Okay, here we go.
The difficult one.
So before the annotated guide, let me try to explain myself.
Duck Soup is one of those artifacts, like Psycho or the works of Shakespeare, where consensus is so rigid and passionate that anything less than adoration is taken as an insult. So unquestioned and elevated is its reputation that merely to say one likes it is taken to mean that one doesn't like it at all.
Now, I do like Duck Soup. A lot. In the first place, it's a Marx Brothers film, putting it automatically ahead of almost any other type of film, real or imaginary, in my affection and esteem. Second, it is, numerically at least, one of my favourite Marx Brothers films: my sixth favourite, of thirteen.
And yet, I do have a couple of bees in my bonnet about it that I would like to get out as quickly as possible. (It's bad enough that I'm still wearing a bonnet at my age, surely I can do without bees in it as well.)
First bee: I do not think it is the best film the Marx Brothers ever made; I think that it is the weakest rather than the best of their five Paramount films.
Second bee: I do not think it is an anti-war satire.
Let us begin with the first bee.
A friend of mine who hadn't seen Duck Soup for a while once reported back to me from a screening of it: "You know how it was supposedly MGM that first started enforcing rules on the Marx Brothers and messing with their comic style: well it started here!"
And this is pretty much how I feel about the movie. Regardless of what one's personal opinion of it may be, it is surprising to me that it is not more commonly seen as a reinvention of the team, a film that is for large stretches untypical of them, experimental in a sense, and that Leo McCarey deserves almost as much credit (or flak - again, delete according to preference) for taking the team and setting out to make something different of them, and more to his own personal taste, as Thalberg. He certainly made no bones about his lack of enthusiasm for the job - or the end product.
McCarey was a professional comedy director, a graduate of the Hal Roach studios and the man who teamed Laurel & Hardy. (He appears on their This Is Your Life show pissed as a fart with some yarn about how he teamed them because Ollie burned his arm cooking lamb.)
As such, he had some very fixed ideas about comedy, and he liked things done his way.
The first sign that Leo's in charge and there's nothing we can do about it is the title, which had already seen service for a 1927 Laurel & Hardy short. Constantly throughout the film we see McCarey's hand, or more accurately his boot, tramping down and leaving its prints all over the ideas and the material. There is too much visual humour, and too much of it is silly. Too much is insufficiently tailored to the Brothers' own idiosyncratic talents. Too much of it could be done by any other comedians just as well.
For instance, consider the famous running joke where the call goes out for "His Excellency's car". Harpo pulls up in a motorbike and sidecar; Groucho gets into the sidecar and Harpo's bike pulls away leaving Groucho behind, going nowhere. A little later it happens again. Then, a little later still Groucho gets on the bike instead, instructing Harpo to get into the car, whereupon... well, you don't need me to tell you. You've seen the movie.
But here's the thing: you wouldn't need me to tell you even if you hadn't. Now, I'm not saying these bits aren't funny. I like them; I laugh at them. But this is not what makes the Marx Brothers great; it's not what they do. It's an old gag that McCarey found in the back of his locker when he left Hal Roach and it would be every bit as funny if it were Wheeler and Wolsey doing it, or Olsen and Johnson, or Hope and Crosby. Can you even be sure you haven't seen one or other of those teams doing it somewhere, or doing some other gag so similar in construction that it makes no difference? (PS: Angela has reminded me, after a first reading of this, that seventies British sitcom couple George & Mildred really do do it, in the opening credits of their series.)
But try and imagine Hope and Crosby doing the contract scene from A Night at the Opera. It would be impossible: the characters and delivery of Groucho and Chico are an integral part of the material.
Then consider the scenes with Chico, Harpo and Edgar Kennedy. In the first place, the Brothers play best against straight straight men: Louis Sorin in Animal Crackers, Louis Calhern here, Sig Rumann. McCarey makes the elementary mistake of thinking that they'll be even funnier pitted against a supporting comic. Kennedy is a talented and likable presence in movies, and a wonderful foil to Laurel and Hardy, but he's wrong here. And the whole scene is wrong; it comes from nowhere, and the escalating aggression comes from nowhere, and it forces Chico and Harpo to behave in ways their characters are not normally required to behave.
What it is, all too clearly, is a Laurel and Hardy tit for tat routine, with the Marx Brothers grafted on. Harpo does his best to work in some original and characteristic business but it's still uphill, uninventive stuff. The climactic image of him paddling in the vat of lemonade is a wonderful one but the scene as written and developed has not earned the right to it. It's not just the strangely motiveless aggression displayed by all parties, nor the deliberate and contemplative pace, both obvious carry-overs from the Laurel & Hardy formula. Like too much else in the film it's simply not as clever as the material of their previous films. It's not as witty; not as New Yorky.
