85 years after Marx Brothers' first film, a legacy of laughs lives on

‘The Cocoanuts' premiered Aug. 3, 1929

It’s tough to get it right the first time, and like such greats as Henry Ford, Walt Disney and Thomas Edison, the Marx Brothers had a rough maiden voyage.

Aug. 3, 2014 marks the 85th anniversary of the big screen debut of the iconic comic siblings, in “The Cocoanuts.” And that’s not the only milestone being celebrated by the Marx Brothers’ loyal fanbase this year — far from it.

“This has really been the year of the Marx Brothers,” said Marx historian Noah Diamond. After a successful revival of the original stage version of “The Cocoanuts” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in February, Diamond and several partners organized the first-ever Marxfest in New York City earlier this summer.

So why, in a pop culture year dominated by Iggy Azalea and the “Fifty Shades of Grey” movie trailer, are people still talking about this Vaudeville-era comedy troupe? Diamond suggested the answer is simple.

“They were just so damn good. They were unbelievably funny,” he said on Tuesday. “When you look at their best work now, it’s astonishingly fresh.”

Still from "The Cocoanuts." Courtesy: Paramount Pictures

Although “The Cocoanuts” was the Marx Brothers’ introduction to worldwide movie audiences, critics today agree it’s not their shining achievement, in fact most agree it’s not much of a movie at all.

“‘The Cocoanuts’ is not great cinema,” wrote Rob Nixon of Turner Classic Movies. “The camera locks down on each scene as the brothers run on and off, as if from the wings of a theater.”

That’s an assessment the brothers themselves seemed to agree with, as they allegedly tried to prevent the film’s release after seeing the final cut.

Ultimately, “The Cocoanuts” raked in nearly $2 million for Paramount Pictures, and solidified its stars — Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo — as bona fide movie idols. That apparently suited the group just fine.

“At this point in their career, they were interested in a softer racquet,” Diamond said.

At the time of the film’s premier, Groucho Marx was 39 years old, while his brothers Chico and Harpo were in their forties.

While shooting “The Cocoanuts” during the day, the troupe was appearing every night in a Broadway production of their classic “Animal Crackers.” Diamond blames the brothers’ discomfort with performing in a silent movie studio as well as the technical limitations faced by directors George Kaufman and Robert Florey for the movie’s weaknesses.

“It’s a little bit awkward, they didn’t really know what they were doing,” Diamond said. Because of the sensitivity of the early microphones being used on set, every piece of paper that’s used for a prop had to be soaking wet, to reduce the crinkling sound.

Poster: Rainer Nolden / 2002 (Wikimedia Creative Commons)

Time Out magazine gave a more favorable review of the 85-year-old picture, writing, “The Brothers’ energy and madness is never in question: when the laughs come, they come loud and long.” For new fans seeking their first Marx Brothers experience, Diamond recommended starting with the five pictures that followed “The Cocoanuts,” before circling back around.

As far as the lasting influence of the Marx Brothers — nearly a century after their screen debut, Diamond said you see their comedic footprints in everything from “South Park” to the Muppets.

“Groucho was the embodiment of American irony and was the first American actor to address the camera,” he said. “Even Chico’s accent, which was probably the most dated aspect of their act, can be seen in characters like Inspector Clouseau and Borat.”

Next month, the first on-stage adaptation of the Marx Brothers’ lost musical “I’ll Say She Is” will debut less than 10 miles from the Broadway theater it played in 90 years ago, as part of the New York International Fringe Festival. Diamond’s adaptation of the show will be the first to run since the brothers’ last performance of it in 1925.

Follow this writer on Twitter @MrClintDavis.

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