Monthly Archives: April 2014

Duck Soup (1933)

Chico Marx, Harpo Marx and Louis Calhern

Chico Marx, Harpo Marx and Louis Calhern

The Marx Brothers made only thirteen films as a team. Most of their fans agree that the first five they made at Paramount are the best. The other studios they worked at never seemed to understand them. The Marxes started in vaudeville where they gained a devoted audience by creating their own anarchic style of comedy, and that audience grew when they made the transition to Broadway. Like many other Broadway stars, they moved to Hollywood when sound came in. Studio heads were desperate to find talent for talking pictures, and successful stage acts seemed like a safe bet.

It would have been impossible for the Marx Brothers to make their early films anywhere besides Paramount. Many comics make us laugh by showing us their struggles as they try to keep up with the world. With the Marxes, we laugh as we watch the world struggling to keep up with them. At their best, they come across as manic madmen who get their kicks by trashing every convention that society holds dear. They needed to inhabit a world of their own, a world where they could gleefully shred the rule book and get away with it. Fortunately, Paramount allowed them to do just that. In the thirties the studio was known for producing eccentric fantasies like Million Dollar Legs, Alice in Wonderland and If I Had a Million.

The Marx Brothers didn’t write or direct their own movies. They had to depend on others to create the right setting for their antics, and it wasn’t easy to find people who understood them. Even in their films at Paramount you can see that the writers and directors behind the camera couldn’t always figure out what to do with them. The first two are basically filmed stage plays. The next two, while much more dynamic, are fairly chaotic and haphazard. The only one that totally works as a film, that has a look and a style and a rhythm, is Duck Soup. And that’s mostly because it was directed by Leo McCarey.

Leo McCarey understood film. His style was simple and direct, but at his best he had a wonderful gift for catching performers at their most relaxed and spontaneous. McCarey had supervised some of Laurel and hardy’s best silent films, often starting with a simple premise and making the movie up as he went along. He knew how to improvise. You can tell by watching his films that he’s willing to take the time to let the actors find their own rhythm. He had no problem letting go of the script and allowing the film to develop on the set.

Which is not to say that McCarey put Duck Soup together all by himself. According to Joe Adamson, Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby wrote the first draft. Arthur Sheekman and Nat Perrin are also credited, but there were others involved as well. It was standard practice in those days to hire as many gag writers as you thought were needed to keep the laughs coming. But Adamson also says that McCarey made some major additions during shooting. He cites the mirror scene, the street vendor dust-up and an extravagant musical number, none of which appear in the final draft of the screenplay.

Though Duck Soup makes merciless fun of politics, it falls less into the realm of satire than surrealism. Groucho arrives at his inaugural ball by sliding down a fire pole. Harpo walks around with a pair of scissors, randomly cutting up ties, cigars and feathers. But there are some scenes with a sharp satirical edge, most notably the musical numbers. As soon as Groucho takes over as president of Fredonia, he outlines his plans for the country by singing a song….

If any form of pleasure is exhibited
Report to me and it will be prohibited
I’ll set my foot down, so shall it be
This is the land of the free

And at the moment when Groucho finally declares war, he and his brothers lead the people of Fredonia in a freewheeling musical parody, with the entire gathering raising their voices to sing the line, “All God’s chillun got guns.”

It’s not just the Marx Brothers who are in top form here. Duck Soup boasts a splendid supporting cast. Louis Calhern is perfect as the suave diplomat Trentino, putting out just as much energy as the Marxes and displaying a sharp sense of comic timing. As Trentino’s spy, Vera Marcal, Raquel Torres slips smoothly between her roles as conspirator and confidante. Margaret Dumont plays Margaret Dumont beautifully. In Coconuts and Animals Crackers Groucho’s antics might provoke her scorn or censure. In Duck Soup she seems oblivious to his barbs. Groucho is courting her one minute, insulting her the next, and she just takes it all in stride.

Duck Soup was the peak for the Marx Brothers, and from there on it was all downhill. They left Paramount and moved to MGM, where Irving Thalberg convinced them they’d do better if their films had a story with a love interest and higher production values, the upshot being that they became supporting actors in their own movies. After Thalberg’s death, they were consigned to routine vehicles that rarely allowed them to be themselves. The producers who handled their subsequent films apparently saw the Marx Brothers as just another comedy team.