This is the first Marx Brothers film that feels directed, obtrusively directed, where the direction is as important as the script. Their other directors either pointed the camera and just let them go off, or else took the written material, watched the performances and worked out the best way to get as much as possible of both effectively on the screen. That's certainly what McCleod did, and that's why he's my favourite of their directors. McCarey may have been more talented, but he gets in the way.
I suppose the classic case in point is the mirror scene, entirely his contribution. This is one of those sequences usually hailed as among the team's very finest, placed alongside the stateroom scene from A Night at the Opera and the ice cream scam in A Day at the Races. These are the sequences often said to best represent the team for unfamiliar audiences.
I don't know. They may prove the most attractive to unwilling audiences, because they combine a superficial gloss of Marxian anarchy with a solid, mainstream comedy idea such as would appeal to almost anybody. But their best? Their most representative?
Yes, there are distinctive touches in the mirror sequence: the absurdity of Harpo's correctly guessing Groucho's every innovation designed to catch him out, his cheating on the 360 degree turn, their swapping positions yet still continuing the game, and best of all, the sublime moment when Chico appears. But the idea was as old as the hills, strongly associated with Max Linder but also predating him, and it is a purely technical exercise; it is mechanical comedy, a comedy idea waiting for the afterthought of a comedian.
Give me the Chevalier impressions in Monkey Business any day. Give me the auction scene in The Cocoanuts, the soiree scene in Animal Crackers. Their best material for me is by definition not to be found in those moments that convey most to unsympathetic audiences but those which most perplex and infuriate them. I've always thought they got the keenest pleasure - visibly so: watch their faces - when delivering material with the potential to annoy some audiences as thoroughly as Spaulding annoys his hosts, and Ravelli annoys Spaulding. The confusion of those unwilling to enter their world is as much a source of pleasure to them as the delight of those who feel at home there, and the confusion of the first contributes to the delight of the second.
Much of Duck Soup, notably Chico's trial, Groucho in the Chamber of Deputies and Chico and Harpo's progress report to Ambassador Trentino is as fine as anything they ever did. But too much of it - think of the 'help is on the way' scene, or Harpo on his horse - does not play to their strengths and makes it all too easy - for them and for us.
. The only thing more likely to annoy the average Marx devotee than saying that you think Duck Soup is generally the weakest of their Paramount films is saying that you don't think it is an anti-war satire.
I, whose lot it is to believe both the statements above, am therefore a pariah twice over. My friends have abandoned me. Everywhere I go I am greeted with cold stares and mumbled recrimination. I once returned home to find my wall daubed with graffiti reading "Go Back to the Three Stooges".
So let us indulge in some context.
In 1933, the movie trade journals were buzzing about what they called the "Dictator craze" in American movies. At a time of widespread despondency, the obvious dynamism of Fascism was seen as stimulating and inspiring in many quarters of the West, including Hollywood (and Washington). In recognition of what to some degree Hitler, to a larger degree Stalin and to a massive degree Mussolini were all doing in the countries they ruled, a rash of films were produced about the vision, grit and resilience of one individual taking charge of failing institutions and revolutionising them.
There was Walter Huston as the dictatorial cop taking on organised crime in Beast of the City (1932), Spencer Tracy as the strike-breaking railroad tycoon in The Power and the Glory (1933), and Huston again as the weak President who, after a visitation from the Angel Gabriel, declares martial law, establishes himself as a dictator and saves America in Gabriel Over the White House (1933 again).
These ideas, drawn largely from the example of Mussolini, were presented as both viable and stimulating solutions to world, domestic and economic crises. A film from Columbia, Mussolini Speaks (1933 yet again!), was an unabashed paean to the virtues and achievements of Il Duce, dedicated "to a man of the people whose deeds for his people will ever be an inspiration to all mankind."
This was mainstream Hollywood: a condemnatory satire of such ideas was simply inconceivable.
Duck Soup, too, emerged in this year of the dictators: 1933. It is a comedy about the Fascist moment in Western culture, but it uses its subject without thought or true purpose. It is surprisingly frivolous about war, given its proximity to World War I, but in no way can it be called impassioned. It does not so much satirise political ideologies and programmes themselves as their manifestations in popular culture, above all in films like Gabriel Over the White House.
Freedonia as the film begins is in exactly the position of these institutions dynamised by dictators in the other movies: weakly governed by exhausted rulers, mismanaged and in economic dire straits. Mrs Teasdale, the main donor of the party, will continue to inject life-saving funds, but only if the present leaders are replaced by what she tellingly terms "a progressive, fearless fighter." ('Progressive' was the big buzz-word of Fascism; oddly it seems to have escaped its legacy.) So it is accepted that Freedonia will hand over all its powers to one man, on the grounds that he is progressive and fearless. This is the narrative of the dictator movies to a tee.
"From all reports the new leader will execute his duties with an iron hand," claims the newspaper we see announcing Firefly's appointment, and that he does, immediately making arbitrary and unjust decisions, and exempting himself from their influence. The death penalty will be extended not to those caught taking graft but only those who do not cut him into the deal. He forbids both whistling and chewing, conspicuously doing both himself, even as he lays down the injunction.
