Thursday, February 22, 2018

The 1920s - Then and Now series #4 - The Cocoanuts - 1929

The Cocoanuts (1929) is a sublime way to end this series on The Era of Wonderful Nonsense, not only for the nutty hijinks of the Marx Brothers, but of their shrewd assessment of the foibles of their era so skillfully worked into the story.

We continue our series on the 1920s and its similarities to our era that began with our introduction here, The Racket (1928) here, and Joan Crawford’s Our Dancing Daughters (1928) and Our Modern Maidens (1929). They bring us a gamut of Jazz Age stories: flappers, college capers, hip flasks, gangsters and bootleggers, a world of societal revolution and at the same time a breakdown of what has been termed traditional morals, that was even celebrated.

The Marx Brothers had a hit on Broadway with their musical comedy The Cocoanuts, and its transference to film as one of the very early “all singing, all dancing – all talking movies” is remarkably clever due to some intelligent and laugh-out -oud lines that are a match for any cynical banter in a modern television sitcom.

But instead of using this sarcasm to paint themselves as the leaders of popular taste – since neither “cool” or “hip” or “groovy” were invented yet – and “the cat’s pajamas” just don’t seem to fit the Marx Brothers even if the phrase fits the 1920s – this talented gang of four never aspire to anything but holding themselves apart from society and enjoying the freedom of being outcasts.

As such they are free to mock and parody one of the decade’s most sacred shrines – investment and speculation. It was an era where wealth disparity created a chasm between the very rich and the very poor at an alarmingly fast rate and would have terrible consequences by the end of the decade. To be sure, there was a middle-class somewhere in between which, after World War I, sought to reward themselves with all the newfangled gadgets that were making life so much more easy and exciting, and perhaps expensive, than for their parents’ generation. Consumerism, commercialism, and credit joined together in a frantic dance as people for the first time were able to buy home appliances like electric stoves and washing machines and not only purchase them, but purchase them through credit on-time payments. Buying on credit meant that people could own property and suburban homes in a manner such as they could not at one time and this marvel of credit also extended to the new opportunity of buying common stocks.

Once the world of only the most educated and wealthy investors, now every man could own stocks. Most of the purchases were made “on margin,” which meant one was paying only a fraction of the stock’s price—buying on credit.

Among the myriad of get-rich-quick schemes that occurred in that decade, one of the most enticing, and flawed, was the great Florida land boom. This is the topic of the Marx Brothers play, The Cocoanuts.

It opened at the Lyric Theater in December 1925 and ran through August 1926. George S. Kaufman wrote the book of the musical, and music and lyrics were by Irving Berlin. With this stellar Broadway pedigree was added the brilliant and chaotic four Marx brothers: Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo. Straight man, or woman, Margaret Dumont was in the cast as well and made the leap to film with the boys.

The real estate bubble satirized in the play and film had been centered around Miami, which was promoted as an exotic tropical paradise for those who wanted to live there, retire there, and many others who just wanted to invest, flip properties and get in on the ground floor of what was sure to be a spectacular land boom. However, the area saw not so much extensive construction as of mere speculation on land value. At the start of 1925 investment was beginning to look shaky when land was offered at prices not according to appraised value, but according to how much brokers could jack up the price – whether it was swampland, which many naïve outsiders were surprised to find there was so much of in Florida, or land that really had any value for commercial or residential use. Soon the authorities and the banks began to take a closer look at what was revealed to be a bit of a shell game operated by unscrupulous brokers. There were other elements that caused the boom to go bust including difficulties with existing infrastructure and railroad service. In another portent of really bad luck, a schooner sank in Miami Harbor and blocked access to shipping.

Soon the hucksters could not find enough suckers to maintain this game, and the soaring prices of land began to plummet. That September 1926, as if matters weren't bad enough, a hurricane slammed into Miami which drove developers into bankruptcy.  It was a month after The Cocoanuts closed on Broadway.

The film version included Mary Eaton as the daughter of Margaret Dumont, both come to stay at a Florida hotel run by Groucho Marx. He is also involved in the shady land deals. A side story involves Oscar Shaw and Cyril Ring as rivals for Mary’s hand, and Kay Francis along as a jewel thief in partnership with Cyril Ring. Their scheme is to swipe the jewels of Margaret Dumont. Built around this plot is a zany kaleidoscope of music – several tunes by Irving Berlin but not all that were in the play – and Harpo and Chico generally turning the place into mayhem.  The movie, produced by Paramount was filmed at the Astoria Studio in Queens. Soon, the movie industry pulled up stakes on the east coast, put on sunglasses, and headed to Hollywood.

