The only stand-out sequence in The Cocoanuts comes at the end, when Chico is playing the piano. One of the directors–or both of them–finally had a good instinct and cut to a close-up of Chico’s hands playing. It overrides the first shot of the piano playing, which doesn’t show Chico’s hands at all and barely his expressions; the second shot has hand and expression, so it’s fine. But that close-up is a real surprise, given there’s nothing else impressive as far as the directing goes in The Cocoanuts.
Well, except maybe the emphasis on the dancers’ legs. Directors Florey and Santley can’t figure out depth of field for any other shots, but they sure can when there are dancers’ legs in frame. It’s a little gaudy and more than a little sensational, but it’s competently executed gaudy and sensational.
Otherwise, there’s no competent execution direction in the film. The Cocoanuts’ directors waver between middling and medicore.
The film’s able to coast on the Marx Brothers–and villains Cyril Ring and Kay Francis–into the third act. It gets really long at times (it doesn’t even show a pulse until Harpo and Chico show up twenty minutes in) and musical romantic leads Oscar Shaw and Mary Eaton have a distressing lack of chemistry, but it gets there. Even with Chico and Harpo stuck having to play off Basil Ruysdael’s stuffed shirt detective. Even with Groucho looking visibly bored during some of his monologues, which are usually poorly edited and directed without any energy. Even with Zeppo–top-billed of the Brothers–having four scenes and getting blocked out in most of the third act.
I mean, the back of an extra’s head blocking him out does mean he doesn’t have to look bored during the nonsensical wedding announcement party Margaret Dumont is throwing for daughter Eaton. It’s a gaucho-themed party, though some of the female guests are wearing gowns with crinolines (dome-shaped gowns). The party’s got to be a delight to dissect for costume and production designers.
Cocoanuts takes place in Florida, with Groucho a hotel manager and would-be land baron who can’t attract guests to his hotel (it’s unclear why there the opening establishing shots of the beach are packed with ostensible vactioneers) and can’t sell his properties. One of the scenes the directors screw up is Chico messing up Groucho’s land auction.
Ring is a scumbag blue blood who seems to have lost his money in the Crash, but Dumont’s still got hers and he wants to marry Eaton for it. But she’s in love with Shaw (apparently no one noticed Eaton singing the song Shaw writes for her to serenade Ring at one point makes Eaton even more disposably unlikable). So Francis schemes to help him get rich another–they’re going to steal Dumont’s jewels and frame Chico and Harpo. Their plan doesn’t play out, but still goes their way enough to cause some drama. Cocoanuts is heavy on character setup in the first act (pre-Chico and Harpo, whose introduction turns into a ten minute scene), then completely forgets about the characters. Francis and Ring are still pretty good. The scene where she tries to seduce Harpo is solid (it ought to be great, but for Florey and Santley).
And Ring is a sturdy scumbag.
Eaton’s bad. Shaw is bad with Eaton, but he actually plays really well with the Marx Brothers.
Ruysdael sucks the life out of the film every time he’s onscreen. The third act starts with him getting his own musical number (with a lot of assistance from people who can sing), which gets things off on rocky footing. As if the ornate hacienda, which is apparently part of Groucho’s failing hotel (Dumont and Eaton are his only paying guests), isn’t enough of a credulity pitfall. It actually starts with an excellent shot–kicking off a music number–but that one glimmer of technical hope doesn’t carry through.
Dumont and Groucho have some okay scenes together but nothing great. Her characterization is too thin. She can figure out Groucho (until his manly charms overpower her good sense), but she doesn’t notice Ring’s a scuz? It doesn’t play. And Eaton lets Dumont walk all over her in scenes, even though Dumont’s not trying to do so; Eaton visibly recedes opposite other actors.
Again, the directors.
The sets are good–the whole thing, exteriors included, are shot on interior sets–but the directors don’t really know how to use them. Or they know how to use them for half the frame. There will be a dance number on the bottom half of the screen and its audience ignoring its existence on the top half.
Despite all its problems, The Cocoanuts is still manages to disappoint in the end. The finale is nowhere near effective enough–it doesn’t help Groucho and Chico both look exasperated sitting through a lot of it. Chico in particular seems like he wants to be anywhere else. Harpo at least gets a okay decent drunk scene. Next to them, Francis manages to hold it together though.
The directors sink the picture.