For some people, The Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, and the Marx Brothers are all kind of the same thing- cinematic comedy teams from the land before color, mostly interchangeable. But of course, that’s wrong. The moronic slapstick of the Three Stooges is as lowbrow as it gets, funny only to those who think comedy equals being mean. But then, there’s the Marx Brothers.
Almost a century later, the Marx Brothers are still edgy. Their brand of humor is anarchy- the kind you later saw in Looney Tunes, Mad Magazine, Bloom County, and Ren & Stimpy. They recognize no authority except that of the gag- the gag is supreme- and the wordplay they use demands a college degree, or at least someone with a fast enough wit to keep up. Even Harpo’s visual slapstick (he doesn’t speak) is clever and sharp, miles above the slapping and eye-poking between Moe and Curly. In short, The Marx Brothers set the template for the best kind of American Humor this country has ever produced.
The Cocoanuts is their first film, based on their vaudeville play of the same name. Shot in 1929, back when sound was at its infancy, the limitations of the equipment are clear- cameras don’t move much, everything feels very staged. Even so, all the brilliance of the brothers’ banter is here in full effect, honed by years of practice on stage. Groucho shoots out one-liners faster than you can process, aided by younger brother Zeppo, ever the straight man. Chico, as always, is a first-rate con man, and Harpo, well, he’s pure ID, the kind who would get #METOO’ed five minutes after he walked onto a film today. Whether or not you find him charming or creepy in the 21st Century, well, that’s up to you.
But there’s no denying the brilliance, however rough, on display here. Margaret Dumont, Groucho’s eternal “love interest” and favorite female verbal punching bag is already fully developed, taking all his insults with aplomb- the first of many films in which she does so. And while the obligatory singing and dance numbers (performed without irony, mostly) are sometimes tough to sit through, it’s all part of the Marx Brother Package: a playful Chico piano number, a surprisingly sweet and sincere Harpo harp solo. Later films like Duck Soup are, of course, absolute masterpieces, but The Cocoanuts fares rather well as a first film. Always entertaining and often hilarious, it still beats most of the crap you’ll find on Netflix.
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