Review: Duck Soup (1933)

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Up until this point in time, The Marx Brother’s all-out assault on humanity had still mostly been geared at the likes of stuffy socialites, gangsters, college campuses, authority figures, etc. Albeit entertaining but fairly straightforward worlds where there was not that much to be navigated beyond what we already knew to be true. All that was necessary was to sit back and enjoy the boys at work and cue the rolling in the aisles.

Their audiences by now had been conditioned with a certain type of environment. The framework is still somehow familiar in Duck Soup as well — at least on first glance. There we have Margaret Dumont at the center of it all surrounded by a bunch of stuffy bespectacled chaps with beards. She is calling for the resignation of one of the leaders of the nation of Freedonia.

Her choice to fill the position is none other than that progressive visionary Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho). Why she thinks he is anywhere close to being qualified is slightly beside the point. We just want a chance to see Groucho and he receives the usual majestic fanfare rushing down the fireman’s pull to see what all the hubbub is about.

Meanwhile, Louis Calhern of the adjoining nation of Sylvania is simultaneously conspiring with a cunning mistress to ignite a revolution and take over the country from within while also attempting to woo the prominent Mrs. Teasdale.

Two spies are tracking Firefly right as they speak. In fact, they’re a lot closer than they might think. They’re his brothers. Scratch that. They’re Pinky and Chicolini sent to scrape together some dirt to discredit him with the people. Little does their ringleader know that Groucho, errr, Firefly has been doing a good enough job being disreputable all by himself.

Only when Margaret Dumont has returned back in the fold do you realize how much she improves Groucho’s jokes. Years later the man said himself that the key to the magic was the fact that she never understood any of his barbs — much less why they were funny. However, in this particular outing, Louis Calhern and the demonstrative lemonade vendor Edgar Kennedy do much the same for the other two conniving troublemakers, Chico and Harpo. They’ve never truly had such a good foil as Groucho had in Dumont.

The picture segues into a scene where Groucho sticks his head out the window overlooking a peanut vendor and pretty soon Chico is being offered a spot in Groucho’s cabinet. Sounds about right. Likewise, Harpo gets in on the action and the most surprising discovery is that his body is covered with art in the film’s next truly surreal interlude.

Now with such crucial positions so close to Groucho, who coincidentally would have probably offered positions to a chimpanzee if given the chance, the two infiltrators are called upon to steal Freedonia’s war plans. Again, who cares?

Crucially, their little escapade sets up The Marx Brothers’ next iconic gag with three Groucho’s dressed in nightcaps and pajamas. The mirror scene is the most remembered bit and it’s fun but it’s only a segment of a whole drawn-out sequence that plays on the brothers’ mistaken identities. This in itself could be another commentary if you wanted to make it into one.

Personally, it struck me for the first time that though physically the sequence revolves around Groucho, much of it takes place in Harpo’s world without any dialogue. Furthermore, there are times when we don’t actually know who is Groucho or who is not until we are given cues whether Chico’s trademark accent or Harpo’s hat.

First, the mirror is shattered and then reality when one Groucho steps out and is replaced by another only to be joined by a third. Regardless of what you want to say about this realm of the absurd, it’s a great gag.

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Then there’s the final sequence which is the actual escalation of the war between the two belligerent countries but it’s done with the typical tongue-and-cheek manner you might expect from the brothers where war is equated to a minstrel show and Groucho breaks out into a slightly doctored spiritual, “All God’s Children Got Guns.” From thence forward let the surrealist nonsensical nature of war take over.

For me, Groucho sums it up in sending Chicolini off to battle, “While you’re out there risking life and limb through shot and shell, we’ll be in here thinking what a sucker you are.” This was no grand anti-war statement. If anything it was a cynical statement. Of course, that doesn’t take into account Groucho’s constantly changing military garb from Revolutionary War attire, Civil War uniforms, a coonskin cap, etc. It was comedy pure and simple.  

In my mind, it’s no small coincidence that one of the Brothers most reputed films was also directed by Leo McCarey who in some respects still remains criminally underrated. Certainly, he was more a Cary Grant director than a Marx Brothers one but there’s a sense that he could focus their comedy into something utterly electric.

