Liberty, first published in 1924, was a magazine known as "a weekly for everybody". At one time second only to the Saturday Evening Post in circulation, it was accordingly known as "the second greatest magazine in America." Contributors included Robert Benchley and F Scott Fitzgerald. It folded in 1950.
5:19 - "Couple of telegrams for you, Mr Hammer..."
As well as a rare chance to see Zeppo Marx come out from behind the hotel's reception desk, this moment gives us our first sighting of another of the most endearing features of The Cocoanuts: wet paper. Because of the crude sound recording technology then in use, ordinary paper crackled so obtrusively on the soundtrack that dialogue was completely drowned out. The ingenious solution was to douse all the paper used in scenes with liberal quantities of H2O, giving it a weird, limp quality, like rotting lettuce leaves. The inevitable problems caused by this solution to a different problem are especially enjoyable to witness in the 'why a duck?' scene, where the map Groucho is referring to visibly and repeatedly tears as he attempts to manipulate the sodden mess..
9:19 - "John W Berryman was here last month to see it. You know, Berryman practically built Palm Beach and Miami..."
Was this a real man? Or is his name perhaps a mild parody of that of a real man? I don't know, but have fun watching Oscar Shaw grappling with that wet architectural plan..
15:22 - "This is the biggest development since Sophie Tucker."
A pretty straightforward one, this; Tucker (1894-1966) of course being the Jewish singer and entertainer, known as 'the Last of the Red Hot Mamas', who popularised the song My Yiddishe Momme. Groucho, with characteristic chivalry, is drawing our attention to the star's considerable girth, which she herself highlighted in numbers like Nobody Loves a Fat Girl, But Oh How a Fat Girl Can Love.
15:37 - "... entertainment, sandwiches and the auction. If you don't like auction we can play contract."
The first of many references in the Marx scripts to the tabletop diversions with which they filled their idle hours, first when they should have been at school and then when travelling the country or killing time backstage with fellow vaudevillians. Pinochle seems to have been their particular speciality, but all card games were grist to their mill, and this reference to bridge presages the classic bridge sequence from their next production Animal Crackers, and in particular Chico's line "he thought it was contact bridge"..
15:50 - "... glorifying the American sewer and the Florida sucker..."
'Glorifying' was a fashionable buzz-word at this time; in the same year as The Cocoanuts Paramount produced the film Glorifying the American Girl at their Long Island studios, also starring Mary Eaton. Groucho's line is either a reference to it or else a second dip in the same pool of common expressions. The replication of the word 'American' and the proximity of the two productions on the Paramount shooting roster incline me toward the former. It would be interesting to know, therefore, if the line was in the original show..
16:09 - "Take the alligator pears..."
Another name for the avocado, derived from its tendency to grow in alligator-populated areas. Groucho's bizarre use of the term to imply sexual union between pears and alligators may be informed by some residual awareness of the long-standing connection between avocados and sexual potency. Long believed to possess aphrodisiac qualities, within polite society their consumption by the virginal or chaste was generally frowned upon. Interestingly, the name comes from the Nahuatl word for testicle, a reference in this case to its shape rather than its sphere of influence..
18:50 - Harpo's red wig
Note how late into the movie Chico and Harpo make their entrance, then enjoy the only appearance on screen of Harpo's dark red stage wig, henceforth abandoned in favour of a blonde one because it was felt the original photographed too dark. Personally, I much prefer the red one. Interestingly, Harpo is still referred to as a redhead in Animal Crackers, since the script derives from the stage production and no amendment was made to accommodate his new, lighter coiffure..
20:18 - "Everything will be AK"
Wikipedia lists 24 possible definitions for this seeming alternative to 'ok'; the most likely to me seemed to be 'Ace-King', a card combination in poker, until I received the following fascinating suggestion from LAGuy, who blogs at the excellent Pajama Guy: "I'm pretty sure, considering the Marx boys' origin, that AK means "alter kocker," a well-known Yiddish term. It literally means "old shitter" and refers, in a negative way, to old people. Jewish contemporaries would get the reference immediately. Hence, in the 1931 musical Of Thee I Sing, Ira Gershwin has the Supreme Court parade out front and sing 'We're the A.K.s who give the O.K.s'."
I like the sound of this explanation very much: Cocoanuts has a lot of Jewish in-jokes.
