watching a Marx Bros. movie, one rarely takes note of the direction.
Even in their finest work, it almost
seems like the
director’s chief function involved keeping the brothers within the
frame. This isn’t to say that the team didn’t work with some very
talented comedy directors over the course of their career-Norman
McLeod, William A. Seiter, and Charles F. Reisner (who’d started with
Chaplin) all took turns at the reins on different films. Sam Wood, a
fine dramatic director, helmed two of their best movies, “A Night at
the Opera” and “A Day at the Races”. And “The Cocoanuts” was
co-directed by Robert Florey-a director of interesting if offbeat
movies, whose films have been written about, especially by William K.
Everson, as some of the more interesting B pictures.
The popular idea of directing “comedian” comedies seems to be that, for even many of the best comedy directors of the 30s, their task often seemed to include little more than stepping back and letting the comedians perform their material before the camera. It would be more accurate to say that the best directors never tried to overshadow the comedians with their own distinct styles, and instead possessed the ability to recognize what worked best for the unique performance styles of the comedians they were working with. The direction of “A Night at the Opera”, for instance, is perfectly in keeping with the stylistic and formal requirements of the film, and achieves a kind of “invisibility” as a result. To paraphrase a common statement about film craftsmanship, if it’s good comedy direction, you won’t notice it. The directors recognized that their chief task was to showcase the comic talents of their performers as best as possible, and to shoot the films in such a way that the performance aspects were maximized, while suppressing visual or technical flourishes that would have called attention away from the performer.
It is interesting then, to look at “Duck Soup”, which is perhaps both the best and, at the same time, one of the most atypical of the Marx Bros. films. Where it differs from their other work can begin to be understood by examining the impact the director-Leo McCarey-had on the shaping of the film. Unlike McLeod or Seiter, McCarey was a distinct filmmaker with a unique approach to comedy. He had a knack for finding the comic potential in seemingly ordinary situations, and really knew how to milk a comedy sequence for its full potential. “Duck Soup” was made just before he would go on to do a series of both popular and critical successes-films like “The Awful Truth”, a comedy of re-marriage starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne; “Love Affair”, a superb romantic picture with Charles Boyer and Dunne again; the Bing Crosby vehicles, “Going My Way” and “The Bells of St. Mary’s”, and of course, his remake of “Love Affair”, this time called “An Affair to Remember” and memorably featuring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr.
McCarey had gotten his start in comedy at the Hal Roach studio, where he wrote and supervised many of the early Laurel and Hardy comedies. It was McCarey who claimed to have had the idea of teaming the two after noticing how well they worked together. He would go on to provide stories, as well as supervise, a number of their films through the end of the silent period. McCarey’s work with Laurel and Hardy provides a very interesting glimpse at the influence he had on his one film with the Marx Bros. For starters, there’s the title, which itself was the title of the 1927 Laurel and Hardy short, and was also the first real glimpse of the kind of on-screen chemistry the two would have in future films.
It’s tempting to watch parts of “Duck Soup” and see the kinds of routines that could have worked in a Laurel and Hardy film. There are three major sequences in the film that are worth examining in light of McCarey’s involvement in the film: the sequences with lemonade vendor Edgar Kennedy (which consist of two separate scenes in the film), the scene in which Harpo and Chico break into Mrs. Teasdale’s house to steal Freedonia’s war code and plans (or, as Chico later confesses under oath during his trial for treason, “a code and two pair of plans”), and the mirror routine, which is a moment of pure physical comedy, a rare thing in a Marx Bros. picture.
The “lemonade vendor” sequences find Harpo and Chico working as peanut vendors who set up their stand near Edgar Kennedy, who is minding his own business and trying to sell lemonade. Chico is trying to get information out of Harpo regarding top secret government plans that he was supposed to find out, and becomes frustrated with Harpo when he doesn’t speak, which, as Allen Eyles notes, is “a very curious suggestion that he normally does”.1 The argument escalates and Harpo finally runs afoul of Kennedy when his hands finds its way first into one of his customer’s pockets, and then into Kennedy’s! Upset that their fighting is driving away his customers, Chico attempts to explain the situation to him, and demonstrates the extent of his argument with Harpo by kicking Kennedy in the backside as an example of their fighting tactics. Next, Kennedy confronts Harpo, whose silence only causes him more frustration. After both Kennedy and Harpo lose their hats during a brief scuffle, Harpo helpfully replaces his own hat onto Kennedy’s head, and we’re off on the “exchanging hats” routine that Laurel and Hardy did so well. When Kennedy finally can’t take anymore, he pushes Chico off-screen, while Harpo fills up his horn with lemonade, squirting it into Kennedy’s face. Finally, Kennedy takes the horn, sticking it down the front of Harpo’s trousers and emptying the last of the lemonade into his pants. Harpo uncomfortably walks off, whistling, and finally takes Kennedy’s hat (knocked off his head by Chico once again kicking him in the pants), and places it inside their peanut roaster, setting fire to it.
This sequence is interesting to compare with the way it would have been handled by Laurel and Hardy. Glenn Mitchell suggests that Edgar Kennedy was probably cast in the film at McCarey’s request, and notes that this is especially obvious as he “engages Harpo and Chico in the type of leisurely, exchanged violence McCarey had pioneered at Roach.” 2 If the scene had featured Laurel and Hardy, they would have certainly been far less aggressive than Harpo and Chico. It’s impossible to imagine Hardy being as aggressive as to kick Kennedy on the backside to “demonstrate” why he was frustrated with Laurel. Similarly, it’s hard to imagine Laurel picking pockets or antagonizing Kennedy, at least not intentionally! One can, however, imagine Hardy being on the receiving end of the retribution for one of Laurel’s actions.