The irony of it all is that The Marx Brothers really hadn’t changed all that much but the way people perceived them and by extension, how they perceived their comedy, had provided this new context that surrounds Duck Soup. So people could start placing all types of assumptions and beliefs onto the film in ways that were most alarming and subversive.

I think the brothers themselves may have even admitted that they unwittingly rather than consciously made this departure. But the implications were great and cultivated the soil for a film that’s legacy would only grow year after year. And it’s true that there really is no superfluous scene. There’s no real chaff as it were even if it is all utterly marvelous absurdity.

However, it made just enough sense for Mussolini to ban the film on grounds of pointed satire. One last time let’s turn to Groucho who would have been overjoyed by such a response but pointed out, “We were four Jews just trying to get a laugh.” That was all. But it was so much. Duck Soup is a pinnacle of comic nonsense.

4.5/5 Stars

Review: The Awful Truth (1937)

theawfultruth2The Awful Truth came out of a trend that was in vogue during the 1930s. It’s called a comedy of “remarriage.” During the Hays Code era, it allowed films to nimbly skirt the whole issue of divorce and extramarital romance. We would see it again in the more remembered screwball His Girl Friday and various other forms as My Favorite Wife and The Lady Eve.

However, when I first saw this film I was floored by its pure comic fun that pushed Cary Grant’s persona into the public eye for the first time and made me consider Irene Dunne one of the most underrated actresses that I can possibly conjure up. I try not to use the Oscars to define the greatness of a film or star, but for her, I’ll break the rule. She got nominated for Best Actress 5 times and never won.  To call her a Jean Arthur-type is rather condescending given both stars’ magnitude, and I will say she easily gives Katharine Hepburn at least a run for Cary Grant’s best romantic partner. She was an unexpected joy of beauty perfectly wed with comedic wit.

I was afraid that with that element of surprise gone the film would lose some of its mystique. True, perhaps it was not as magical this time around, but I will still acknowledge the merit of The Awful Truth as an often under-appreciated gem of a comedy. Director Leo McCarey came into his element in 1937 with this film and Make Way for Tomorrow. They are starkly different pictures, but here he embraces the tension, the awkwardness, and everything else that makes comedy transcendent. And there is hardly anyone more transcendent than Cary Grant.

His smirks, which would be recycled for His Girl Friday and numerous other films, are universal. His adeptness with pratfalls and physical comedy are fully on display, and he simply had smashingly good chemistry with Dunne. Every time they throw a jab and the sparks begin to fly you know how much they care for each other, just like two of Ralph Bellamy’s chickens madly in love. A great deal of their success could undoubtedly be attributed to McCarey who gave them very little actual script to work with and forced them into ad-libbing scenes. The results speak for themselves.

In truth, the film begins quite innocently enough before evolving into an utterly acrimonious divorce proceeding, ending with a bitter fight for their prized pooch Mr. Smith (Asta of Thin Man fame). The second round goes to Grant as he plays third wheel with Lucy’s new air-headed, Texas beau Dan (Ralph Bellamy). He makes a new acquaintance of a southern belle who just happens to be a nightclub singer. Her performance is an awkward affair crossing Gone with the Wind with Marilyn Monroe‘s antics in The Seven Year Itch. We could take or leave her little ditty, but the reactions from our stars are priceless. On top of that, Grant shows his tumbling prowess a couple times, while also having a lark with Mr. Smith in the home of his old love and hiding behind doors at all the inopportune times. Lucy can’t seem to get rid of him and by the end of it all, she doesn’t quite want to.

Round three goes to Dunne as she tries to find a way to weasel her way back into Jerry’s life. He’s about to be wed to a high-brow socialite, but Lucy gets into the mix by masquerading as Jerry’s screwy sister. It’s an inspired bit of ditziness that Dunne plays to a tee, being the remarkable comedienne that she is. Meanwhile, the whole well-to-do family looks on rather stink-eyed, as Grant and Dunne spar back and forth. She’s trying to mess things up, he’s trying to keep all the plates from toppling as he attempts to maintain all his covers stories. It’s fit to be a disaster.

