The Marx Brothers in DUCK SOUP (1933) – Political-party hearty

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Duck Soup was initially a box-office flop — perhaps because it was released during the Great Depression, when the public didn’t want to believe that its leaders were hopeless. The movie was “re-discovered” by college students during the anti-Establishment 1960’s, and it has been rightly hailed as a comedy masterpiece ever since.

Its wisp of a story begins with Mrs. Teasdale (perennial sidekick Margaret Dumont), a wealthy widow who has singlehandedly financed the nearly bankrupt country of Freedonia. When pressed for another loan of $20 million, Mrs. Teasdale agrees to lend the money on the condition that her favorite politician, Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx), be allowed to rule Freedonia. (A wealthy contributor using her money to buy a candidate? Who’d have thought it?)

This Firefly guy certainly inspires confidence. In his first ten minutes as Freedonian president, he oversleeps through his inauguration; makes his entrance down a firepole; puts the make on his financier; and delivers a musical inaugural address (linked below) with the refrain, “If you think this country’s bad off now, just wait ’til I get through with it.”

The only thing Firefly gets right is his take on Trentino (Louis Calhern), his political rival in the country of Sylvania. Trentino wants only to win over Mrs. Teasdale so that he can take over Fredonia, a political strategy that Firefly has already usurped. Trentino hires two spies, Chicolini and Pinkie (Chico and Harpo Marx), in the hopes of uncovering some dirt that will discredit Firefly. This plan fails on two counts: 1) Firefly is more eager to discredit himself than any political opponent could ever be; and 2) Chicolini and Pinkie aren’t exactly married to their work. (Their idea of political rivalry is to monopolize the local peanut-stand concession and drive their competitor [silent-film slow-burner Edgar Kennedy] either out of business or around the bend.)

This political sub-intrigue is a lame excuse for some of cinema’s most superb sight gags, wordplay, musical interludes, and unique lessons in animal husbandry (in a blatant nose-thumbing at the censors, Harpo sleeps with a horse). Legendary comedy director Leo McCarey stuffs all of this into a lightning-paced 70 minutes, so even if you don’t like the movie (highly unlikely), you don’t have to bear it for very long.

For decades, countless people — including many involved in the making of this film — have argued that Duck Soup is not a political satire. Try telling that to the makers of the films Primary Colors (of whose Clinton burlesque the Marxes surely would have approved) or Wag the Dog (whose view of war as a means to a political end seems to have been mainlined from Duck Soup). Every year, this mind-bending comedy looks more and more like a documentary.

Here’s my favorite number from the movie — maybe my favorite Groucho number ever…

The Marx Brothers in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (1935) – And two hard-boiled eggs

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

I have what I call “The Pretty Woman Theorem.” Logic tells me I shouldn’t believe that with good luck, a hooker will be picked up by a rich man who will give her the life and love she deserves. But when it’s Richard Gere and Julia Roberts at their most charming, I’m willing to accept it…at least this once.

Similarly, for decades, movie-comedy lovers have debated whether or not MGM producer Irving Thalberg diluted the Marx Brothers’ zany style by making them cater to sappy lovers and elaborate musical numbers. But when you watch A Night at the Opera, somehow it all works…at least this once.

Indeed, Thalberg seems to have been the Marxes’ savior in more ways that one. Groucho was never shy about expressing his admiration for Thalberg and how he added a female audience to the Marxes’ movies without ruining their comedy. And Thalberg seems to have been the middleman between the Marxes and the Hollywood suits. Once Thalberg died, MGM plugged the Marxes into movies that seemed to follow the Thalberg formula but, as Roger Ebert might put it, knew the words but not the music.

The story — grandly constructed by former Marx scribes and revered playwrights George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind — concerns impresario Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho) and rich widow Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont). Claypool wants to get into high society; Driftwood wants to get into money. So he introduces her to Herman Gottlieb (Siegfried Rumann, one of the most effective Marx villains ever), head of the New York Opera Company.

Gottlieb and Claypool get along famously–too famously for Driftwood, who still wants to keep his hand in Claypool’s bucks, his every appearance to the contrary. (Driftwood’s first scene shows him having eaten dinner with another woman while Claypool unknowingly sat behind him.)

Meanwhile, the opera troupe’s egotistical star, Lassparri (Walter Woolf King), has designs on the troupe female star Rosa (Kitty Carlisle). But Rosa is in love with Ricardo (Allan Jones, kind of a less wooden Zeppo), who has a great voice that is ignored because of his lack of celebrity.

