Down on a Florida beach, by the Cocoanut Hotel, the girls are dancing and sunbathing and the lifeguards remain ever vigilant. Inside the hotel, Hammer the manager (Groucho Marx) is suffering a spot of bother with his staff, who understandably want to be paid, although he is reluctant to hand over the dough and resorts to double talk instead. To save his skin, a telegram arrives telling him that high-paying customers are on their way but outside, a source of controversy for Hammer is brewing as scheming thieves Penelope (Kay Francis) and her boyfriend Harvey (Cyril Ring) plan to steal the necklace of the wealthy Mrs Potter (Margaret Dumont) and frame Bob (Oscar Shaw), the boyfriend of her daughter Polly (Mary Eaton), for the crime.
The Cocoanuts was the first real Marx Brothers movie, after a negligible silent made a few years earlier, and as far as their comedy went it hit the ground running with the personas of all four brothers honed to perfection (yes, including Zeppo: you'll hardly notice him). It's little wonder, really, as they'd been acting out their characters for ages on the stage, and indeed were performing in a different stage show while filming this one. The original of this was written by George S. Kaufman, with music by Irving Berlin no less, and adapted for the screen by Morrie Ryskind who would work with the team again over the next decade or so.
All that taken as read, The Cocoanuts does take a good twenty minutes to get going, as the plot with the necklace is set up. Although Groucho does his best, the laughs don't take off until Harpo and Chico arrive at the hotel (they sent the telegram), carrying an empty suitcase that Chico says they'll fill up during their stay. The second these two arrive, it's as if Groucho breathes a sigh of relief and the humour can finally flow, with Harpo running rings around everyone and Chico providing him with someone to spar with verbally. If Chico isn't present, then Groucho can always chat with Dumont, with their continuing relationship made plain from the start: he the seducer but actually after her money, she befuddled, flattered and insulted all at once.
The musical numbers are pretty clunky, and it's difficult not to feel the heart sink near the start when Shaw begins singing to Eaton, but it's not as bad as it could have been, and when thinking back on this film you'll barely remember them, save for a Busby Berkeley-predicting overhead shot in one dance sequence. Above all it's the comic routines that entertain, with Hammer trying to sell off dodgy real estate at the centre of them. Chico is employed to bump up the prices at the auction, but of course beats all the other bidders, while Harpo (who plays clarinet as well as harp here - "Clarinet-o" didn't sound quite right, I guess) steals back the necklace, mainly out of kleptomania than good intentions. Harpo just edges his brothers out for laughs in this, providing many hilarious bits such as his reaction to the speeches at the end, but they all contribute and it's fascinating to see a cinematic phenomenon beginning, even if it is undeniably creaky in other ways.