Apparently, the Marx Brothers first movie was a silent film made in 1921 entitled “Humor Risk” (a.k.a. “Humorisk”). The movie was never released and it is assumed that the film is lost and likely never to be recovered. If that is truly the case, “The Cocoanuts” is the first of the Marx Brothers films available to be seen.
This film’s plot finds its base in the great Florida land boom of the 1920s. Mr. Hammer (Groucho Marx) runs a failing, seedy hotel and the story revolves around guests/residents of the hotel and Hammer’s attempt to make a profit from auctioning off house lots near the hotel.
Mrs. Potter (Margaret Dumont – she would appear prominently in seven Marx Brothers movies) is a wealthy widow who is residing at the hotel with her daughter Polly (Mary Eaton). Polly is in love with Bob Adams (Oscar Shaw) who is an architect wanting to sell his plans to developers. He and Polly want to buy one of the lots on which to build their home. Unfortunately, Mrs. Potter is disapproving of the relationship.
She likes another man who is present; Harvey Yates (Cyril Ring). He and cohort Penelope (Kay Francis) are crooked and have their eyes set on stealing Mrs. Potter’s jewelry which is worth $100,000. Yates also plans on marrying Polly to get access to the family fortune. Mrs. Potter is oblivious to this and pushes Polly to marry Yates.
Enter Chico and Harpo to inject continuous chaos. Zeppo Marx has no more than a minor role as hotel desk clerk Jamison.
The one-liners and zingers come so fast and furious that they could not be kept track of without pausing the movie every few seconds to notate the dialogue. Combine this with set-up gags and this is unbelievably riotous.
There are several musical numbers in the film and they are classic 1920s. This reviewer loves those sorts of productions.
Chico has a piano solo and Harpo one on the harp. The harp number, especially, is not tied to the story in any way. One scene ends, Harpo appears and plays a number on the harp, and at the conclusion the movie resumes. It works.
Much has been written about Margaret Dumont and how perfect she was playing opposite the Marx Brothers. There has been debate about whether or not she was so perfect simply because she did not understand the Marx Brothers brand of humor or rather that she was just such a good actress that she was able to present herself as always dumbfounded about what was happening around her.
The Marx Brothers were, at this time, not quite refined into what they would become in future films but that only adds to the appeal. Harpo is very young-looking compared to how he would appear some years later.
This reviewer has had numerous discussions with people who feel that comedians like the Marx Brothers or Three Stooges are simply too foolish. It’s more likely that we are the fools and they are the geniuses.