Being an early talkie, the movie seems to be taken pretty much as it might have been produced on stage, a succession of quick gags, skits interspersed with sudden lavish musical numbers, lots of chorus girls (high heels on the beach?).  The idyllic seascape is a noticeably fake backdrop, the kind Wile E. Coyote would usually smash into.

It was an era where men still wore tank tops attached to their bathing suits. For younger classic film fans, I’ll just note that this was not an affectation of the movies. On public beaches right up until the late thirties and even early forties, men were required to wear either a tank top or some kind of shirt along with their swim trunks. Going topless was not allowed.

The lines, a lot of them really laugh-out-loud, are often specifically reflective of their era and may go over the heads of some younger fans. Even something like Groucho’s remark, “There’s nothing like liberty, except for Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post.” Liberty and Collier’s were, like The Saturday Evening Post very popular magazines. The newsstand on the corner, in the train station, or on the first floor of your office building was the nerve center, the communications headquarters of the day

Mary Eaton and Oscar Shaw sing a romantic duet and Bob has one of those trilling tenors. It really sounds like it’s sung live.  Mary’s hair is Marcel-waved.  She is also equipped with a trilling voice considered proper vocal technique of the stage-trained of the day.

Other favorite lines “This is the biggest development since Sophie Tucker.”

Chico and Harpo arrive at the hotel and are asked “You want a suite on the third floor?” Chico’s response, “No, I want a polack in the basement.”  Inappropriate for today, but funny and evocative of the “melting pot” with which were we once so comfortable.

Groucho remarks, “All along the river there are levies.”

To which Chico responds, “That’s a Jewish neighborhood?”

And then of course, we have the famous viaduct and “why a duck?” exchange.

Kay Francis, sleek and sophisticated, with her short, boyish flapper hair slicked back off her forehead, spends time tussling with Harpo, who of course, has a habit of trying to get people to hold his leg. It was Kay’s second movie after several years in the theater, and her stardom was ahead of her. She seems a little too high voltage for this silly slapstick, but we can see at least the promise not only of her career in the 1930s, but that here, although looking like a flapper, she is not a flighty, man-chasing coed, but instead looks as if she has spent the decade as one of the “Lost Generation,” in Paris with Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and not doing the Charleston with young men who swallow goldfish.

The movie, as with other Marx Brothers movies, breaks for intermittent and surprising cultural interludes as both Chico and Harpo display their splendid musicianship, which brings the chaos down to a quiet reflective center before it revs up again. It is as surprising as their silliest antics because it keeps us off-balance.

It is a way, the movie is like a perfect bridge between the innocent and lighthearted and somewhat sophomoric banter of the 1920s and the more sophisticated screwball comedy of the 1930s with its emphasis on social commentary. The Marx Brothers perfectly bridge the eras.

Groucho conducts a land auction, a common scene in the Florida land boom and he tries to get Chico to jack up the price by putting in outrageous bids. He utters the immortal words “You can get any kind of house you want, even stucco – oh, how you can get stuck-o.”

The jewel thieves are foiled, and true love prevails, although I think the most exquisite moment is the “He wants his shirt” song to the tune of “Habanera”/“Toreador” in Carmen sung by Basil Ruysdael in a bass-baritone.

The Florida land boom had an unhappier ending, that for a time, never seemed to end. A month after The Cocoanuts closed on Broadway, the September 1926 Miami Hurricane hit, leading to a lot of bankruptcies among the land developers, and a second killer Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928 (over 2,500 fatalities) and the stock market crash of 1929 effectively capped off the decade for Florida investment opportunities, real or imagined. The 1930s were bleak.

The stock market crash was also personally devastating to Groucho Marx.  Though known for being very frugal, ever mindful of his poverty-stricken childhood, he invested his entire life savings in the market that came to its own spectacular bubble in 1928. He lost it all in 1929.

In the excellent television documentary from the American Experience series on PBS The Crash of 1929 (1990), Groucho’s son Arthur was interviewed and recalled, “My father was ready to kill himself.”

Eventually, unlike millions of Americans, Groucho had a reprieve from destitution and found a lucrative career with his brothers in Hollywood.

These movies we discussed for the past few weeks tell us a lot about where our mindset was at the end of the Jazz Age but one aspect of that decade I suppose was difficult for the filmmakers then to capture, at least in one single movie, was the great struggle between conservative fundamentalists represented by the bankers and by Wall Street that were seen as demigods who were reflected in the glow of their fabulous ever-rising stock market, with extremists such as the KKK at the height of its power, with the animosity and outright hostility to immigrants and immigration, when Republicans controlled both houses of Congress and the White  House – versus progressives whose influence on the decade must have seemed appallingly radical, such as women flooding of the workforce in jobs such as secretarial work, which was once restricted for men (the new occupation of being a telephone operator was actually deemed better for women than men because it was reckoned that women had more pleasing voices and were more inviting on the phone); the almost shocking change in women’s apparel from what it had been during World War I – as we noted in our introduction, so comically and charmingly alluded to in the 1920s musical parody Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967); and the flaming youth that somehow took the spotlight in a society where the media was beginning not only to reflect who we were but to create who we were.