Surprisingly, the Ricardo-Rosa romance isn’t laid on as thick as is Lassparri’s vanity. As if we hadn’t already gotten the idea that Lassparri is not a nice guy, he literally turns his lackey Tomasso (Harpo Marx) into a whipping post. Geez, did Harpo soak his feet in Lassparri’s lemonade or something?

Somehow, though, all of the elements mesh instead of clashing. In the scene where Driftwood delivers a love note to Rosa, Groucho is surprisingly effective without being maudlin. Chico and Harpo’s musical numbers feature endless shots of onlooking children laughing and cheering. That’s usually a bad sign in a movie; actors laughing at the comics is usually a desperate attempt to get the audience laughing as well. But Chico and Harpo really seem to enjoy entertaining the kids, and the joy really spreads to the movie audience.

Indeed, the trio are unusually chipper here; they seem buoyed enough by the fresh surroundings, as well they should be. The level of this movie’s comedic value is such that you only have to mention some of its scenes by name. The party of the first part. The stateroom scene. The bed-switching scene. And of course, the all-stops-out climax (one of the few Marx endings that doesn’t dribble away), where the Marxes make mincemeat of the opera and Lassparri.

When people try to name the Marx Brothers’ best movie, it’s either Duck Soup or A Night at the Opera. Why quibble? Be glad they’re both available to enjoy. After this point in the Marxes’ career, the gems were few and far between.

Here’s how the movie starts — with a bang:

MONKEY BUSINESS (1931) – The Marx Brothers bust loose

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Monkey Business is where the Marx Brothers legend really begins. It’s as if the Marxes in Animal Crackers were wind-up dolls that Hollywood grabbed and ratcheted up their pace a few notches. Viewing the two movies in chronological order is like being Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, going from a nice, homey starting point to a Technicolor land of comedy.

The Marxes are stowaways on an ocean liner, passing the time singing “Sweet Adeline” while hiding in herring barrels, after which they take off the barrel lids and are even polite enough to bow for a non-existent audience. (They love applause in this movie. At one point, the four of them interrupt their own chase to noodle around on some instruments for thirty seconds, which gets them more audience response. And don’t even get me started on Harpo’s attempts to get undue attention.)

The ship’s captain is oddly wishy-washy about finding these stowaways. After spending the first few minutes of the movie declaring his vengeance on these guys, Groucho and Chico come into his quarters and blithely eat his lunch, at which point the captain declares his suspicion (twice) that Groucho might be one of the stowaways. The captain’s relationship to the stowaways turns out to be like Tom’s relation to Jerry; he acts like he wants to catch them, but he really doesn’t, because then the fun would be over and he’d have to go back to running the ship.

As always, the ostensible plot is in the movie mainly for the purposes of getting tossed aside. Seems that two rival gangsters are on board, and each needs a bodyguard. How do we first get a hint of this? It’s when Groucho, trying to escape the captain, ducks into the room of one of the gangsters, who is so macho that he doesn’t even let this intrusion break the pace of his ongoing argument with his wife (Thelma Todd). Groucho eventually makes whoopee with Todd in one of the finest courting scenes that doesn’t star Margaret Dumont. Then Groucho’s supposed to be all scared when the gangster returns and points a gun at his kisser. Hey, big fella, you didn’t notice this guy slipping into your closet earlier?

Later, the Marxes trump the captain’s apathetic attitude by being cavalier about the possibility of getting caught. When the ship is ready to unload the passengers, Zeppo discovers that Maurice Chevalier is on the ship and takes his passport. Groucho, Harpo, and Chico take this news blithely, as though Zeppo had just announced that the morning paper had arrived. How often do celebrities go around waving their passports to get them stolen, anyway?

As if that affront to reality isn’t wacko enough, the four of them decide that the only way they can possibly make it off the ship is to present Chevalier’s passport to the clerk and then present themselves as Chevalier by singing one of his songs. It’s not enough for one person to impersonate a celebrity. All four of them decide to play the same celebrity, and to do so by singing a song to some disinterested passport clerks. Offhand, I’d say that the Marxes don’t really want to get off that ship anymore than that captain really wants to catch them.

Monkey Business is like a great freeing of inhibitions, not the least of which are the Marx Brothers’ own hang-ups. You’d never guess these were the same guys who politely walked through Animal Crackers. If there’s any single scene that symbolizes the movie’s spirit, it’s that of Harpo dreamily exiting a Punch-and-Judy show on a kid’s cart — a beautiful long shot observing his wheeling away, as though the cameraman can’t believe it anymore than we can.

