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.