The next scene with the lemonade vendor finds Kennedy, now in a new straw hat, antagonizing Harpo by stealing some of the peanuts from his cart. Harpo responds by knocking the peanuts out of Kennedy’s hand, and finally burning his new hat in the roaster. In a fit of anger, Kennedy tips the entire cart over! With a sense of smug satisfaction, he returns to his lemonade stand, and is perplexed when his long line of customers begin to leave in disgust. He then turns around and discovers the reason: Harpo soaking his feet in the serving tub of lemonade! Kennedy responds with a simple “Oh!”, as he puts his head down in absolute desperation and resignation, which suggests he recognizes this as one battle that’s not worth continuing. The last shot is filmed in a long shot, which allows the audience to see the source of the customers’ discomfort (Harpo standing in the tub of lemonade) before Kennedy does, which allows the audience to anticipate his final reaction of surprise and resignation. In shooting the scene this way, McCarey is not only heightening the impact of Harpo’s mischief, but is also maximizing the comic payoff of Kennedy’s famous “slow burn” take. This scene is also easier to imagine being played by Stan Laurel, as Kennedy’s character provokes the response this time around. Laurel was never above being aggressive, but that side of his character only came out in reaction to others’ antagonism.
The scene in which Harpo and Chico burglarize Mrs. Teasdale’s house was compared by Glenn Mitchell to the Laurel and Hardy short, “Night Owls”, in which they botch an in-home burglary. Whereas Laurel and Hardy try to be successful at carrying out the burglary but fail due to incompetence, Harpo and Chico set about wreaking havoc for no apparent reason. 3 When a co-conspirator, staying in the house as Mrs. Teasdale’s guest, tells them not to make a sound, Harpo immediately spots a large clock, running a few minutes slow by his calculations, and after checking it against the alarm clock he’s carrying, sets it to the right time, setting off a loud chime. Next, he picks up a figure of a duck, which turns out to be a music box that starts up playing its tune. Setting down his alarm clock, it begins ringing. Not more than a minute into the burglary, Harpo has already succeeded in creating a cacophony. Rather than attempting to do anything about it, he instead begins to dance about to the tune of the music box, and even plucks the strings of an open grand piano like a harp! Chico pulls his away from the piano, causing the lid to fall shut with a crash. It’s easy to see the McCarey (as well as the Laurel and Hardy) influence on the staging of this scene. Once again, it’s tempting to speculate how Laurel and Hardy would have played it. One can imagine Hardy going to great lengths to stress to Laurel the importance of keeping quiet, then turning around and crashing into something himself, at which point Laurel would “shush” him, and Hardy would respond with “Don’t ‘shush’ me!”
Finally, the mirror sequence shows a strong influence of silent comedy, though it’s a routine that Laurel and Hardy would not have performed. Aside from the obvious difference of their physical appearances, the scene is a kind of visual nonsense, something of a game that Groucho and Harpo play. Groucho knows that it is not his reflection he is seeing in the mirror. But rather than just reaching out and grabbing the impostor, he turns it into game, to see if he can outwit Harpo and catch him off guard, exposing the charade. Eyles notes that the scene had been performed by other comedians before the Marxes, most notably by Chaplin in “The Floorwalker” (1916) and Max Linder in “Seven Years Bad Luck” (1921). He suggests that the scene is so effective precisely because it is treated as a game between Groucho and Harpo, and that because of Harpo’s skill in mimicking every one of Groucho’s actions, as well as the brilliant construction of the scene, “it never becomes dull or repetitive”. 4 The fact the scene is played in an entirely silent ambience stresses the physical and visual component. The entire charade is treated as such a game that, at one point, Groucho “allows his ‘reflection’ a three-dimensional presence by momentarily changing places” with Harpo. 5 The scene is so brilliantly constructed that the viewer almost forgets about the suspense of the deception, to say nothing of the actual circumstances that have led up to this scene in the film’s narrative, and instead are all too happy to take a few minutes to appreciate the precise and clever visual and physical comedy of the scene. It’s a tribute to Leo McCarey that he was able to integrate such a scene so successfully into the world of verbal comedy that the Marxes inhabited and made their own.
As these examples attest, McCarey had a strong influence in shaping “Duck Soup” as a film, and it’s a testament to his skill that he was able to weave his style so successfully with that of the Marx Bros. to create what many viewers and critics consider to be their masterpiece. Other directors with whom the team worked, especially men like Norman McLeod, William A. Seiter and Charles F. Reisner, were equally adept at directing comedy, but worked in such a way that their styles were essentially “invisible”, and as a result were always able to bring out whatever qualities worked best to showcase the talents of the particular comedian they were working with at any given time. Leo McCarey, a distinct comic artist in his own right, was able to integrate his style in a noticeable but effective way, and contributed strongly to what is considered one of the finest examples of screen comedy ever produced.
1. Allen Eyles, "The Complete
Films of the Marx Bros." (Secaucus, NJ: The Citadel Press. 1992), 132.
2. Glenn Mitchell, "The Marx Bros. Encyclopedia" (London, BT. Batsford Ltd. 1997), 84.
3. Glenn Mitchell, "The Marx Bros. Encyclopedia". 85.
4. Allen Eyles, "The Complete Films of the Marx Bros." 132.
5. Glenn Mitchell, "The Marx Bros. Encyclopedia". 85.