(Trivia: Arthur Sheekman, a good friend of Groucho’s who is credited in the movie with “additional dialogue,” was married to 1930’s actress Gloria Stuart, who made a memorable impression six-and-a-half decades later as the woman with a past, in James Cameron’s Titanic. Good thing the Marx Brothers weren’t stowing away on that ocean liner.)

The Marx Brothers in LOVE HAPPY (1949) – Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and somewhat Marilyn

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It’s not how you would have wished the Marx Brothers to exit the movies, but there really are far worse things on Earth than Love Happy — and if you’ve ever watched The Big Store, you know just what I mean.

First off, let’s get the Marilyn Monroe thing out of the way. Every ad, poster, or video box ever printed for this movie gives Marilyn fourth billing under the Marxes. Sad to say, she’s in the movie for only about a minute. Just the same, her appearance is one of the more wonderful non sequitors of later Marx Brothers movies. If ever there was a woman deserving of Groucho’s patented leer, it is surely Marilyn Monroe.

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Groucho follows behind Marilyn.

Now then. If the movie seems a mish-mash, it’s because it was initially intended as a Chaplinesque comedy starring a solo Harpo (who gets a story credit here). But the fewer the amount of Marx Brothers in the movie, the harder it was to sell. So eventually Chico and then Groucho were corralled for duty. (It’s a wonder they didn’t try to bring back Zeppo one more time — even in his late forties, he would have been a more plausible romantic lead than wooden Paul Valentine.)

The story involves a multi-married diva named Madame Egalichi (Ilona Massey), who has been searching for years for a string of rare diamonds that was hidden in a sardine can. Harpo, a vagabond who steals food to feed a starving theater troupe, unknowingly latches onto the diamond-sardine container and gets his life made miserable because of it.

As Marx Brothers scenarios go, this admittedly is less compelling than waiting for the leader of Fredonia to go to war. But it still yields a fair share of laughs. And Harpo carries most of the movie on personality alone. Scenes that ought to have been used to dress the cutting-room floor — an endless scene where Madame E.’s cronies (including a pre-“Perry Mason” Raymond Burr) search Harpo’s vast coat for the sardine can, and a chase climax involving blatant product placement — are carried off just because that silly top-hatted guy really believes in them.

And instead of an inane closing shot where the Marxes wave at the camera, Harpo’s final scene shows him merrily dancing away. If the scene had only included his brothers dancing with him, it would have rivalled the dance with Death in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal for cinema immortality.

The funniest thing about the movie isn’t in the movie. It’s the fact that Harpo’s 650-page autobiography says nothing about a movie that was initially intended to showcase him. There’s a “honk, honk” for you!

The Marx Brothers in ANIMAL CRACKERS (1930) – Never leave out a Hungadunger

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(WARNING: Major spoilers ahead!)

Animal Crackers, besides being about a ton funnier than its predecessor The Cocoanutsis quite elucidating on the matter of what constituted a hit Broadway show in the 1920’s. From singing butlers to unmemorable tunes warbled by equally unmemorable love interests, it feels like this movie version of the stage show did not leave a darned…thing…out.

History tells us that the Marx Brothers were such a sensation, in their previous shows as well as this one, that the “straight” leads, and loads of exposition, were needed to offset their dynamic effect. Film-buff viewing, on the other hand, tells us that the Marxes ought to arrive on-screen a whole lot sooner than they do here.

The movie’s “straight” story is that Mrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont), a rich Long Island dame, is hosting a big shindig to both honor an African explorer named Geoffrey Spaulding (Groucho–and it’s spelled “Geoffrey” right in the opening scene, not “Jeffrey”) and to unveil a famous and valuable painting she has acquired. Unfortunately for Mrs. R., the painting gets stolen before the opening, and nearly everyone in the movie gets involved in trying to find it.

Of course, hindsight has its benefits. Still, I don’t know of anyone who watches Animal Crackers nowadays and says afterwards, “Wow, how about that mystery about the painting? I was on the edge of my seat waiting for them to get it back!” I’m not so sure anybody really cared about it 85 years ago, either. For one thing, when you’ve got a Marx Brother (Harpo) who can steal a man’s birthmark right off his arm, who cares about the theft of such an Earthly thing as a painting?

(Harpo also gives us a glimpse into his unique love life. When a woman asks if there’s anything he really loves, Harpo produces a photo of a horse. It must have been a pretty steady and serious relationship; he kisses the horse two years later in Horse Feathers and sleeps with her in Duck Soup a year after that. No word on whether they broke up after she saw Harpo riding another horse in A Day at the Races.)