As regards the stock market, there are ominous similarities today, not only because of the great wealth disparity in our country that, when it happens no matter what era it happens, always leads to crashes, but because of allowing once again our greed to make us so naïve as to think the systems we have put in place are not fallible. Economist Roger Babson is well known for having predicted the 1920s stock market crash and also well known for being greatly disparaged because of it. Nobody wanted such bad news. Recently, we have experienced some market swings, and the market watchers, particularly on CNBC, rather than reporting dispassionately, instantly became cheerleaders and indignant deniers. Granted, money is an excitable issue, but journalists should just report what happens and not make excuses for what happens or attempt to deflect what is happening as if loathing to be held responsible for bad news.

This is not to say that we’re going to end up with bread lines and bank failures if the market takes a dive, but whether we do or not, whether the market crashes and we end up in another depression, we should receive the facts as simply and as unemotionally as possible. The truth, even when it is unpleasant, is better to hear than the same old spin.

We should pay more attention to the 1920s not just because of our bouncing stock market, but because of so many other coincidences that exists between that decade and ours. We might well learn valuable lessons. That’s what our parents, our grandparents, and our great-grandparents are for, to teach us.

As we noted in the intro to this series, historian William E. Leuchtenburg in his The Perils of Prosperity 1914-32 remarked, “Never was a decade snuffed out so quickly as the 1920s.”

The Great Depression loomed on the other side of the door, but also a more liberal and progressive era culturally, artistically, and politically that saved the nation in a frightening time.  It took courage to sing “Happy Days Are Here Again,” and make it so.

Groucho Marx, whose screen persona created sanity from havoc, wrote in his book The Groucho Phile: An Illustrated Life, "I've been a liberal Democrat all my life," and observed,  "I frankly find Democrats a better, more sympathetic crowd.... I'll continue to believe that Democrats have a greater regard for the common man than Republicans do."

Have a look here at the documentary The Crash of 1929.

Thank you for joining me on this series.  This Sunday we’ll take part in the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon hosted by Aurora of Once Upon a Screen, Kellee from Outspoken & Freckled, and Paula from Paula’s Cinema Club.  My contribution—Joan Crawford’s Oscar for Mildred Pierce.


Caftan Woman said...

This line, and the thin and blurring line between reflection and creation will spin around in my brain for some time to come. " a society where the media was beginning not only to reflect who we were but to create who we were."

So much links us to the 1920s that it is both frightening and comforting. Comforting for the lessons we could learn, and frightening when you realize so many are not open to learning those lessons.

Years ago I read Bring on the Girls, a memoir by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse. A strong memory was how it seemed that EVERYBODY was into the stock market. Your barber, the elevator man, the maid tidying up hotel rooms - everybody had a tip, and everybody was getting rich. Fate had other plans.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

The stock market certainly was a huge pop culture item in that decade. I think more people are involved in it today, but probably don't realize that their pensions and retirement plans are invested in the market and that they may be more vulnerable than they realize, even if they've never contacted a broker in their lives.

Yvette said...

What a wonderful review, Jacqueline. Especially since I agree with you wholeheartedly about this movie. It still makes me laugh, it still has something to say despite the lunacy on display. My favorite Marx Bros. film is DUCK SOUP and secondly, A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, but THE COCOANUTS is third on my list. :) I didn't know that Groucho was a Democrat all his life - good for him. This makes me like him even more than I already do which is plenty. I feel sorry for people who have grown up not knowing or even understanding the Marx Bros. Not seeing their movies and howling with laughter. Sad for them.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, Yvette. What amazes me about the Marx Brothers is how they became such mainstream pop icons, and yet their satire was really so intelligent and really subversive to the cultural conservative norms. I think they distracted us so much with their silliness, that we weren't always catching the cleverness of how much they got away with in terms of poking fun at convention.

Yvette said...

Oh, no question they got away with moider. :) I wonder if they would get away with all of it today. In today's climate.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

We've been so dumbed down, I think a lot of it would fly over the heads of many today.

"Moider." Hah.

Sophia said...

Thank you for this review. I really enjoy satirical plays and novels. I love how writers use sarcasm and humour to reveal the harsh reality of society. I will definitely add this movie on my to-watch list.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, Sophia. The Marx Brothers are particularly sarcastic, and yet in such a silly way, and at so many targets, it's amazing. Never was satire so ridiculous.

Sophia said...

I will definitely enjoy their plays then!

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