Goin’ Coconuts

A short film produced in the 70’s by Encyclopedia Brittanica took us behind the scenes of a hit tv show: the Donny and Marie show. Among the talking heads is a producer who earnestly tells the camera, “the show is about *ideas* … and I try to convey that philisophy to our writers…” One idea is found in the recurring bit where Marie is in grave danger (there’s a sequence of stills from different skits that have Marie tied up and screaming, baring those teeth for any would-be rescuers); Donny would sidle along and remain oblivious to his sibling’s crisis of faith. In another piece, guest star Paul Lynde runs a refreshment stand in the middle of a desert, and refuses Donny a drink of water unless he coughs up the dough. Obviously, family entertainment and sadism are not mutually exclusive concepts.

Goin’ Coconuts was the first and only feature film vehicle for Donny and Marie Osmond. By any standards, its a lousy movie. Jokes are badly timed or just bad: in a chase scene, one of the baddies hijacks a car with a little old lady in the passenger seat (reinforcing the subordination of women in the patriarchal society); the car takes a bad turn and rolls over, the little old lady peering out of a broken window with what one assumes are massive internal injuries. This and other chase scenes are shot at what look to be breakneck speeds upward of 20 mph. Editing is crude. As Donny sings a ballad to his love interest in the hotel lounge, the song is rudely interrupted with badguy cat-and-mouse scenes in hotel hallways. I got a kick out of this – the transition from song to action is so abrupt as to be aggressive, as if the editor was thinking, “I’d rather watch the most boring establishing shot than listen to any more of THIS pap.”

Still, Coconuts is not without its charms – and provocations. The plot revolves around an airport incident. On her way to a tour stop in Hawaii, Marie encounters a priest who gives her an ugly necklace. Naturally (subversively?), the priest is really one of a group of badguys who try to gain control of this necklace (the virtue of a Mormon girl? the triangular shape of the necklace suggests a bejewelled vagina). Marie is painfully aware of the fight for her treasure, but neither Donny nor her agent take her concerns seriously. Marie sports a short coif that further infantilizes her; a key shot follows Marie through the halls of a hotel room; these touches cement one’s suspicion that Goin’ Coconuts takes inspiration from no less than Rosemary’s Baby.

Like their tv show, the Osmonds’ film projects a surprising hostility. Not just the old lady in a car crash, but racism, with stereotyped Asians, Hawaiaans, and Germans (Kenneth Mars, clumsily playing out the mind-body duality of Dr. Strangelove). Are we to be reassured that Donny tries to “get down” with the savage native dancers?

Coconuts was the last of four features directed by Howard Morris, perhaps best known as the actor behind the lunatic Ernest T. Bass on The Andy Griffith Show. (He was also the voice of the Hamburglar.)The thing drags, and aside from a promising disco routine behind the opening credits, and the hit title theme behind the closing credits, the musical numbers fall flat. But despite it’s badness the Polanski and Kubrick references indicate a *kind* of intelligence at work. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.


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