Funny thing about that painting, too. Even though it’s said to be immensely valuable, the thieves and others carry it around with all the finesse of someone shoving a Post-It note in his pocket. Curators at the Louvre must have been flipping out when they saw how this “priceless” work of art was being manhandled.

So much for the plot–let’s get to the good stuff. Groucho’s a hoot. He carries on and on to anyone who will listen to tales about his fearless adventures, even though he faints in front of everyone when he discovers that a caterpillar has crawled onto his sleeve. And Margaret Dumont is the most straight-faced straightman (sorry, straight-person) you’ll ever see. Whenever she’s confronted with one of Groucho’s ever-increasing anti-social behaviors, she just clucks it off and shakes her head, as though Groucho was just some poor guy with Tourette’s Syndrome who couldn’t help himself.

Chico and Harpo are a delight, too. After seeing their first burglary attempt turn out completely laughless in The Cocoanuts, it’s a relief to find that their attempt in this movie to steal the painting is so hysterical that they repeated the motif in later movies. When they’re trying to steal the painting in the dark, and Chico keeps asking Harpo for “the flash” (flashlight), Harpo reaches into that ethereal jacket of his and pulls out everything but the flash. (Speaking of flash, Harpo has an opening scene that’s one for the books.)

And Zeppo, for all of his maligned place in the annals of Marx history, has a great scene with Groucho dictating a letter to him. He’s probably the only guy on the planet who could destroy Groucho’s letter, paragraph by paragraph, and not come out of it skinned alive.

Animal Crackers is the kind of movie for which the term “photographed stage play” was invented. Still, it’s a heartily funny photographed stage play.

R.I.P., Groucho Marx (1890-1977)

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I have always resented the way that Elvis Presley stole Groucho Marx’s thunder by dying three days ahead of Groucho just for the publicity.

Now, I really do know that Elvis didn’t do it on purpose. And I’m sure Elvis, if he’d had a choice, might have wanted to grace this Earth a little longer. (As for Groucho in his 1977 state, I’m not so sure.)

But it is a fact that after all possible superlatives were used to describe Elvis on the day of his death (Aug. 16, 1977), by the time Groucho kicked off, the press seemed to be fresh out of tributes. TIME magazine — who had allowed The Marx Brothers to grace their cover 45 years previously — gave Groucho’s obit a measly paragraph of text. Woody Allen responded by writing a letter to TIME’s editor asking, “Is it my imagination, or were you guys a little skimpy with the Groucho Marx obituary?”

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But in the end, it all evened out. While Elvis has had hundreds or thousands of people making a living by imitating him, only one person has done justice to Groucho — Frank Ferrante (above), whose flawless impersonation of Groucho graces hundreds of live performances across the nation each year.

And happily, we still have all of the work that Groucho left behind for us to savor. Humorous books for which he took great pride in claiming authorship. His huge body of radio and TV work, much of it revolving around his immortal (in reruns, anyway) quiz show “You Bet Your Life.” And the dry humor and trenchant sarcasm of his movie appearances, with and without his famous brothers (though the best movies include his siblings).

If Groucho’d had a say in it, he probably would have indeed claimed that Elvis was just trying to upstage him in death. And then, most likely, he would have sung this:

The Marx Bros.’ THE COCOANUTS (1929) – Satire of Florida land boom goes bust

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(WARNING: Spoilers abound!)

If you go back to the first movies of comedians you’ve loved, the debuts might not be as great as the later movies, but you can still see how they became stars. In their first real movie as a team, Duck Soup (not the Marx Bros. one), Laurel and Hardy look rough around the edges, but they’re still the familiar Stan and Ollie. Kid Auto Races at Venice looks like a home movie, but Charlie Chaplin, in his first appearance in the Tramp outfit, wins you over by sheer force of personality. On the other hand, when you watch The Cocoanuts, you’ll either pinch yourself to keep from falling asleep or stare wide-eyed at the Marxes’ housebroken versions of their later, more wacko personas.

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The Cocoanuts is reported to have been a satire of the 1925 Florida land boom, but only one scene actually relates to that scenario, and the satire in this scene is as curdled as old milk. Most of the action occurs around the Florida hotel where Mr. Hammer (Groucho) is manager, but his behavior is strangely self-defeating. He bemoans the lack of hotel guests, but whenever one of the current guests phones him at the lobby to request something for their room, Hammer puts them off with some stupid wisecrack that seems guaranteed to soon make them pack up and leave.

