[box cover]

Copacabana

Fans of the Marx Brothers (and we are legion) or of Hollywood nostalgia will find points of interest in this curio from the Republic Pictures vault, distributed by Artisan. After all, a musical comedy teaming up Groucho Marx with "Brazilian Bombshell" Carmen Miranda should have real retro-kick appeal. At this point in his career, Groucho was comedy's elder statesman, his career spanning vaudeville, Broadway, and motion pictures. Miranda, with her towering fruit-basket headgear and quicktime Portuguese hot-cha-cha, remains the very definition of nostalgic showbiz kitsch. However, hardcore Marxists already know that, as Groucho's first solo film appearance, 1947's Copacabana was a once-over-slightly effort that the Master himself dismissed before the cameras even rolled.

It's not as if he was suddenly bereft without Harpo, Chico, and/or Zeppo. (After a quarter-century in show business the team broke up following a string of subpar comedies misguided by MGM, then Groucho reunited with Harpo and Chico in 1946 for A Night in Casablanca.) And heaven knows it's not that the one, the only Groucho wasn't talented and funny. No, the faults here lie with Alfred E. Green's terminally uninspired directing of a bloodless screenplay that offers Groucho a few good lines but none of the sparkle and energy that made his magic work on screen. He is Lionel Q. Devereux and Miranda is Carmen Navarro, a duo act ten years affianced and professionally on the skids. Devereux, now Carmen's penniless agent, connives to get her an engagement at New York's prestigious Copacabana Club. And he figures to double their dough by auditioning two acts — Carmen as herself and Carmen in disguise as veiled French chanteuse Mademoiselle Fifi. When both Carmen and "Fifi" are simultaneously booked at the Copa, humor is squeezed from her quick-change acts like blood from a pomegranate. The required love interest comes when Copa manager Steve Cochran falls for the faux Fifi, leaving adrift his pretty bookkeeper (former child star Gloria Jean in a role Groucho secured for her). Madcap mayhem tries to ensue, but the tires are flat on this vehicle.

Green's flaccid timing allows too many wisecracks to die waiting for a laugh track that's not there. It's always good to see ol' Grou in action, but with this weak material and with no drawing on his own inventiveness, his Lionel Q. Devereux is a drab shadow compared to Rufus T. Firefly. At times he comes across as someone else trying self-consciously to do a classic Groucho impression — and in one scene that's literally the truth. When Devereux announces that he has yet another client auditioning at the Copa, out struts Groucho again, this time in the signature greasepaint mustache and scruffy attire of his Golden Age self, singing Kalmar and Ruby's "Go West Young Man" with a corral of lovely cowgirl chorines. (In The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia, Glenn Mitchell tags this scene as the old Groucho rescuing the new in a time of need.) Of course Miranda's big stagy presence also gets showcase song-and-dance numbers, which makes Copacabana worth a look if only to see where decades' worth of Carmen Miranda references, from Bugs Bunny to Radio Days, come from.

Before production started, Groucho wrote to his daughter Miriam: "I am sure it will be one of the worst movies of the new season." Then afterward he quipped: "For the first time in my film career, I appeared without my brothers. They must have known something I didn't.... I seemed to be playing second banana to the tropical fruit on Carmen Miranda's hat." The good news is that he hit his second career peak just a few years later as the quick-witted, ribald host of You Bet Your Life.

*          *          *

Artisan's DVD edition of Copacabana is, thankfully, the black-and-white original rather than Ted Turner's colorized version. In its original 1.33:1, the image is occasionally grainy but clean with fine, clear audio that's said to be 2.0 Stereo Surround, but you'd never know it. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne



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