The early Marx Brothers' films have a simple formula: Write a love story, add a rich dowager, stir in a scam of some sort and give the boys all the time in the world to rip the whole thing apart.
"What set them apart was their anarchy," said Mark Bedard, an actor and writer whose adaptation of the Marx Brothers' Broadway show "The Cocoanuts" opens Friday at the Guthrie.
Anarchy is the proper word for the brothers who grew up in vaudeville and dominated film comedy until 1949 — depending on whether you consider "Love Happy" a comedy or a tragedy. They ad-libbed their way through sketches, dropped one-liners and — with Harpo particularly — perfected the sight gag.
George S. Kaufman, one of the few writers the boys admired, is said to have once remarked while watching them work, "Shhh, I think I hear one of my original lines."
Written by Kaufman with music by Irving Berlin, "The Cocoanuts" has Groucho managing a failing Florida resort hotel. Chico and Harpo arrive hoping to fleece the guests, who include a rich widow, her lovely daughter and a couple of con artists. The daughter is in love with one of the hotel clerks. The lovebirds get to sing Berlin's songs.
And there you have it. Let the madness begin.
A balancing act
Bedard plays Groucho in the show, which mixes Twin Cities actors with performers who launched the piece last year at Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
A version of "The Cocoanuts" was produced by Illusion Theater and Actors Theater of Minnesota in 2003, with actor Jim Cunningham as Groucho. The challenge, Cunningham said recently, is to obey what he called "both the letter of the law and the spirit of the law" in portraying the manic brothers.
"I didn't want to be like an Elvis impersonator but it's important when you put that greasepaint on your upper lip to be in the ballpark — that's the letter of the law," Cunningham said.
"But the bigger thing for me was to give the audience that sense of something that was happening right now. What drove people to [the Marx Brothers] was the idea that on any given day you could see something that no one else would see. That's the spirit of the law."
Bedard and the show's director, David Ivers, totally get that.
"This belongs in the theater," Ivers said. "No one wants to see an impersonation for 2 ½ hours. We want to treat it like a new play."
To that end, they are bringing in more structure, more Berlin songs and even bits from other Marx Brothers films. That sounds like heresy on first blush — more structure!? — but Groucho's son, Arthur Marx, recalled producer Irving Thalberg's feeling that "Duck Soup" didn't meet expectations because it didn't have an emotional connection.
"[Thalberg] says, 'You gotta put a love story in your movie so there'll be something to root for,' " Arthur Marx told National Public Radio in an interview years ago.
"Cocoanuts" actually feels a little tame compared with the Marx Brothers' later films. The musical was a Broadway hit in 1925 and became their first movie four years later.
This was back when Zeppo was still part of the act. The youngest Marx would bail out after 1933's "Duck Soup," and when you watch his work in "Cocoanuts," the only question is why he didn't quit earlier. He was overwhelmed by Chico, Harpo and Groucho.
The foursome would film "The Cocoanuts" during the daytime out in Astoria, Queens, then perform in the evenings in "Animal Crackers," their last Broadway show and later their second film. Sound technology was so primitive in those days that sheafs of paper had to be soaked in water so they wouldn't rustle in the actors' hands.
On the Guthrie stage, Bedard's Groucho will be joined by fellow Oregonians Brent Hinkley as Harpo, John Tufts as Chico and Justin Keyes as Zeppo. Twin Cities actors portray many of the other roles. Peggy O'Connell is Mrs. Potter, Cat Brindisi is her daughter Polly. Ann Michels and Paul de Cordova play the hapless schemers and Wesley Mouri is the male ingenue.
Were they the best?
You could mire yourself in a fruitless barroom argument over who is the best team of comedy's Golden Age.
Laurel and Hardy were meticulous masters of slapstick and produced an astonishing volume of work. The many versions of the Three Stooges, blue-collar knuckleheads in low-budget romps, endured for decades with a raucous mayhem. Abbott and Costello's well-deserved popularity extended more easily to TV and radio because theirs was essentially a stand-up routine.
The Marx Brothers made only 13 feature films, finishing with the regrettable "Love Happy" in 1949. Groucho often joked that they made their final two films to pay off Chico's gambling debts.
What distinguishes their output, however, is the status the boys commanded. Top-notch writers Kaufman and S.J. Perelman, MGM's leading producer Thalberg, "Wizard of Oz" composer Herbert Stothart and actors such as Lucille Ball, Kitty Carlisle, Sig Ruman and Thelma Todd all worked on their films. Thalberg authorized more than $1 million for "A Night at the Opera," which is a favorite for many fans — until they turn to "Duck Soup" or "Animal Crackers" or "A Day at the Races."
There was a sophisticated intelligence in their anarchy that probably resulted from their New York roots. Too, the sharply distinctive extremes of their characters gave their work an imaginative theatrical dimension unlike their comedic confrères.
And that's only the films. The live act, honed for years on the stage, had a virtuosity of movement, jokes, caricature and satire.
"Watching their live act, there would have been nothing like it," said Bedard.
His job is to make us believe we are seeing it.