About the only people he manages to subdue are the bellhops who, in Groucho’s opening scene, haven’t been paid for two weeks and demand their salaries from him. Groucho makes a weak speech that boils down to, If you ever flirted with socialism, you might as well go whole-hog on it now because I have no intention of paying you. And the bellboys shut right up. Somebody at Paramount got it wrong–these are the Marxes that do comedy, not Communist speeches.

Those bellboys are a tad ambivalent, by the way. Although there’s no mistaking them for males, Groucho constantly refers to them as “boys” in his intro speech, but then when all of them are accosted by Harpo later, he chases them just as he usually chases girls. This can’t be a subtext that anyone truly intended for the movie.

But then, ambivalence seems the order of the day here. As male love interest Bob Adams, Oscar Shaw has lips as bee-stung, and carriage as fey, as any ’20s flapper. As Bob’s girlfriend Polly, Mary Eaton has a painfully prolonged dance number (titled, I kid you not, “The Monkey-Doodle-Doo”) that features many ant’s-eye-view camera shots of her dress swirling long enough to get a pretty clear assessment of her panties.

Most unforgivable of all is Margaret Dumont as Mrs. Potter, Polly’s mother. Mrs. P. disapproves of Bob because he’s not in the same social class as Polly, and her insistent demand that Polly marry a nearby rich guy (and not caring in the least whether or not Polly even likes it) is just this side of pimping.

If this sexual deconstruction of the movie seems a bit protracted, that’s only because nothing else of interest is going on in the movie. The Marx Brothers do some things that could have turned out pretty funny if only the pacing had been goosed up a bit, but since it’s an early talkie, it’s all the cameramen could do to keep the Marxes in the shot. Legend has it that the reason the Marxes’ Broadway shows had romantic relief to start with was because the Marxes were so anarchic, they needed more “normal” characters to offset their insanity. Here, their insanity is so offset that they hardly get to even do any comedy.

Legend also tells us that Irving Berlin, who wrote the show’s songs, despaired about not having a hit number for Cocoanuts. But it sure wasn’t for lack of trying. His song “The Skies Will All Be Blue When My Dream Comes True” gets repeated a few thousand times in the movie, even gumming up Harpo’s first movie-harp scene.

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The Cocoanuts only proves that the Marx Brothers’ insanity is pointless without something to get insane about. You’d think sparks would fly when Groucho tries to woo Margaret Dumont in their first movie together. But the movie fails to either (a) connect Hammer’s wooing to the fact that he needs Mrs. Potter’s money to keep his hotel afloat, or (b) doesn’t even try to get Groucho to score points off of Mrs. Potter’s trying to pimp her daughter. (Indeed, it’s Hammer who caters Polly’s engagement party, which comedically bites the dust right after the Marxes make their entrance in funny costumes.)

It’s reported that when the Marx Brothers saw this movie version of their hit Broadway show, they were so appalled that they tried to buy the movie’s negative so that they could burn it. Happily, it still exists, if only for the pleasure of having future generations of film critics express their wish that the Marx Brothers should have burned the negative.

Groucho Marx and THE EXORCIST – You bet your soul

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The infamous 1973 movie The Exorcist will be broadcast tonight at 10:00 p.m. EST on IFC Channel. To quote Yogi Berra (or was it Abraham Lincoln?), if you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you’ll like. I’ve never had any desire to see the movie, having nearly lost my cookies as a teenager just from reading the original novel.

So why I am writing a blog about it? Because of the wild story I read about its origin. It all started one day when the novel’s author, William Peter Blatty, appeared on Groucho Marx’s TV quiz show “You Bet Your Life.” According to Wikipedia:

“A guest purporting to be a wealthy Arabian prince was actually writer William Peter Blatty. Groucho saw through the disguise, stating, ‘You’re no more a prince than I am because I have an Arabian horse and I know what they look like.’ Blatty won $10,000 and used the leave of absence that the money afforded him to write The Exorcist.”

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So there you have it. Groucho Marx is at least partially responsible for one of cinema’s most painful experiences since The Big Store.

But the Groucho connection doesn’t end there. In an online chat about the movie, Blatty and Exorcist director William Friedkin stated that they had tried to involve Groucho in a practical joke directed at executives from Warner Bros., the movie’s distributor.

During the filming, the execs wanted to see dailies of the movie. Friedkin and Blatty had planned to film Groucho standing at the door when Father Merrin entered the room of the possessed girl, played by Linda Blair. “There would be Linda strapped to the bed,” Blatty said, “and then the duck [“You Bet Your Life’s” mascot] would come down.”

Anyway, if you want to see The Exorcist tonight, have fun with it. For me, the secret word is NO

BTW, here’s the episode in question: