August 3: The Marx Brothers Debut

The_CocoanutsToday we celebrate the 85th anniversary of the release of a movie that’s just okay. Why? Because, that film, The Cocoanuts, was the first film to star Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo; the four Marx Brothers! The Cocoanuts was based on a Broadway musical that the Marxes had starred in and features the Marxes running (and running amok in) a Florida resort hotel; hilarity ensues. As in most early Marx films, the plot is largely non-existent and is basically just something to hang jokes off of.

Now, like all the Marx films, it’s a zany picture filled with fast talking wordplay and bizarre physical comedy. However, the film is hurt by the technical limitations of early sound film: Cameras and their operators were enclosed in large sound proof booths so that the noisy cameras would not be picked up on the primitive sound equipment. This had the terrible side effect of limiting the camera’s “movement” to simple static shots. In their Broadway days (and in later films) the Marxes Brothers were known for improvising lines and freely moving around every inch of the set, so the camera’s immobility limited their full range of comedic motion, as the camera could not follow the boys on their flights of fancy.

Unfortunately, the Marxes were dissatisfied with the finished film. The brothers didn’t see eye to eye with the film’s two co-directors, Robert Florey and Joseph Santley, of whom Groucho allegedly said “One of them didn’t understand English and the other didn’t understand Harpo.” The four Marxes would even try to buy the picture from Paramount Studios to prevent its release, but the studio denied their offer and released the picture. In the end, The Cocoanuts is far from perfect, but it does offer hints of the surrealistic comedy that the Marxes would employ in future classics like Animal Crackers, Duck Soup and A Night At The Opera.

Now, to honor the Marxes’ film debut, how about a drink that may have been created by one of the brothers? Harpo’s Special first appeared in Esquire Magazine‘s June 1939 “Potables” column which was curated by Murdock Pemberton, a pal of Harpo’s in the Algonquin Round Table days. According to David Wondrich, Esquire‘s current drinks czar, it’s likely that Harpo didn’t actually invent this drink, but might have borrowed the recipe from one of Havana’s two hottest bars. Wondrich states that the Harpo’s Special “is nearly identical to what Sloppy Joe’s calls a Santiago Cocktail and El Floridita a Golden Glove.” What makes this drink different from those two though is the result of a translation mistake. Apparently, those two bars would give patrons bilingual souvenir cocktail recipe pamphlets. The one problem was that whoever did the translation saw the words limón verde (key lime) and thought that the drink required lemons. So, thanks to that error, we have the lemony Harpo’s Special instead of the limey Santiago or Golden Glove.

Harpo’s Special

  • 2 ounces Light Rum
  • 1/2 ounce Orange Curacao
  • 1 ounce lemon juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • dash Aromatic Bitters

Shake well with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Substitute lime juice for lemon juice to make it a Santiago Cocktail or Gold Glove.

Tomorrow: We raise a glass to a New Orleans original with a twist on a classic New Orleans cocktail.


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