Sunday, September 19, 2010

Best Actor Of 1932-33 (Comedy/Musical): The Marx Brothers (Horse Feathers and Duck Soup), Part Seven

[To read previous entries in this essay, click 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6]

Duck Soup: The Brothers At Their Best
Let's just cut to the chase. If you've never seen Duck Soup, back away from the blog, turn off your computer and go find it—right now! It's available for instant streaming from Netflix, if you're set up for that, and you can always buy it here from if you're not.

Because the fact is there are certain works of art so essential to the human experience that, love them or hate them, not to have experienced them at least once dooms you to a life of aimless wandering in the desert of cultural ignorance. Hamlet, the Mona Lisa, Michelangelo's David. And if I had to choose just one Marx Brothers movie that meets the definition of essential, Duck Soup would be it.

Now, those of you who have been following this blog for a while know I'm not prone to dogmatic pronouncements. I'm a live and let live guy (in a live and let die world) and if you don't like the same movies I like, that's perfectly alright with me. There are no wrong answers, I always say, just movies you haven't seen yet.

So when I tell you in such uncertain terms that this is one of the movies you should see, well, you know I'm not kidding around. Go. See the movie. Then come back and read this post. We'll wait.

For everybody else, here's a quick reminder of why Duck Soup is so wonderful:

Duck Soup is the story of a nation in crisis: Freedonia's economy is in a shambles, it's treasury depleted, and only the largess of a wealthy benefactor, the rich widow Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) keeps the country afloat. Moreover, Freedonia's bellicose neighbor, Sylvania, is massing troops on the border, and with a month's rent already paid on the battlefield, war seems inevitable. The country teeters on the brink of anarchy.

Freedonia is desperate for a savior and riding to the rescue is that fearless man of the people, Rufus T. Firefly. A fighting progressive—or an iron-fisted dictator, depending on which news source you follow—Firefly takes office pledging broad reform.

"If you think this country's bad off now," he promises, "just wait 'til I get through with it!"

If this sounds like a cynical critique of every head of state since Pontius Pilate last washed his hands, it is. It's also the funniest. That Duck Soup seems as fresh now as it did when it first premiered seventy-seven years ago is a testament both to how well it was made and to how little human nature ever really changes.

The film features some of the funniest and most famous scenes in the Marx Brothers canon, especially the mirror scene, but also Chico's trial for treason, a running battle with the owner of a lemonade stand, and the wild finale where the besieged Brothers are rescued by, among other things, a school of dolphins. Many factors are responsible for Duck Soup's greatness: Leo McCarey's face-paced direction; the expert supporting work of Margaret Dumont, Edgar Kennedy and Louis Calhern; and a top-notch screenplay that despite contributions from many sources—not just credited writers Harry Ruby, Bert Kalmar, Arthur Sheekman and Nat Perrin, but also Grover Jones, Norman Krasna, Herman Mankiewicz, Leo McCarey and the Marx Brothers themselves—was the most cohesive and inventive of the Paramount era.

Above all, though, Duck Soup works thanks to the performances of Groucho, Chico and Harpo themselves. Groucho, of course, was already without peer in terms of comic timing, and his delivery could take jokes that on the printed page were pretty flat—asking Margaret Dumont to take a card, for example ("Keep it. I've got fifty-one left")—and turn them into brilliantly absurdist gems. But in Duck Soup, he also looks physically comfortable for the first time, no longer worried about hitting his mark (always a problem for him), inhabiting his character and commanding the screen like a seasoned movie actor instead of a transplanted theater performer.

Harpo's business is not quite as anarchic as in previous movies (personally, I think Animal Crackers is his best showcase), but it's tighter here, tying back into the plot. He's just as easily distracted as ever, but now, for example, when he tries to crack a safe and winds up breaking into a radio by mistake, there are consequences which lead directly to two of the movie's best moments—the mirror scene and Chico's trial for treason. And, to reiterate an earlier point, he for once has a nemesis (two, actually, in the persons of Edgar Kennedy and Louis Calhern) worthy of his antics.

As good as Groucho and Harpo are, though, the real surprise of the movie is Chico. I'm not suggesting Chico wasn't good in previous movies, but his role had been limited largely to malapropisms, piano solos and translating for the silent Harpo, a role Chico seemed content to play as long as he got his paycheck on time. In Duck Soup, however, entire sequences that have nothing to do with tormenting Groucho or supporting Harpo—the meeting with Louis Calhern, the peanut vendor scenes with Edgar Kennedy, the scene in Margaret Dumont's bedroom, and the trial for treason—are built around him and in these scenes, Chico showcased a comic talent the equal of his brothers.

