John Huston loved losers. While he worked in a range of genres and told all sorts of stories, he seems to have a had a special affection for the people who just couldn’t make it. Desperate prospectors looking to strike it rich. Cowboys trying to live in the past when the world was moving on. Fighters who kept climbing back in the ring after everyone else knew they were finished. Huston kept coming back to these people, following them as they lived their lives in the margins, fascinated by the way they kept hanging on after the world had given up on them.
Huston’s 1950 adaptation of W.R. Burnett’s novel The Asphalt Jungle is a terse and unsentimental look at a handful of thieves who plan a jewelry heist. But this isn’t a movie about criminals. It’s about people. These are guys who are trying to make ends meet, one way or the other. They may live on the wrong side of town, but they’re just trying to get by like anybody else. And as the story unfolds, we see that they’re not so different from the guys on the right side of town.
Huston doesn’t preach. (With one key exception, which I’ll get back to.) He just follows the characters as the heist unfolds, letting us get to know each of these men, allowing us to learn what makes them tick, what their frailties are. The director worked closely with screenwriter Ben Maddow on crafting the script. In his autobiography Huston says he had great respect for W. R. Burnett’s novel, and consulted with the author repeatedly while writing the screenplay.
The story centers on Dix, a tough guy from the rural South. He has fond memories of the farm he grew up on, but he’s filled with anger over the way that life was taken away from him. The jewel heist could be the big score that allows him to get it all back. The plan is set in motion by Doc, a courtly German immigrant who’s just gotten out of prison. Doc is the mastermind, the man with a foolproof scheme for the perfect job. On arriving in town, he immediately connects with an underground intermediary and sets about choosing his team and finding someone to front them the money they need to get started. The backer they find is Emmerich, a well-respected lawyer who’s having cash flow problems, which seem to be tied to his young mistress.
The Asphalt Jungle is filled with character actors you may have seen many times, but you’ve probably never seen them better than in this film. Cobby is your classic simpering gangster tool, but Marc Lawrence makes his weakness seem all too human. James Whitmore and Anthony Caruso are both in fine form playing ordinary guys who are just trying to make living. To them the jewel heist is just a job. Jean Hagen’s performance as Doll is impressive in its directness. She doesn’t hide behind mannerisms or theatrics. She seems totally vulnerable, completely exposed. It’s a moving performance. Veteran Louis Calhern plays Emmerich, the crooked lawyer, with a degree of polish that speaks of his many years of experience on stage and screen. To put it simply, he’s a total pro. But he also lets us see the cracks in the smooth veneer, the brief hesitations where we glimpse his fear, the deep sadness in his weary eyes. In contrast to this seasoned pro, Emmerich’s mistress is played by newcomer Marilyn Monroe in her first significant role. She’s fine, but she doesn’t make much of an impression here. You don’t get a sense of the personality that would make her a star just a few years later.
As Dix, Sterling Hayden is forceful and intimidating. In this film just his presence on the screen creates tension, in large part because of the anger burning inside him. It doesn’t take much to set him off. The threat of violence is always just below the surface. This makes for an interesting contrast with Doc. Sam Jaffe plays the older man as a thoughtful, businesslike planner, who (almost) never acts on impulse. The actors have an excellent rapport, and this makes their friendship believable. In spite of their profession, they’re both men of honor. They both have a code.
Huston respects these men, regardless of their faults. They may live by a different set of rules than you and I, but they do have a set of rules, and Huston doesn’t care which side of the law they’re on. Which is why the Commissioner’s stern speech to the press at the end of the film, where he lectures them on the importance of law enforcement, seems so completely out of place. The scene was so out of character for Huston that I wondered if he’d been pushed to insert it by the studio, possibly to counter the film’s portrayal of a crooked cop. But a look at the pages in the director’s autobiography that deal with The Asphalt Jungle don’t reveal any mention of studio interference. Whatever the reason for this scene, it’s a sharp departure from Huston’s usual perspective, and to my mind it’s the film’s only real flaw.
But in scanning Huston’s autobiography, I found out that he did run up against the censors on another scene. When everything comes unravelled and Emmerich is facing arrest, he decides to end it all. Huston initially had him going to his study, pulling out a gun, and blowing his brains out. But depicting a suicide onscreen was not allowed by Hollywood’s production code, unless the character was mentally ill. In order to appease the censors, Huston tweaked the scene to show Emmerich sitting down at his desk, starting to write a suicide note, tossing it away, starting another note, tossing it away, and then finally just pulling the trigger. This satisfied the censors by indicating that the character was unstable, and they gave it the go ahead. The way the scene plays out is a classic example of Huston’s laconic, hard-nosed approach, and he actually felt the changes made it stronger. We see a tight shot of the desktop as Emmerich makes his first, then his second attempt to leave a suicide note. Then his hand reaches into a drawer, removes a gun, and a second later we hear it go off. This one brief shot is an intimate glimpse of a desperate man’s last moments.
One of the ways Huston avoids sentimentality is by keeping the music to an absolute minimum. Miklós Rózsa’s score is limited to brief cues at the beginning and the end. The film has a spare, stark quality to it. Certainly most of it was shot on sets, but Harold Rosson’s visuals give the impression that the run down diners and cheap hotels are defined by whatever light happens to be in the room. And the people are defined by the rooms they occupy. The art direction, by Randall Duell and Cedric Gibbons, gives every space a distinct character, from the bare walls and wooden chairs of Cobby’s office to the lush comfort of Emmerich’s home.
Huston may be telling the story of a handful of criminals, but really he’s letting us take a look at ourselves. These men may be on the wrong side of the law, but they’re trying to find the same things we’re all looking for. They want to pay off their debts, buy a piece of land, escape to a place where life is easy and the sun is always shining. And they make terrible mistakes, because, like us, they’re blinded by pride, overconfidence, and greed. Huston would probably be the first to admit he was guilty of all three of these sins. Watching the films he made about frail, fallible, foolish people, we may end up thinking about our own lives. All our dashed hopes. All the mistakes we’ve made. All our plans gone wrong.
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.