21:40 - "Have one of these flowers, they're buckwheat."
A mystery, since Groucho appears to be offering Harpo the plant on the grounds that it is dangerous. At least, that's how the joke plays to me; as if he were to cheerfully say "here, drink this, it's cyanide." Though buckwheat greens eaten in large enough quantities can cause excessive sensitization of the skin to sunlight, it is generally speaking both edible and widely eaten. It may be, therefore, that I have misread the joke completely, and Groucho is in fact offering Harpo some kind of poisonous plant on the spurious grounds that it is buckwheat. Or am I so wrong it's like not even funny? Let me know....
22:20 - Chico and Harpo play the Anvil Chorus using a till and a bullhorn
The first appearance in the Marx canon of this top choon from Il Trovatore. Animal Crackers the following year sees a spirited rendition with Chico on piano, Harpo on horseshoes and Groucho on a woman's leg, while in A Night at the Opera they get the chance to disrupt a live stage performance of Verdi's undefending masterpiece..
26:45 - Harpo's first Gookie
If you don't know why a Gookie - a grotesque facial contortion characterised by bulging eyes, inflated cheeks and visible tongue, assumed by Harpo at least once in every Marx Brothers movie - is so named, then you haven't read Harpo Speaks, so do so now and we'll meet back here when you've finished. For the rest of you, enjoy its first appearance here..
28:39 - Harpo plays the clarinet
As well as harp and piano, the former Adolph Marx was no mean clarinetist, as this charming rendition of When My Dreams Come True reveals. In his later career he also liked to get laughs with a prop clarinet on which he would play I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles while a cascade of soap bubbles streamed from the instrument. Nonetheless, this is the only time he played it on film, and it was always the harp that remained his first love and daily source of recreation, relaxation and contemplation, thus sparing us the potential necessity of having to refer to him as Clarineto..
30:47 - Groucho and Margaret Dumont enter stage right
Often cited as one of the most amusingly hackneyed moments in the film, this delightful sequence shows Groucho and Mags walking on-set in long shot before cutting to a medium shot as they begin their dialogue. The point, of course, is that the walk on is a purely theatrical convention quite unnecessary in a film, which might more zippily have cut straight to the dialogue. For exactly this reason, I find it absolutely charming. What we can all agree on, however, is the excellence of the ensuing, our first Groucho-Dumont wooing scene. There is nothing tentative or embryonic about it; both are on top form.
Dumont, I need not add, is Groucho's celebrated statuesque straightwoman, imported from the Broadway cast, who would go on to endure his crude insults and even cruder sexual advances in a further six films. So fine are their performances together that she is frequently referred to as "practically the fifth Marx Brother" or "the honorary Marx Brother". However, this billing - which would in any event have come as news to Gummo and, presumably, her gynaecologist - was never made official, thus sparing us the potential necessity of having to refer to her as Practicallyo, or possibly Honoraryo..
31:29 - "If we could find a little bungalow..."
This Groucho line anticipates one of Irving Berlin's songs from the original show excised, presumably for time, from the screenplay. Several other lines from A Little Bungalow, for so it is called, find echo in Groucho's dialogue in this scene:
A little bungalow an hour or so from anywhere
A little cozy nest, the kind that's best for two
Among the shady trees, with birds and bees, and lots of air
And just enough o' ground to fool around with you
Away from all the crowds we'll watch the clouds go drifting by
And when the moon above presents a lovely view
There'll be a room in blue, the one that you would occupy
It's understood that I would occupy it too..
In particular, the third couplet evokes his memorable line, "when the moon is sneaking around the clouds, I'll be sneaking around you...".
32:45 - "A 'yes' like that was once responsible for me jumping out of a window."
A Groucho line which, depending on your preference, is either gloriously meaningless or evocative of some unspecified but clearly disastrous sexual indiscretion. There are many anecdotes concerning the brothers' erotic escapades that frequently end in such compromising manoeuvres, but they tend to involve the more incorrigible Chico than bookish, less experienced Groucho.
One exception, however, is the story of Groucho and Chico enjoying the afternoon attentions of the daughters of a prominent Jewish businessman who had invited them to dinner on the sabbath. His unexpected return led to just such an escape, and Chico's enquiry "are we still on for Friday?".
