It was 1929 and the legendary comedians "the four Marx Brothers" were about to film their first movie. The boys were currently appearing in their third consecutive broadway hit play Animal Crackers. So, incredibly, Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo appeared in Animal Crackers onstage at night and, after minimal sleep, filmed their movie debut The Cocoanuts during the day.
It was the earliest days of "talkies" (remember, this was just two years after Al Jolson broke the ice with The Jazz Singer), and this presented a bit of a problem. The early movie stages were not yet geared to be quiet and sound-proof as they are today. So, to avoid the sound of ongoing New York traffic outside, the actors and actresses would have to film very early in the morning, before the early traffic rush in the Big Apple.
In a scene where Groucho and Chico talk while reading a map, the crinkling of the map paper sounded like a violent thunder storm. After a few "much too loud takes,” it was decided that the map paper would have to be "watered down" and the damp map proved a workable solution. All paper props for the film were similarly soaked in water to keep them quiet.
But these were minor problems compared to the craziness and unpredictability of the Marx Brothers themselves. According to director co-directer Robert Florey, it was near impossible to get all four brothers on the set at the same time.
Brother Harpo might be off napping in a corner of the soundstage. Or getting a chorus girl to massage his scalp, itchy from wearing his curly wig. But most likely, Harpo would be off somewhere, happily strumming his beloved harp.
Groucho was usually easier to locate, he would inevitably be found curled up somewhere with a good book. But brother Chico was, by far, the worst miscreant when it came to "disappearing" from the set.
Sometimes Chico would actually leave the studio entirely and be found at the local bridge club or involved in nearby poker game. On other occasions, Chico would be discovered putting in calls to his bookie, placing bets on ballgames or horses. Equally likely, Chico would, almost inevitably, be found in one of the dressing rooms of one of the Cocoanuts chorus girls, becoming "better acquainted.”
Director Florey came up with a clever and workable solution. He had four cages brought on to the Cocoanuts set. (These "cages" were actually jail cell props that happened to be left around in the studio.) He labeled one cage for each Marx Brother: Groucho, Harpo, Zeppo and Chico.
During filming hours, each Marx brother would be put in his respective cage. When it was time to film a scene, they would be let out. And after the scene was done, each brother re-entered his cage. (This, of course, had to be one of the strangest shoots in movie history.)
Oh yes, the cage reserved for and often containing Chico was equipped with a telephone, the easier for him to put in calls to his bookie.
Interestingly, neither Harpo or Chico has a character name in the credits of The Cocoanuts. In the Broadway version of The Cocoanuts, Harpo was billed as “Silent Sam" and Chico was “Willie the Wop.” At one point during the film, Harpo is called “Silent Red,” but Chico's name is never used or mentioned, being considered too offensive for movie audiences.
During one scene with Chico, Groucho almost calls him “Ravelli,” which was his character's name in Animal Crackers. Because of the simultaneous performing of that show at night, Groucho's confusion is understandable.
The Cocoanuts was actually the only Marx brothers film to be co-directed, Florey sharing the helm with Joseph Santley.
Although known as a comedy, The Cocoanuts has a bit of historical movie significance too.
Busby Berkeley, the legendary choreographer, was to become world-famous for his "overhead shots" of dancing chorus girls. Berkeley was brought to Hollywood by producer Samuel Goldwyn in 1930 and first began introducing the overhead shot in Whoopee, a movie starring Eddie Cantor. But The Cocoanuts was actually the very first sound movie to use the "overhead shot", one year before Berkeley's debut.
Released on August 3, 1929, The Cocoanuts proved to be a smash hit. Not being used to watching and listening to "talkies,” many audience members returned to see The Cocoanuts several times, just to hear and assimilate what the fast-talking Groucho was saying.
A happy sidebar for the Marx Brothers’ Cocoanuts experience involved their beloved mother, Minnie. Minnie Marx, sadly, was to pass on within a few weeks of her sons' movie debut in The Cocoanuts. But Minnie did live just long enough to see “her boys" running around on the big screen. Minnie was never prouder than when she watched her four sons become genuine movie stars.
Although popular with movie audiences, the Marx Brothers themselves did not like the movie version of The Cocoanuts. Reportedly, they offered to buy the negative of the film from Paramount Studios, so they could burn it.