By Lawrence Henley
The Cocoanuts is, essentially, a rollicking farce set amid the Florida sun and a bevvy of palm trees. Constructed around a young romance, a wonky hotel, and a trio of concurrent swindles, to some this show might simply seem an exercise in frivolity. Well, folks, “not so fast!” In actuality, this romp in the tropics is the collaborative work of some of the most significant theatrical talent of the early twentieth century. And, for good measure, the zany plot actually bears significance to modern times.
The Cocoanuts is set during the hysteria of the infamous Florida real-estate boom of the 1920s, prior to the bottom falling out. When the land bubble burst, it was a contributing factor in the stock market crash that triggered the Great Depression of the 1930s. As the rest of the nation’s economy collapsed, so did the economic fortunes of the Sunshine State. Florida wouldn’t fully recover from the bust until after World War II. Not surprisingly, the lessons of this seismic real-property disaster went unheeded in the late 1990s and early 2000s, resulting in a similar real estate and housing crisis (the effects of which the American Southwest is still recovering from). Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, c’est correct?
In the Roaring Twenties, musical theatre in America bore little resemblance to the phenomenon it would become in the late 1930s and 1940s. Immediately prior to that time, Broadway began to morph out of Vaudeville, the touring variety entertainment format that had dominated the theatre business since the late nineteenth century. Hardcore fans of vintage Broadway and classic films will be familiar with the legacy artists largely responsible for that transformation: Irving Berlin, George S. Kaufman, George M. Cohan, and the Gershwin Brothers. Broadway icons in their heyday, the Marx Brothers are often overlooked (doubtless owing to their later career success in Hollywood). Truthfully, their three Broadway hits (I’ll Say She is, The Cocoanuts, and Animal Crackers) were an innovative comedy-musical trifecta that still speaks volumes as to their significance.
The five Marx Brothers were all part of the act at one time or another. In order of age they were Chico (Leo Marx, born 1887); Harpo (Adolph, later changed to Arthur Marx, born 1888); Groucho (Julius Marx, born 1890); Gummo (Milton Marx, born 1893); and Zeppo (Herbert Marx, born 1901). A sixth Marx brother died in infancy (Manfred, or Mannie). All were blood brothers, born into an emigrant family with a performing background dating back to nineteenth-century Europe.
Family was extremely important to the creation of the Marx Brothers. Their parents, Frenchie (Samuel) Marx (a tailor) and Minnie (Meine) Schoenberg, were first generation Americans from Western European Jewish families. The grandparents of the Marx Brothers fled untenable conditions in the Old World, sailing to a new life on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Meine, was the Marx Brothers’ first manager (working under the name “Minnie Palmer”), and the boys’ act was greatly influenced by their uncle, famed vaudevillian Al Schoenberg (stage name, Al Shean). The Marx Brothers evolved from a series of strictly musical acts. Groucho Marx’s habit of injecting his razor sharp humor into their performances would eventually change the family’s dominant milieu from music to comedy.
While all of the Marx Brothers were forced to leave school to support the family, Groucho, the most famous, was the lone brother with scholarly interests. Indeed, his world class wit is clearly evidenced by his dexterous use of wordplay in the Marx Brothers hit films. Equally famed as a radio and television personality, Groucho’s show business career spanned seven decades. His signature greasepaint moustache, duck walk, and cigar chomping antics are still imitated.
Chico, the eldest, was Minnie’s favorite. As such, he got away with much juvenile mischief. Street-smart at a young age, he inherited his father’s love of card games, which developed into a lifelong gambling problem, always Chico’s “Achilles heel.” In an attempt to get him off of the streets, his mother pushed him toward music, and it worked. Chico’s brilliant piano stylings became as much his trademark as the brain-boggling malaprops and faux tough-guy Italian accent. A benevolent con man with a talent for business, Chico Marx sealed the deal that brought the Marx Brothers to Broadway. Their 1923 debut, I’ll Say She Is!, was a smash hit, paving the way for the The Cocoanuts in 1925.
Perhaps the best loved Marx Brother was the purposely mute Harpo, whose nickname alludes to his self-trained mastery of the angelic-sounding stringed instrument. With his curly red fright wig underneath a slouch hat, Harpo Marx was the master of comic pantomime. Without fail, Harpo let his antics, athleticism, and bicycle horns do the talking. Harpo’s funniest bits were usually tag-teamers with Chico.
Zeppo, the youngest Marx, joined the act when Gummo Marx departed to join the military to fight in World War I. Gummo, who shunned the limelight, later took over as the group’s manager. Generally playing “the straight man,” Zeppo’s forte was the young romantic typecast. His job was to advance the action and set up the zingers for Groucho, Chico and Harpo.
Although a significant portion of their act was based on improvisation, the entertainment world owes the Marx Brothers a great debt as the forefathers of popular sketch comedy. With perpetual action and rapid-fire dialogue, their antics could also be thought of as being reminiscent of commedia dell’arte, in that they created and played their own stock characters with their use of signature makeup, wigs, hats, musical instruments, and crazy accents. The Cocoanuts exemplifies this use of caricature. The Groucho character is forever scheming to get-rich-quick through highly suspect business practices, and continually flirting with rich widows. Chico is the fast-talking con artist, and Harpo the loveable, if slightly-crooked clown. Zeppo is the handsome singer and straight man. While they all enjoyed chasing members of the opposite sex, Groucho above all reveled in romancing the wealthy, obstinate society women played by famed character actress Margaret Dumont.
The talents of two other theatrical geniuses elevated both the 1925 Broadway and the 1929 hit film versions of The Cocoanuts. The show’s score was written by the musical phenomenon, Irving Berlin. Frequently called the greatest popular composer of the twentieth century, Berlin was born Israel Beline (born 1888) in Czarist Russia. A brilliant melodist (who could only play piano in a single key), Irving became the “King of Tin Pan Alley,” producing such classic works as “White Christmas” and “Cheek to Cheek” and the musicals Puttin’ On the Ritz, Annie Get Your Gun, Easter Parade, and Alexander’s Rag Time Band. One of Berlin’s greatest tunes, “Always,” was actually cut from the The Cocoanuts score right before it moved to Broadway!
I’ll Say She Is! had been a tremendous success, but the Marx Brothers wanted to add better production values to their next play. Gifted scriptwriter George S. Kaufman was brought on board to add class and sophistication to the writing of both The Cocoanuts and 1928s Animal Crackers. Perhaps the top American theatrical and film auteur of his era, Kaufman’s other greatest hits, such as You Can’t Take It with You, Stage Door and The Man Who Came to Dinner are still produced with regularity in regional and academic theatres. Kaufman (born 1889) also wrote the Marx Brothers’ classic film, A Night at the Opera (1935).
By 1929, the previously silent motion picture business had added sound. Now, the comic escapades of the Marx Brothers could be marketed to a mass audience. Everyone on Broadway knew that the real showbiz gold would now be mined from the movies, and many fled New York for the Paramount and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio lots. The lure of Hollywood beckoned for both George S. Kaufman and Irving Berlin. The Cocoanuts, chosen as their first Marx Brothers motion picture, was filmed in New York, but by the early 1930s the Marx Brothers had moved west, on their way to becoming Tinseltown legends.