If you want to play along The Cocoanuts on YouTube starts here.

The biggest problem with the opening is that there's so little of The Marx Brothers in it. I'm always quite happy with the romance plots that run through the supporting singers (they're clearly not actors) because the plots they string together allow the important bits of the film (everything else) to work out so well. The terrible problem here (which is resolved beautifully in their second film, Animal Crackers, and there is every chance that I'm going to blog about all of them) is that it takes so long for the Marxes to arrive - Groucho gets a bit of a speech on the stairs but it's slim stuff, frankly - he needs Margaret Dumont to flummox and he gets her eventually - and in fact the beginning is so off the point that it's a pleasure to then see him and Zeppo together (and is this Zeppo's big film? It's the only one I can think of where his role isn't to come on and tell everyone that Groucho will be there soon).

The moment that the older brothers arrive though is perfect (and I've seen that before and I hope you have too, it's the bit that Jill is watching in the bath at the beginning of Brazil - note to self, write about Brazil) and straight away we have anarchy and this is what they are all about. I love Groucho's wordplay and I love his moments to camera and so on but it's the Harpo and Chico led physical comedy that allows Groucho to really prosper. Even the plot bits start to pick up - frame the dumb boys for the robbery, perfect.

Chico knows how to deal with Harpo, just take him at face value 'What is it with you, you've always gotta to eat' as Harpo chews the telephone. They are so full of physical comedy, too - and they're not young men, Chico was 42 when this was made, Harpo 40.

Groucho's use of the Prince of Wales line makes me laugh out loud - the comedy of repetition. It's funny how bland he was in that very first little speech at the beginning, before the rest of them were there and they all had this absurd context to work with. The future of Groucho's and Margeret Dumont's relationship is laid out here beautifully - it's always the same after this, the wonder of the genre contract, just give us what we know we want but in slightly different clothes - 'You wouldn't love me if I was poor' - 'I might, but I'd keep my mouth shut about it'.

I wonder if one of the reasons Harpo's relentless harassing pursuit of women is never offensive is because his bland and innocent face in character develops into something just as innocent but somehow angelic and beautiful when he's playing the harp. They'd learned their trade the hard way, these boys, decades on the vaudeville circuit doing whatever it took to entertain, and the musical interludes just about always work really well for me - I like that these wonderfully funny people can suddenly show off this completely different talent. Of course it helps that most of their films are set amongst people so well to do that they leave harps lying around unattended...

And then amidst the slow plotty stuff Harpo swims across the floor and from out of nowhere spits a stream of seawater. Glorious. And their film prototype for another scene that comes back again and again as they chase around and about - they'd been doing this on stage for years (and yes, this is a very stagey film, but what can you do? it was a play!) but their timing is so perfect and it goes on for so wonderfully long, beyond the obvious joke and into the laugh's second wind.

As Chico to Harpo so Groucho to Chico - the way to deal with strange absurdity is to ignore it and carry on anyway, and see where it gets you - usually back to the beginning. Although actually this is also how Chico deals with Groucho, just knock it back up and see what he makes with it. It is rarely left to the boys to actually make the plot work, particularly in these early ones. Thalberg's idea, at MGM, was to tie them more closely into the plot, to embed their antics in narrative, and let them struggle to break free from it. I'm still not entirely sure which approach I prefer.

If you were there would you say 'I will buy all of the plots of land if she stops singing?' The other problem with these song and dance routines (which wasn't true of Harpo's bit) is that the screen just turns into a proscenium arch stage and everything becomes obviously a set. And this is especially so when all we're really waiting for is for Chico to foul up his role at the auction. And Chico surpasses himself (I know, but I've seen all the later ones, all right, he preceeds himself) but outbidding himself whilst nobody else is interested. And when Chico can't ruin things Harpo can always step in.

The plot plays us another visit as Margaret Dumont's necklace is stolen and Harpo makes the best screen exit I can remember from any of their films ever. It's been said that later on Harpo stops being somebody who won't talk and instead starts to be somebody who can't talk - and so he finds ways to communicate with mime and sound and part of the mischievous demon in his soul departs. Early on though, and certainly here, Harpo is petulant and determined rather than mute, and all the better for it.

More Harpo and Chico nonsense, and Harpo's perfect physicality - sometimes these things are just ludicrous, like hiding behind somebody here (although he is So Tall! maybe he just can't see them down there) but the theft of the key is perfect, real 'why didn't I think of that' stuff. Although obviously we learn a few minutes later than Harpo already has a whole bunch of keys, and can break the bars of the jail if he chooses (and look extraordinarily pleased about it).

It's easy to think that, as the first film, this is the template for all of these visual gags and for many of the verbal gags too, even for the initial development of the characters, but this is just what they'd been doing on stage for years. This is why you also keep getting things like the musical section that follows the jail scene, because it would have been part of a variety show on the stage.

And Groucho gets a speech (and Chico catches up with himself wonderfully) and again it's an example of these things that become stock scenes not quite working - the Gene O'Neill stuff is much more effective in Animal Crackers when Groucho just breaks out and stares through the screen...

Pantomime time... for a while when I was about 16 I wanted to be Harpo - Groucho gets to be confrontational but it's almost an obligation for him, Chico gets to be the strangely irresponsible happy daft, but Harpo can do anything he wants, anytime...

Chico's piano pieces don't usually please me as much as Harpo's harp pieces but he's a great comedy pianist, he makes everything look pretty effortless and cool. It's interesting that a lot of the response he gets from his scenes comes from quite close work with his hands - it needs to be cinema for you to see the strange ways he plays, it would never have worked on the stage in the same way.

If there is one thing about all of their films it's that they tend to end very suddenly - there's often a major set piece to set up the conclusion but the end when it comes is often now you see them now you don't. And so it is here - the hotel is strangely saved, the development is all systems go, the bad guys are caught, the new happy couple are getting married - and it betrays its stage heritage as they all take a bow.

So, the first thing they did that's lasted and you can see the structures that will serve them well for a lot of the films to follow. Not the most wonderful thing in the world but Harpo is particularly fine and Margeret Dumont is strangely young. Animal Crackers is next....


millamant said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
millamant said...

I really enjoyed watching parts of the film with you. The simple joys in life are the best (Harpo's face) aren't they? It's always wonderful to share laughter. Thank you for the complitation.

millamant said...

I mean 'compilation'. I blame all the wine i've been drinking!

Magic Booka said...

Are you still active on here? I'm hoping that you are the same person who liked Barry and the Beachcombers?