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But He No Speak

June 8, 2017

The hotel manager was not pleased.  He told the immigrant, “I’m not gonna have that red-headed fellow running around in the lobby.”  Then he asked, “Who is he?”  The immigrant replied, “ ‘Ats-a my partner, but he no speak.”  So goes the dialogue around the 44-minute mark of The Cocoanuts, the Marx Brothers’ 1929 film.  The hotel manager is played by Groucho Marx, the immigrant is Chico Marx, and the red-headed fellow is Harpo Marx.

The Cocoanuts had been a stage musical from 1925 to 1928.  It played in Washington, D.C. from September 20- 25, 1926, and on Thursday September 23 the President of the United States was in attendance.  Since the President was nicknamed “Silent Cal,” the dialogue for the play had originally been as follows.

Chico:  ‘Ats-a my partner, but he no speak.

Groucho:  It isn’t Coolidge, is it?

Of course, this was good topical humor.  Perhaps some people even remembered that President Coolidge’s sandy-colored hair had been red during his youth.  But despite their penchant for irreverent word-play, the Marx Brothers chose to eliminate the Coolidge line out of respect for the President.

But Groucho could not just leave it at that.  He ad libbed a comment about Idaho Senator William Borah.  Coolidge had asked Borah to be his running mate in 1924, but Borah had declined.  We do not know exactly what Groucho said.  We do not know how the audience reacted.  But it has been reported that Coolidge laughed only once during the entire performance and that it was Groucho’s offhand remark that did it.

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