36:50 - The Connecting Door Sketch
This beautifully played scene, with Dumont having to resist the attentions of Groucho and Harpo, Kay Francis having to resist the attentions of Groucho, Harpo and Chico while looking great in a slinky gown, the first of a number of dumb Irish cops called Hennessey or something very similar rushing ineffectually from room to room, and Zeppo presumably downstairs manning the lobby, is notable partly for its excellence, and also for its being revised by Kaufman to equally fine effect in A Night at the Opera.
42:45 - "I can let you have three lots watering the front, or I can let you have three lots fronting the water."
Is this a misdelivered line? Joe Adamson certainly thinks so in Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo. Clearly the obvious way of phrasing it is the other way around. But is it funny this way? Yes, it is..
43:58 - "You know what a blueprint is?" "It's oysters."
Chico's error here is to confuse a blueprint with a bluepoint, a bluepoint oyster being a type of oyster named, pleasantly enough, after the Blue Point area of Long Island, where the film was shot..
44:32 - "Come over here, Rand McNally."
Groucho mocks Chico's inability to get to grips with the details of his map of the locality by referring to him as America's most famous publisher of maps and atlases..
44:42 - "Is there a remote possibility you know what 'radius' means?" "It's-a WJZ."
Chico compounds his blueprint/bluepoint error with a further confusion, this time between radius and radio. WJZ refers to a New York radio station based at that time in Newark, New Jersey. According to Wikipedia "the call letters stood for their original home state, New Jer(Z) sey", which to these English eyes at least makes about as much sense as Groucho's rejoinder "that's a rodeo you're thinking of.".
46:06 - "I'm not playing Ask Me Another"
From The Time of Laughter: A Sentimental Chronicle of the Twenties by Corey Ford:
"So great was the parlor-game craze in the twenties that Viking Press brought out a question book called Ask Me Another. To arouse added interest, the editors tested the questions in advance on various celebrities... George Kaufman (was tested) on geography, a subject which bored him thoroughly. When asked 'what is the longest river in South America?' Kaufman pondered a moment, and then countered, 'Are you sure it's in South America?'".
A (presumably) meaningless reference to the song Mama Goes Where Papa Goes, made famous by Sophie Tucker ("Mama Goes Where Papa Goes / Or Papa don't go out tonight"). First published in 1923, Tucker also recorded a Yiddish version the following year.
63:29 - Harpo offers sobbing Polly a lolly
This utterly disarming moment in which Harpo abandons all trace of lechery and mischief, and manages to be affectingly sweet without any hint of unwelcome pathos (the blank facial expression is the trick) is both one of the most celebrated moments in the film and an interesting anticipation of a moment at the very other end of their film career, when he produces a second lolly during the Who Stole That Jam? number from Love Happy, leading to the song line: "I don't want that lollipop!".
65:00 - "Hey, Paisan!"
Chico's term to summon Harpo is an affectionate Italian (or Italian American) greeting meaning "brother", colloquially or, in this case, literally. Of all the things I didn't know and had to look up for the purposes of this exercise, discovering this one gave me the most pleasure.
74:50 - Harpo's big spliff
The most eye-openingly pre-Code moment in the entire Marx canon is when Harpo enters the fancy dress wedding party dressed as a Mexican gaucho puffing on an enormous joint. Marijuana, though coming to be recognised as a social menace, was far from taboo in American popular culture, particularly jazz, and it crops up in a few other American comedies of the time. As late as 1933 Paramount's International House, a comic revue with W C Fields and Burns & Allen, includes Cab Calloway singing Reefer Man..
79:13 - "Oft in the stilly night, the trembling of a leaf can be heard sighing through the trees, and the babbling brook.."
I think that rather than any one thing, this is a kind of generic, half-remembered conflation of several poems and poetic-sounding phrases, with 'Oft in the stilly night' derived from Thomas Moore, and the babbling brook, possibly, from New York poet Elaine Goodale Eastman..
79:38 - "Western cattle opened at fifteen and a quarter"
Groucho goes into stockmarket talk just as he would in Animal Crackers but with one big difference - the Crash came in between..
Refers to the slogan used by Gulf petrol, displayed on the side of pumps in service stations.
A little disappointing to learn that Groucho's hilarious intro to Chico's first piano number refers to the title of a real song. I always thought it was an incredibly inspired joke. Ah, well. But it is, at least, an absolutely adorable song. Find out a little more and, most importantly, hear it for yourself here.