[A note dated 4 January 1980]
just finished watching Cocoanuts, an early Marx Brothers movie based on the musical of the same name by Kaufman and Ryskind with music by Irving Berlin and so forth. I’d like to look at I’ll Say She Is or whatever the earlier movies were—this is getting very close to the genuine Marx Brothers—that is, what they were like in vaudeville. Like a lot of their stuff this is an unhappy marriage between a conventional romantic melodrama and their own surrealistic brand of comedy. From what I’ve read in their various “autobiographies” and life-stories—of dubious reliability—I suspect their own stuff was looser and more free-form, a set of gags revolving around a situation with sudden incongruous shifts, than the material we see in many of their movies. The trouble with the combination is that they don’t work well together. Viewed as humor, the serious scenes (and songs) are places where the movie goes dead, as enjoyable as commercials; viewed as melodrama the humorous bits are impediments to the plot and irritating distractions. This probably resulted from the assembly-line approach of the time, with various specialists doing their thing largely without regard to the rest of the team.