Wednesday 12 May 2010

Duck Soup (1933)

Director: Leo McCarey
Stars: The Four Marx Brothers
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

It turns out that I was both right and wrong. When I watched A Night at the Opera for this project, I wondered about when it was that the Marx Brothers did their best work. They made five films at Paramount before the imposition of the Production Code, over which they exercised a great deal of artistic control. They then moved to MGM for five more, where they worked not just under the moral restrictions of the Code but also under producer Irving Thalberg, who brought in a number of supporting actors with their own songs to sing. Having only seen three of the MGM films at that time, none of which massively impressed me, I wondered if the best Marx Brothers movies would turn out to be the old ones for Paramount where their anarchy could reign supreme, films like Duck Soup. After all, if anyone was born to benefit from the freedoms of the precode era it surely had to be Groucho Marx, with his brothers Harpo and Chico following close behind.

By the time I caught up with this film, I'd seen eleven of their thirteen pictures, including all five for Paramount and all five for MGM, more than enough to form a firm opinion. I do feel that the early pictures were more successful, not least because of the general lack of distractions from the supporting cast. There were still songs, or at least musical sequences, and the films would certainly have been better for their absence, but at least they didn't feel like stolen screen time to fast forward over. I also feel that the lack of the Production Code gave the brothers a good deal more leeway with their material and they could descend that little bit further into outright anarchy, their natural territory, after all. Even today, over sixty years after the last film they made together, they're still the screen definition of 'anarchic comedy'. Put three Jim Carrey clones, all strung out on speed, into one movie and they still couldn't maintain this pace.

Bizarrely, while I prefer the Paramount movies generally and certainly Duck Soup over A Night at the Opera, my favourite Marx Brothers movie so far is the underrated At the Circus, their third MGM film. Perhaps by 1939, five years after the Hays Code began to be seriously enforced, they had worked out ways to get round it. For instance, there's a memorable scene in that film with Groucho trying to recover $10,000 in stolen money from the cleavage of a lady circus performer. He looks straight at the camera and says deadpan, 'There must be some way of getting that money without getting into trouble with the Hays Office.' At this point, Groucho and his audience fully understood the situation and he could play off it. At the Circus also contains my favourite musical bit with Harpo and a Negro swing band that appears out of nowhere, and Harpo's practical jokes get to go beyond what he got away with elsewhere. This is more anarchic though.

Duck Soup is the quintessential Marx Brothers precode, a 68 minute riot that's so fast paced that it's easy to forget to breathe. By the time you catch one gag there are a half dozen more bashing you over the head with a queue forming behind them. The gags are the entire point, the skimpy plot being merely a framework for improvisation. Here, Margaret Dumont plays yet another rich woman, who has been lending her country of Freedonia vast sums of money. When they ask for $20m more, she agrees on the stipulation that the leader be replaced by 'a progressive, fearless fighter', Rufus T Firefly, naturally played by Groucho, the last person anyone in their right mind would ever choose to run anything, let alone a country, which he soon has at war over nothing. The conceit that he always runs everything is as realistic as that of the Monty Python team playing most of the characters in their films themselves but reality is utterly not the point.

The Marx Brothers only play one character each, but they're the regular ones. Groucho is Rufus T Firefly, who has no respect for anything, who sleeps with a cigar in his mouth and who always has a wisecrack or six for any occasion. As he sings during one of the musical numbers, 'The last man nearly ruined this place; he didn't know what to do with it. If you think this country's bad off now, just wait till I get through with it!' Chico and Harpo are Chicolini and Pinky, a couple of spies from the neighbouring country of Sylvania, who change sides throughout the film at the drop of a hat. Chicolini is in charge, of course, always trying to talk his way out of something. 'Chicolini here may talk like an idiot and look like an idiot,' Firefly suggests at one point, 'but don't let that fool you. He really is an idiot.' As always, Harpo doesn't speak but he seems to have everything you can imagine in his pockets except his own hands, which are usually in someone else's.
Backing them up for the fifth time is Zeppo Marx, the fourth of the brothers who left the gang after this film to become a theatrical agent. While many critics have reevaluated his role in their Paramount films, explaining that his screen persona was a clever parody of the stiff and wooden romantic juvenile so common in the musicals of the twenties and thirties or suggesting that he was the link between the anarchy of the three obvious brothers and the reality of the audience, it's still hard to notice him. In these films he's the like the perennial extra, a character like Woody Allen's Zelig who is somehow always there but never stands out. Even his character's name fails to stand out. While Groucho plays someone with the outrageous name of Rufus T Firefly, Zeppo is merely Bob Roland, his secretary. One day I'll try to watch a Marx Brothers movie just to see if I can concentrate on Zeppo's character amongst all the surrounding chaos. I bet I'll fail.

With twelve Marx Brothers films behind me, only Love Happy still elusive, it's plain that how well each has lasted depends on how well the jokes stand up. After all, however great their comedic timing they weren't good actors and the stories fall apart in the slightest breeze. What remains is madcap humour and non stop gags, and the better these are, the better the film turns out. Duck Soup is at the top of the heap, partly because there are so many gags crammed into the scant running time and partly because they're more consistent. There are more memorable Groucho one liners here than in A Night at the Opera and more great set pieces too, partly through the involvement of veteran comedy director Leo McCarey, who wrote and directed many shorts at Hal Roach Studios for Our Gang, Charley Chase and Laurel & Hardy and who went on to three Oscars, for directing The Awful Truth and for writing and directing Going My Way.

