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Groucho, the Marx Brother, in A Big Show at the Lyric

By Percy Hammond

The Marx Brothers in "The Cocoanuts," a musical comedy by George S. Kaufman and Irving Berlin. Presented at the Lyric Theater with Miss Mabel White, Miss Janet Velle and others in the company. The scenes are as follows:

Act I -- Scene 1: Lobby of "The Cocoanuts," Cocoanut Beach, Florida; scene 2: Before the palms; scene 3: Two rooms in the hotel; scene 4: Before the palms; scene 5: Cocoanut Manor.

Act II -- Scene 1: The lounge of the hotel; scene 2: Before the palms; scene 3: The Patio.

Mr. Groucho Marx was the life of the party last night at the Lyric, affording more entertainment than did the librettist, the composer, the chorus and all the others, including his kinfolk, the Messrs. Harpo, Chico and Zeppo. The play, "The Cocoanuts," was large and unpretentious, and was built on the usual specifications. Mr. Irving Berlin made himself heard in a suburban melodee, entitled "A Little Bungalow," and Mr. Kaufman, the author, delivered a dotty fable concerning Florida real estate, a stolen necklace and a love affair between a hotel clerk and a soprano heiress. A brilliant, $11 audience rejoiced.

The major Marx is one of those gifted clowns who can make good jokes out of bad ones. I presume that most of his banter last night was his own, since Mr. Kaufman is a less nervy man. As a Florida hotel keeper he was in his most ridiculous mood. For instance, he informed one of the soubrettes that her eyes shone "like the pants of a blue serge suit." "Come to tea this afternoon," he said, "we're going to have chocolate ice cream and woman's fingers." When Miss Mabel Withee, the prima donna, asked him to lend her $2,000 he told that he didn't even own a raccoon coat. "Don't make love in the lounge," said he to the amorous baritone. "Go to the mushroom." Speaking of the reward offered for the stolen jewels, he described it as mere chicken feed. "A poultry $1,000," he added. Once he gave his brother Chico a chance to be funny. "Do you know what a blue print is?" he inquired. "Yes,'" answered Chico. "It's an oyster."

I print these extracts as a friend of the playgoers. Persons attending the musical comedy matinees to-day may find them larding the lean librettos of Times Square comedians are apt to steal the jests of their comperes. Having made them available for use in the local frolics, all I ask in return is that you should know that they are funnier as they fall from under Mr. Marx's ludicrous mustachios, than from any other comic aperture. He should be given credit as a benefactor.

Little else can be said of "The Cocoanuts" except that it was a big, routine Marx Brothers show, but not so laughable as its predecessor. The silent Harpo had no knives nor forks to steal last evening as he did at the Casino, and even Groucho was hampered by the absence of his burlesque of Napoleon. But Zeppo and Chico had their usual opportunities and took advantage of them. The chorus was fairly good looking after you got used to it, and its dress more handsome than it deserved. There was a candid exhibition of the "Charleston" by Miss Frances Williams; some agile dancing by a solicitous team known as Antonio and Nina de Marco, and pleasant solos upon the harp by Harpo and upon the pianoforte by Chico. When I left the Lyric at 11:30 it seemed that the show was just getting under way. As it is now 12:05, I may be able to get back and see how it ends.

The Stage

Laughter at the Lyric


"The Cocoanuts," a musical comedy. Book by George S. Kaufman; lyrics and music by Irving Berlin. Presented by Sam H. Harris. Directed by Oscar Eagle. Dances staged by Sammy Lee. Settings by Woodman Thompson. At the Lyric.

The Cast

Jamison -- Zeppo Marx
Eddie -- Georgie Hale
Mrs. Potter -- Margaret Dumont
Harvey Yates -- Henry Whittemore
Penelope Martyn -- Janet Vello
Polly Potter -- Mabel Witbee
Robert Adams -- Jack Barker
Henry W. Schlemmer -- Groucho Marx
Willie the Wop -- Chico Marx
Silent Sam -- Harpo Marx
Hennessy -- Basil Ruysdael
Frances Williams -- Frances Williams

The production of a musical comedy with songs by Irving Berlin, with wise cracks by George S. Kaufman, and with the last four of the mad Marxes all involved, was a formidable assault nay -- battery upon the ill-concealed susceptibilities of this department.

This was committed last evening at the Lyric, when an outbreak in two acts called "The Cocoanuts" was hilariously performed for the first time in this town. There was one intermission in which the management might have worked in a brief song and dance by Mrs. Fiske and Ruth Gordon. But that was the only omission.

I cannot recall ever having laughed more helplessly, more flagrantly and more continuously in the theatre than I did at the way these Marxes carried on last evening. In this response your correspondent was not alone, for the old Lyric shook with unaccustomed laughter. By the time Groucho Marx was rising to announce: "The next number on the program will be a piccolo solo which we will omit," and the incomparable Harpo was stealthily leaving the room every time any one rose to speak, the decent resistance of a critical mind had given away and we would all have laughed at anything.

Yet whether the continuous volley from the mad wag, Groucho, or the ineffably engaging antics of his volubly silent brother were their own invention or the invention of the scribbling Kaufman, deponent sayeth not, not knowing. But such allotment of applause this morning is no business of this harried scribe. It need only be reported that "The Cocoanuts" is so funny it's positively weakening.

On first hearing, the Berlin contribution to the evening seemed secondary and, for the most part, considerably below his standard for writing songs at once spirited and inescapable.

The inevitable duet, "A Little Bungalow," is clever, insidious, engaging. Then, as an opening chorus for the second act, that is piquant, dainty and so preposterously English that there is simply no explaining its emergence from our own Tin Pan Alley. It is called "Five O'clock Tea" and might be described as a Leslie Stuart song written by Irving Berlin. The next thing you know, Ring Lardner will be turning out a Kipling story.

Then, in "The Tale of a Shirt," there is a good repetition of his old trick of rifling the Metropolitan repertory of melodies to fit an incongruous lyric. But all in all, the best tune in the piece is "Swanee River," hummed by an invisible chorus and accompanied by the lisping shuffle of twelve soft shoes. When this department has its own theatre, the musical comedies will have only one number in them played over and over again -- soft shoe dancers stepping in the twilight to the music of "Swanee River."

When the offended presses summoned me to this report, Chico was just settling to the piano and a harp was waiting in the wings for Harpo to cuddle up to it in a pool of light. This was at 11:25 P.M.

Up to then the high moments had been pretty much the goings on of Groucho and Harpo, plus the singing and dancing of a startling girl named Frances Williams, who shuddered a devastating Charleston and vanished from sight, her head tossing like a chrysanthemum, all gold and agitation. Also a moment of a tiny girl named -- I think -- Bernice Speers, of whose beguilements "The Cocoanuts" might have made more use without surfeiting any of us.

On the very edge of midnight, a bit of levity at the expense of two notable figures in the contemporary American theatre was, I am informed interpolated in the general ructions. No action will be taken in the matter, however until a later date.

(This page was originally created by Frank Bland's for his 'Why A Duck?' website)

This site uses material originally created by Frank Bland for his website Why A Duck?. Frank did kindly give me permission to use this material.

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