It will be recalled that the previous government had requested Teasdale's money so as to head off revolt by lowering taxes - Firefly has a more radical approach:
The country's taxes must be fixed
And I know what to do with it.
If you think you're paying too much now,
Just wait till I get through with it.
Few comic songs have been so genuinely sinister as well as funny; it rather resembles Ko-Ko's song ("I've got a little list...") from The Mikado, much beloved (and performed) by Groucho in later years.
. In a sense, the idea that the Groucho character would make a dictator is an obvious, irresistible one. It fitted easily with his new image, as established by Horse Feathers. Finding a plausible narrative place for Groucho - a basically impossible character in straight dramatic terms - was never a possibility (unless you were MGM and didn't give a toss). So far he had been a seedy incompetent, a fraudulent interloper and a stowaway; all of them basically excuses, the purpose of which was to allow him to be Groucho. Horse Feathers had tried something semi-new, basically by mingling Mr Hammer and Captain Spaulding, and having a knowingly anarchistic incompetent find his way to a position of overt responsibility. We don't know how on earth he got the job, but we don't ask.
It had worked well, so the transition from Professor to statesman in Duck Soup plays quite seamlessly by the same rules (or lack of rules). If Horse Feathers had not come first, the true focus of Duck Soup's parody - films like Gabriel Over the White House - might have seemed more obvious. The writers are not taking the piss out of Hitler and Mussolini: they're taking the piss out of Walter Huston and Spencer Tracy.
But there is another reason why the film should not be read as condemnatory of Fascism. Fascism was not an unequivocally dirty word in 1933. Many people were openly admiring of much of its ideology and effects, and many were to be found in the Roosevelt administration.
Let us not forget that Freedonia's is not the first proudly waving banner we see in the film - before it even begins we see the imposing eagle of the NRA, the film colony's acknowledgement of support for the New Deal.
All the major studios, including Paramount, pledged their support, and made pro-Roosevelt movies. Universal's The Fighting President (I'll let you guess the year) was promoted with the tagline "America cries out to its fighting President: Show us the way and we will follow!" At Warners, Dick Powell plays a songwriter charged with composing an anthem to the NRA. The film is called The Road Is Open Again; I forget the year for a moment. I'm sure it'll come back to me.
Roosevelt's New Deal was explicitly centralist and widely compared to Fascism in its mechanics and dynamics - and with approval, what's more. Mussolini was a fan: he praised the New Deal publicly on several occasions. Roosevelt in return explained that "what we were doing in this country were some of the things that were being done in Russia and even some of the things that were being done under Hitler in Germany. But we were doing them in an orderly way."
The National Recovery Act was presided over by an ardent and self-described Fascist called Hugh "Iron Pants" Johnson, who ensured the eagle symbol of the NRA was widely likened to the Nazi swastika, and was every bit as ubiquitous in its home country.
"When every American housewife understands that the Blue Eagle on everything that she permits to come into her home is a symbol of its restoration to security," Johnson's rhetoric explained, "may God have mercy on the man or group of men who attempt to trifle with this bird." (Such as Jacob Maged, the immigrant dry cleaner sentenced to three months in jail in 1934 for not charging enough to press a pair of trousers.)
Rallies and marches were staged for the mass pledging of allegiance; boy scouts swore an oath to "do my part for the NRA" and "only buy where the Blue Eagle flies." The Blue Eagle symbol flew on the premises of stores and businesses, and its imprimatur announces Duck Soup too.
So, the film, like its predecessors in the Marx canon, fixes on ubiquitous currents in popular culture, in this case the 'Dictator Craze' (and, just as importantly, the Ruritanian fantasies that inform its settings and look). World War II was still in the unimagined and unimaginable future, and Fascism was not at this time linked in the public mind with war other than metaphorically (Mussolini had successfully waged war against his country's problems and FDR vowed to follow his lead, assuming "unhesitatingly the leadership of this great army of our people dedicated to a disciplined attack upon our common problems.") The plotline of the war between the two states more likely evolved via the interpolation of ideas from the Ruritanian stories. Political intrigue, rivalry and duplicitous attempts to overthrow heads of state or gain power of neighbouring territories are all rife in these stories (which take their inspiration from Anthony Hope's 1894 novel The Prisoner of Zenda, but grew into a massive subgenre of popular literature and cinema).
If anything is being satirised in Duck Soup it is generic cliches; in so doing, themes such as war, dictatorship and Fascism are likewise subjected to Marxian irreverence, but they are not - surely - being scrutinised as such. They're just tossed into the pot along with everything else.
The Marxes win their war as cheerfully and foolishly as they wage it.
They are also, incidentally, right to go to war in the first place. Trentino really is plotting the overthrow and invasion of Freedonia - another point conveniently forgotten by those who would have us believe the film decries the futility and absurdity of militarism.