McCarey's contributions to this film include the title, reused from a 1927 Laurel & Hardy silent short, the break in scene at Mrs Teasdale's house and the classic mirror routine, perhaps the most famous piece of Marx Brothers screen time there is. This was an old vaudeville routine, possibly first used in movies by Charlie Chaplin in The Floorwalker in 1916 and also used by Max Linder in Seven Years Bad Luck five years later, yet when others copied it in future years, they were copying the Marx Brothers. The scene has all three of them dressed alike in Wee Willie Winkie nightshirts and caps, complete with glasses and fake moustaches, and Firefly and Pinky find themselves on opposite sides of a mirror that has been broken, pretending to be the other's reflection. The scene ends when Chicolini enters it, but the laws of physics have already been broken a couple of times, Firefly even handing his reflection his hat at one point.

There are a number of extended scenes of slapstick, featuring the double act of Chico and Harpo that are as destructively stupid as they are genius examples of comedic timing. I found that even as I cringed at some of the antics I couldn't help but laugh at the sheer effrontery of what they were doing. The first scene with this pair, attempting to report back on Firefly's movements to Ambassador Trentino of Sylvania, is insanity at its finest. Most of it is told through pantomime, Harpo's antics with a pair of scissors getting the better of the poor ambassador on countless occasions. If the scene itself is Heaven, then being the character in the scene is Hell and Harpo and Chico capable devils. A later scene has them square off as peanut sellers against veteran comedian Edgar Kennedy's lemonade concession. There's nothing remotely intelligent here but the sheer skill of the shell game they play with each other's hats is joyous to watch.

Most of the one liners are aimed firmly at Margaret Dumont's character by Groucho, who starts as he means to go on. 'I've sponsored your appointment because I feel you are the most able statesman in all Freedonia,' she tells him but he just lets rip. 'Well, that covers a lot of ground. Say, you cover a lot of ground yourself. You'd better beat it. I hear they're gonna tear you down and put up an office building where you're standing. You can leave in a taxi. If you can't get a taxi, you can leave in a huff. If that's too soon, you can leave in a minute and a huff. You know, you haven't stopped talking since I came here. You must have been vaccinated with a phonograph needle.' Later he suggests, 'I can see you right now in the kitchen, bending over a hot stove. But I can't see the stove.' Once at war, he points out to his compatriots, 'Remember, you're fighting for this woman's honour, which is probably more than she ever did.'
Duck Soup was not the success that its predecessor had been, Horse Feathers ranking as Paramount's highest grossing film of 1932. It didn't flop but reviews were mixed and it had trouble finding an audience. Perhaps the reason for this is the same reason that it succeeds so well today, its sheer anarchic disrespect for everything. Today we appreciate comedians who deflate the egos of politicians but in 1933 audiences were looking to those politicians to save them from troubles so deep we can't truly relate to them. They were suffering through the height of the Great Depression, with one in four out of work and banks failing left and right. Drought and misuse of farmland had turned the Great Plains into the Dust Bowl, leading to the most intensive migration in American history. Meanwhile across the ocean, there were more than a few rumblings about the new German Chancellor, Adolf Hitler. Politicians were their only hope.

Groucho himself dismissed any political significance to the film. 'What significance?' he asked. 'We were just four Jews trying to get a laugh.' Certainly the humour isn't inconsistent with their other precodes, so perhaps they were merely guilty of not discriminating between targets and thus unwittingly alienated a good part of their audience. Once taken out of the context of the times, the Marx Brothers' anarchic approach of poking fun at everyone and everybody, including themselves, becomes welcome again. For instance, the exclamation, 'This means war!' which is used three times here was hardly new but like the mirror routine it's what people copied when you hear it elsewhere. Certainly Chuck Jones admitted pinching it for Bugs Bunny, who uses it frequently without anyone looking at context. Sometimes though context is everything, most obviously when you want people to cough up money they didn't have to go see your movie.

The most telling example comes when Firefly sends Pinky out to the front. 'You're a brave man,' he tells him. 'Go and break through the lines. And remember while you're out there risking life and limb through shot and shell, we'll be in here thinking what a sucker you are.' This may have been funny in the pacifist years following the First World War and it certainly got a rise out of Mussolini in 1933, the brothers taking it as an honour when he banned their film, but it can't help but leave a bad taste in the mouth when thinking about the Nazis on the horizon. Not all wars are started because someone calls someone else an upstart, as the world was very shortly about to discover. One other line leapt out as potentially offensive but was really just a parody of a very offensive song of the time, That's Why Darkies Were Born. I'm not up on politically correct etiquette, but is something inherently offensive if it parodies something offensive?

Perhaps Duck Soup is merely the perfect picture to mark the end of a few eras. It was their last precode film, the most anarchic and indiscriminate of their pictures, perhaps something they couldn't have topped anyway but which became impossible once the Production Code began to be enforced. It's perfect as a last hurrah for the anarchic precode. It was their last Paramount picture, a number of bitter disputes leading to their five movie deal being amicably not renewed. At MGM they would adopt a slightly different formula, Irving Thalberg keen to add a human element. He felt that the trouble with their films was that there was nobody to root for, least of all the brothers themselves, and that the stories would be notably improved simply by adding someone for them to help. Perhaps that worked for the time too, audiences really wanting the distractions of Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones rather than Groucho starting another war.

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