Category Archives: 1929

The Cocoanuts (1929, Robert Florey and Joseph Santley)

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.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Florey and Joseph Santley; screenplay by Morrie Ryskind, based on the play by George S. Kaufman; director of photography, George J. Folsey; edited by Barney Rogan; music by Frank Tours; produced by Walter Wanger; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Zeppo Marx (Jamison), Groucho Marx (Hammer), Harpo Marx (Harpo), Chico Marx (Chico), Oscar Shaw (Bob), Mary Eaton (Polly), Cyril Ring (Yates), Kay Francis (Penelope), Margaret Dumont (Mrs. Potter), and Basil Ruysdael (Hennessy).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE FAVORITE FOURSOME BLOGATHON HOSTED BY STEVE OF MOVIE MOVIE BLOG BLOG.


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The Greene Murder Case (1929, Frank Tuttle)

If it weren’t so predictable, The Greene Murder Case would be a little better. Not much better–part of the film’s charm is the obvious foreshadowing, since director Tuttle’s obviously on a limited budget and he couldn’t do much anyway.

There are no natural exteriors, which is fine; the one artificial exterior–Tuttle’s establishing shots tend to be of people in offices or rooms–is fantastic. The majority of the film takes place in a large house and the roof plays into the film for a few scenes. At first, it appears to be a model with special effects putting people on the roof. But then the people start interacting with the rest of the house. It’s unclear how they accomplished the effect, but it looks fantastic.

With these Philo Vance films, I’m always curious why William Powell gets top billing… he barely has a presence. Tuttle often shoots over his shoulder to the suspects even. He’s fine; Greene doesn’t ask a lot from him. Eugene Pallette’s mildly amusing as his sidekick. Pallette’s the comedy relief, but not over the top.

The suspects are also the potential victims in Greene. Jean Arthur is okay. Her role’s a little broad. The script really does none of the actors any favors but Ullrich Haupt is worth a mention. First, he’s terrible. Second, he’s supposed to be a devastatingly handsome stud but he’s this wormy German guy. It’s funny.

Greene isn’t not much of a mystery, but it’s not a bad seventy minutes.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Frank Tuttle; screenplay by Louise Long, adaptation and dialogue by Bartlett Cormack, based on the novel by S.S. Van Dine; director of photography, Henry W. Gerrard; edited by Verna Willis; music by Karl Hajos; produced by B.P. Schulberg; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring William Powell (Philo Vance), Florence Eldridge (Sibella Greene), Ullrich Haupt (Dr. Arthur Von Blon), Jean Arthur (Ada Greene), Eugene Pallette (Sgt. Ernest Heath), E.H. Calvert (Dist. Atty. John F.X. Markham), Gertrude Norman (Mrs. Tobias Greene), Lowell Drew (Chester Greene), Morgan Farley (Rex Greene), Brandon Hurst (Sproot), Augusta Burmeister (Mrs. Gertrude Mannheim) and Marcia Harris (Hemming).


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Sympathy (1929, Bryan Foy)

Sympathy is a Vitaphone one-reeler about a married man (Hobart Cavanaugh) stepping out on his wife. It’s not his fault, of course, he was just responding to peer pressure.

Harry Shannon plays the peer in question and he’s awful. He drags Sympathy down for the first half. Once he’s absent and the wife, played by Regina Wallace, comes in, the short greatly improves.

Both Cavanaugh and Wallace are good–they only have a couple moments together, unfortunately. Sympathy doesn’t give its cast much to do, which might be a good thing since director Bryan Foy can’t shoot a picture.

Synchronized sound is in its infancy here, not filmmaking. Foy can’t figure out how to place actors on a set, can’t imply scale. If Sympathy weren’t just talking and some tepid slapstick, he’d do it a far greater disservice.

As is, it’s indistinct except as an example of early talkies.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Bryan Foy; written by Murray Roth and Edmund Joseph; director of photography, Edwin B. DuPar; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Hobart Cavanaugh (William Maxwell), Regina Wallace (Laura Maxwell), Harry Shannon (Larry), Wynne Gibson (Trixie) and Loretta Shea (Flo).


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Wood Choppers (1929, Paul Terry)

Wood Choppers is not a good cartoon. The animation is weak and director Terry’s approach to the cartoon’s reality is anything goes. Dogs resurrect themselves after being turned into sausages and mice are able to reattach their heads and morph their tails into anything they can imagine.

It’s exceptionally lazy.

But there’s something amazing about it–just how little Terry cares for making any sense. He spends about half the cartoon setting up the elaborate setting. Cats, mice and dogs live in this town where the industry is logging and the mice play on the logs. It has nothing to do with the action of the cartoon, which is a cat chasing a mouse.

The logging does come back at the end, after the cat’s disappeared, and the whole cartoon’s now a romance between mice.

Wood Choppers is gloriously nonsensical. Sadly, the animation’s not good enough to make it worthwhile.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Paul Terry; produced by Terry and Amadee J. Van Beuren; released by Pathé Exchange.


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