But one of the great things about movies is that they can capture performers at the height of their powers. We’re lucky the Marx Brothers made the transition from stage to film. We’re lucky they had a few good years at Paramount. And we’re especially lucky that they teamed up with Leo McCarey. Whatever came later, we’ll always have Duck Soup.


For anyone interested in finding out more about the Marxes, you can’t do better than Joe Adamson’s Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo. Adamson talked to a lot of the people who worked on their movies and his research in general is really thorough. He’s an engaging, insightful writer, and on top of all that he’s funny. The book has been out of print for years, but it’s easy to find copies on the internet. I recommend it highly.

Espaldas Mojadas [Wetback] (1955)

Mexicans have been crossing the border to work in the United States since the border was drawn back in the nineteenth century. Many make the trip to escape poverty or persecution, hoping to find a better life. There are some success stories, but the vast majority end up working long hours for subsistence wages. Those who don’t have the papers they need to work legally get stuck in exhausting, low-paying jobs, and often the employers who know they’re stuck take full advantage of the situation.

One of the most powerful films I’ve seen about those who make the crossing is Espaldas Mojadas by Alejandro Galindo. While the story is driven by melodrama, and the director makes his points forcefully, the film also has a haunting sadness that stays with you long after it’s over. This isn’t just a movie about a guy who’s trying to make a living and stay ahead of the law. Espaldas Mojadas is about the painful loneliness and crushing isolation that people feel when they have to leave their home behind.

The film begins with a lengthy disclaimer explaining that it has nothing to do with the US/Mexico border, and that in reality it’s about people who break the law and the consequences they must suffer. It’s all totally bogus, of course, but it’s a sign of how worried the Mexican film industry was about offending American audiences. The US market was vital for the Mexican producers, and the fear of losing that market was always hanging over their heads.

David Silva

David Silva

The story opens in Ciudad Juárez, where we find a man, Rafael, desperately looking for a way to cross the border. He’s in trouble with the law and needs to disappear quickly, but he doesn’t have the papers he needs to enter the US legally. Rafael makes a deal with a coyote who takes him across the Rio Grande into Texas, but this is just the beginning of his troubles. He finds work, but his American bosses use him and abuse him. And if he gets fed up and leaves, then he’s back at square one and has to go begging for a job all over again.

Espaldas Mojadas is a lament for all those who’ve been trapped in the US while their hearts are still in Mexico. Though Galindo relies heavily on melodrama, the film doesn’t treat Rafael’s plight as an excuse for action. The director spends a good deal of time with his characters, allowing us to get inside of them. For me it’s the quiet moments that are the most affecting. Rafael standing by the railroad tracks as he talks to a friend about how it feels to be lost in a strange country. A Mexican border official scolding Rafael for working illegally in the US, and then falling silent as his prisoner tells him about the desperation that drove him to do it. But the most beautiful and haunting scene takes place in a work camp where the men have been laying tracks for the railroad. They have a day off. They’ve been breaking their backs all week long, and now they’re lounging under the railroad cars to stay out of the sun. A man with a guitar starts to play, another starts to sing. The song is Canción Mixteca by José López Alavez, and it’s about the loneliness felt by those who are far from home. The camera tracks past the men as they listen, and in this melancholy moment Galindo crystallizes the sadness they feel and their longing for the country they’ve left behind.

While there’s a good deal of music in the film, the underscoring is provided by nothing more than a single guitar, and this was exactly the right choice. Instead of having a full orchestra to pump up the drama, we have a single musician providing a very spare and very effective backdrop for the story. The lonely tones of the solo guitar match Rafael’s sense of isolation perfectly. At the other end of the spectrum, there’s a thrilling performance by Lola Beltrán and El Trío Calaveras at a bar in Ciudad Juárez. They set the crowd on fire with their passionate rendition of a song about the pride they feel in being Mexican.

Unfortunately, this film, like so many other Mexican films from the same era, is only available as a budget DVD. The print is okay. The transfer is acceptable. But there are no subtitles, which is probably going to keep anyone who doesn’t speak Spanish from watching it.* I’ve written before about the challenges of trying to preserve Mexico’s cinema. I know the list of films that need attention is long, and the money available is short. But is it too much to ask for a quality DVD release of a classic film by a major director from Mexico’s golden era?

Is anybody at Criterion listening?

Honestly, Galindo is very good at communicating through images, and I think most people could follow the story even without subtitles. You might miss some of the plot points and some of the humor, but I still urge you to give it a try. It’s a powerful experience.