The final act is the most wistful because time is winding down and we know what that means. Jerry and Lucy won’t be married anymore. But they both still love each other, they just won’t say anything for fear that this is a one-way street. Happy endings abound in an old cabin in the woods. There, creaky doors, kitty cats, and cuckoo clocks spell wedding bells. And they go out on top, together again, in one bed. Grant and Dunne remained a phenomenal screen couple for a couple more films, but this original offering from McCarey was undoubtedly their best.

4.5/5 Stars

Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)

Make-way-for-tomorrow-1937It seems like Leo McCarey and this film for that matter often get lost in the shuffle. In his day he was a highly successful and well thought of director of such classics as The Awful Truth and Going My Way. However, his moving drama Make Way For Tomorrow is now often overshadowed by a similar film that used it as inspiration, Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953).

I will not pass judgment on which film I like more. In fact, to even begin to make a decision I would have to go back to both. However, this film opens by restating the 5th commandment. Honor thy father and thy mother. After all, this film is certainly about the gap between generations, parents with children, grandparents with grandchildren, but at its core is this main concern. Honor thy father and thy mother.

The film opens in the home of Barkley (Victor Moore) and Lucy Cooper (Beulah Bondi). 4 of their 5 grown children are gathered together on the request of their parents who have something to tell them. Because their father has not been able to work, the bank is taking their house and so they will be displaced. Thus, the story is set up as the kids worry about what to do, because no one feels capable of taking both parents. Finally, it is decided that eldest son George (Thomas Mitchell) will take Mother, and one of the sisters will take father.

It is difficult for everyone. The old folks are split up for one of the first times in their 50 years of marriage. Meanwhile, grandma disrupts bridge lessons, makes life more of a nuisance on George’s daughter, and forces the maid to take on more hours. It does not make anyone angry at first, but it begins rubbing and chafing. Creating bitterness and annoyance which is arguably worse. Things reach the breaking point when George’s peeved wife finds out that her daughter is rendezvousing with men, and she is not happy at all when grandma confesses to knowing about it. She loses her temper and grandma apologizes. Seeing a letter from a retirement home she quietly decides it would be better for all if she simply moves there.

Her husband does not fare much better, and the harsh New York weather is taking a toll on his health. Furthermore, his daughter is obviously getting tired of him as her patience continues to wear thin. Mr. Cooper does make a friend in a kindly old shop owner (Maurice Moscovitch), but he soon is turned off as well. Finally, his daughter decides to send their father out of California. She says it’s for his health, but the real reason is she wants him off their hands so her other sister can deal with him.

With this new turn of events, Barkley and Lucy have one last meeting set up so they can spend time together before he is sent off to California. This is the most touching part of the entire film because underlying this oasis is the doubt that they might not see each other again. In the wake of that proposition, they have sort of a second honeymoon. They ditch the kids and have a magical evening just the two of them, reliving their youth and remembering the olden days. The miracle of this sequence is that everyone seems to finally understand them, appreciate them, and really honor them. They are offered a ride in an automobile and are met by the hotel manager who offers them drinks and listens to their wonderful stories of times past. Even the conductor plays a slow waltz just for the two of them. It’s a beautiful extended moment that is made especially moving in contrast to the earlier scenes. These are two people who, despite their advanced years, are still very much in love. It speaks to the importance that marriage holds in the life of some people. In certain circumstances, it is not a shallow event, but a lifelong friendship that carries so much weight.

When the time comes, the two lovebirds say goodbye at the train station and we don’t know what happens to them. We can guess certainly, but McCarey leaves a sweeter taste in our mouths before finishing with a realistic ending. It’s beautiful, moving, and tearful, but not in an overdramatic sort of way. In the mundane, sorrowful way that seems to reflect the rhythms of real life. Beulah Bondi was featured in some many great films, but I’m convinced that this was her greatest performance as an individual. Victor Moore was a worthy companion for her as well. However, my favorite character was probably the shopkeeper Max, because he was such a personable man in a sea of grumbling and annoyance.

