Monday, January 4, 2016

Leo McCarey | Duck Soup

hail freedonia!

by Douglas Messerli

Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, Arthur Sheekman, and Nat Perrin (writers), Leo McCarey (director) Duck Soup / 1933

Trimming away the formerly mandatory harp and piano interludes demonstrating the more serious sides of Harpo and Chico Marx, director Leo McCarey, in one of his most successful early films, Duck Soup, even shedded his movie of any traces of a real love story—unless one wants to cynically describe Groucho’s and Louis Calhern’s (as Ambassador Trentino of Sylvania) courting of Margaret Dumont (playing Mrs. Teasdale) merely for her money as a love story.

    What he left was the usual witty series of non-sequiturs and puns and, yes, the vaudevillian pandemonium of the four brother’s physical gestures. McCarey, who had directed hundreds of one-reelers of Laurel and Hardy and other such comedians (but hadn’t wanted to work with the Marx Brothers) obviously felt, in this way he might control their usually manic behavior. And, in a sense he does tamp down some of their tendency to spin off into complete chaos.
     No problem, Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby’s screenplay and songs take the 1933 comedy quite nicely over the top, and plop it down as a political satire that is also something of a serious anti-war tract.

     Living in the Ruritanian-like kingdom so popular in musical comedies of the day, Mrs. Teasdale virtually controls Freedonia with the vast amounts of money she has inherited from her husband. As in so many of the Marx Brothers other films, she has an inexplicable fixation upon Groucho, this time around playing Rufus T. Firefly, and has insisted that he become the new head of state. Even then, clearly, money talked and the wealthy got what they wanted.

      The comedy, much like Animal Crackers begins with a vast gathering of the government leaders, awaiting the arrival of Groucho, as Dumont bravely sings "When The Clock On The Wall Strikes 10”; of course, when he does arrive it is from within rather than from without, turning the entire situation on its head. And immediately Firefly gets down to the business of announcing through a zany music and dance, a new administration that will surely displease everyone who believes in rational order. 
      Before we know it, the surly Sylvanian ambassador, Trentino, representing a government determined to annex Fredonia, enters with the beautiful Vera Machal (Raquel Torres) on his arm, who predictably will attempt to seduce Firefly, while the evil mastermind further attempts to infiltrate the Freedonian government by sending in Chicolini (Chico) and Pinky (Harpo) as spies. Zeppo clumsily stands by as Fireflies’ secretary, Lt. Bob Roland, performing with his brothers for the very last time.
       Firefly toys with Vera, and, in mockery of the Hays Code, Harpo, always on the lookout for someone to hand his leg (as if it were an erect penis) seemingly beds a lover, the camera revealing the shoes of a man and woman, side by side under a bed—along with four horsehoes lying nearby— before panning back to reveal the a woman in a single bed, Pinky with a horse in the other.
       Groucho, spoiling for a fight, challenges Trentino to war, briefly apologizes, and finally, at a tea-party gathering, thoroughly offends the foreign ambassador, by (accidentally?) slapping his face.
      Together the two spies provide a series of stock vaudevillian skits, including a too-long incident with hats and a lemonade vendor (Edgar Kennedy), a hilarious attempt to break into Mrs. Teasdale’s safe during which a nearby radio blares out chorus after chorus of John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.”

      In short, with the film’s reference to wealthy donors, incompetent government leaders, political break-ins, and tea-party renegades, Duck Soup today seems highly relevant to the last few decades of American politics.

      And finally, McCarey introduced the memorable and much imitated mirror scene, (that he had stolen from Max Linder), a near perfect balletic interchange between Chico and Groucho that—despite some wonderful surprise shifts—almost convinces us that the two might be performing before an invisible mirror, until Harpo crashes the party.

      War, as always is an easy way out, which this film quite savagely satirizes by posing Firefly and company to play in numerous all combinations of war-time postures while dressed in American Civil War uniforms (both Union and Confedracy), in British palace guard garb, in a Scoutmaster’s uniform, and with head topped with a Davy-Crockett cap. Volunteers are called up (“Join the Army and see the Navy”) and secret messages carried across enemy lines (Firefly remarks, as Pink prepares to sneak across the wartime boundaries: “Remember, while you’re out there risking life and limb through shot and shell, we’ll be here thinking what a sucker you are.”)

      Throughout, Mrs. Teasdale swoons, shouts, pitches in and sings out “Hail Freedonia,” which finally results, at war’s end, with the Brothers pelting her with fruit.

      Some audiences and critics found this film’s focus on dialogue and well-worn schtick as a failure. Where were the lovers one routed for and the slightly sentimental musical interludes which demonstrated that at least two of the brothers were sweet beings underneath their apparent cynical anarchism? Others, like myself, find Duck Soup to be one their most successful films. The National Film Registry chose this film for inclusion in 1990.
     McCarey after directing several other equally bacchically comic films with others such as Harold Lloyd, Irene Dunne, and Cary Grant, and creating the great weepy melodrama An Affair to Remember, turned in his later years to his Catholic upbringing in Going My Way and became a supporter of Joseph McCarthy and other Communist-fearing paranoids in My Son John.

Los Angeles, January 4, 2016

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