In part, Chico's expanded role was an unexpected dividend of the Brothers' otherwise unsuccessful radio venture. Without Harpo and the piano to fall back on, the show's writers (Perrin and Sheekman) were forced to devise new ways to feature Chico and to beef up his role to equal Groucho's and many of these new sketches, including the "Shadow-day" business in Calhern's office and the trial scene late in the movie, wound up in the movie to Chico's benefit.

Leo McCarey was the other driving force behind Chico's more visible role. A veteran of the Hal Roach Studios, McCarey had his own comic sensibilities and the confidence to impose them on the Marx Brothers. He perceived that the perfect complement to their comedy of aggression was the comedy of the "slow-burn" reaction—what Houghton Mifflin defines as "a gradually increasing sense or show of anger"—perfected by such Hal Roach acts as Laurel and Hardy and W.C. Fields. To that end, he brought in veteran performers Edgar Kennedy and Louis Calhern, adapted bits from the silent era such as the three-hat gag to bring them to a slow boil, and let Chico and Harpo go to work on them.

I wish I could tell you Zeppo fared as well. In consciously setting out to make the best Marx Brothers movie ever, director Leo McCarey ruthlessly streamlined the story, eliminating every element not directly related to producing laughs. In addition to cutting the usual harp and piano solos, he also cut a scripted romance between Zeppo and Raquel Torres (who played dancer Vera Marcal) as well as Zeppo's number "Keep On Doin' What You're Doin'" (recycled a year later for the Wheeler and Woolsey comedy, Hips Hips Hooray), effectively reducing the youngest Marx Brother to a bit player in his own movie.

Duck Soup premiered on November 17, 1933 to mixed reviews. The usually supportive Mourdant Hall of the New York Times called it "noisy" and not nearly as funny as previous efforts. Variety complained that the movie "could easily have been written by a six-year-old," but overall recommended the film. Everybody loved the mirror scene.

In terms of box office, Duck Soup wasn't quite the flop of legend, turning a profit, but nevertheless grossing less than any of its predecessors. In part, the movie was done in by Paramount's financial difficulties which left little money in the budget for promotion, but the Marx Brothers were also victims of bad timing—as Tim Dirks at The Greatest Films put it, "audiences were taken aback by such preposterous political disrespect, buffoonery and cynicism at a time of political and economic crisis, with Roosevelt's struggle against Depression in the US amidst the rising power of Hitler in Germany."

Of course, Duck Soup's reputation as a masterpiece is now secure, the sort of movie that—as Woody Allen posited in Hannah and Her Sisters—can give you a reason for living even on the worst of days. In 1990, the Library of Congress selected Duck Soup for preservation in the National Film Registry. Ten years later, the American Film Institute ranked it as the fifth best American comedy of all time. Personally, I rank it even higher than that.

Despite its status as an essential film classic, the experience of making Duck Soup was not a happy one. The Brothers and Leo McCarey did not enjoy working together—and indeed never worked together again. Chico and Harpo missed the piano and harp solos, and Zeppo was so miffed, he left the act permanently and never performed in another movie.

In addition, shortly after production began, the studio fired producer Herman J. Mankiewicz. Although he and Mankiewicz remained friends for life, Groucho was blunt in describing Mank's efforts as a producer, calling him "an irritating drunk who didn't give a hang about the movie project." (Apparently a typical day at the office would consist of napping, drinking and talking to his wife on the phone, and Mankiewicz only kept his job because Paramount executive B.P. Schulberg owed him large sums of money from their frequent poker games. When Paramount reorganized in 1933, Schulberg lost his job and Mankiewicz soon found himself on the curb.)

Mostly, though, the unhappiness on the set was a direct result of the Brothers' deteriorating relationship with the studio and soon after Duck Soup's premiere, the Marx Brothers and Paramount Pictures would permanently part company. For the first time in more than a decade the Brothers found themselves out of work and at a crossroads.

Trivia: When watching Hollywood films made between 1933 and 1935, you're likely to see the "NRA" logo before the opening credits. No, that's not an endorsement of the National Rifle Association, but instead refers to the National Recovery Administration. Part of Franklin Roosevelt's "New Deal" effort to lift the country from the depths of the Depression, the National Industrial Recovery Act allowed the NRA to negotiate with various industries on behalf of the federal government to establish codes of "fair competition," including a minimum wage for workers and collectively-agreed-upon prices for goods and services.

Participation was voluntary and those businesses which adhered to the negotiated fair competition codes displayed the NRA logo on their products. (Those that didn't participate often found themselves subject of a boycott.)

In 1935, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously declared the NRA an unconstitutional delegation of legislative powers to the executive branch. Although the National Recovery Administration ceased to operate, several of its basic concepts, including the minimum wage, were included in the National Labor Relations Act (a.k.a. the Wagner Act) passed later that same year.

[To continue to Part Eight, click here. To read more about Duck Soup, click here.]

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