5/5 Stars

My Favorite Wife (1940)

My_Favorite_Wife_posterThis is a film that I arrived at by a rather roundabout route indeed. Let me explain. I genuinely loved Cary Grant and Irene Dunne’s chemistry in The Awful Truth, but I wanted to watch My Favorite Wife before moving onto their final film together Penny Serenade. Time passed and I found two other films.

First, Something’s Got to Give which was Marilyn Monroe‘s final project that remained unfinished after her death. Only about 30 minutes were completed and it was scrapped, only to be reincarnated a year later as a Doris Day vehicle co-starring James Garner. Being a fan of Day and especially of the late-great Garner, I had to indulge in this romantic comedy Move Over, Darling.

All that is to say that the Monroe film and ultimately the Doris Day film were both based on this same basic plot. A man just recently gets married only to learn that his wife who has been missing for seven years is alive. He must figure out how to break it to his new wife, only to learn that she was shipwrecked on a tropical island with a strapping young man.

After three renditions it certainly feels over-trod, but the beauty of each adaptation is that they only have this basic framework intact. A lot of the really juicy bits are filled out by the cast. Of course, your stars change. Because James Garner is no Dean Martin is no Cary Grant. And the same goes for Monroe, Day, and Dunne. However, the same goes for the crotchety judge, the desk clerk at the hotel, the bookish shoe salesman who takes part in a deception, or even the friendly neighborhood insurance salesman.

It becomes a fun game of compare and contrast, but these different performances also free you up to watch these films on their own merit and enjoy that three times over. I have found myself to often be a proponent of characters over plot and this is another case of that.

Grant and Dunne are a lot of fun together once more even if I have seen these predicaments before because Day and Garner are great to watch, but for different reasons. And of course, all the locales and fashion trends changed a lot in two decades.

Also, I will not pass judgment on who my favorite wife was out of the three and, truth be told, I saw them out of order — I would usually pick the original. In this rendition, the judge played by Granville Bates was a real scene stealer so I was sorry to discover he passed away the same year and had very few other roles.

My only question is, would this film have been propelled to greater status if Leo McCarey had been able to direct it? Also, I am now excited I finally feel clear to watch Penny Serenade and I might just have to go back and revisit The Awful Truth because it has been a while.

3.5/5 Stars

An Affair to Remember (1956)

anaffairto2An Affair to Remember (1956) has always been noted as a great American romance as far as I can ever remember, and I figured out that part of that was because it gets a mention in Sleepless in Seattle (1993). Whatever the reason, I finally got around to watching it and it is certainly an enjoyable weepy. Any film with Cary Grant as a romantic lead is usually, at the very least, charming and this one is too. He is a famed man on an ocean liner who has finally gone and gotten himself hitched. It’s big news and as soon as the ship touches down he is going to meet his love.

Quite by chance, he meets Deborah Kerr’s character and they are immediately taken with each other. Soon their friendship grows into an affectionate romance, and yet they feel uncomfortable in front of the other passengers who seem to be watching their every move with interest. They both know that once the boat reaches New York things will not be the same between them for some time.

anaffairto4And so it is, but they had made one last plan to meet each other at the top of the Empire State Building. Grant makes it, but Kerr is detained for a very good reason. After seeing her in an awkward situation at the theater, Grant resolves to go see her and get to the bottom of what happened. It’s a tearful, albeit happy, reunion as they come back together.

If any of this feels familiar, like a rerun, that’s because it is. Leo McCarey actually made An Affair to Remember (1956) as a scene for scene remake of his earlier film Love Affair (1939). I never thought I’d say that I like a film with Charles Boyer more than a comparable one with Cary Grant, but it’s the truth. I’m not sure if it’s because I saw it first or that the film feels more intimate, but I really enjoyed Love Affair. An Affair to Remember is certainly elegant in color and Deborah Kerr gives a fine performance, but I was personally blown away by Irene Dunne as an actress. In fact, back in the day, Dunne worked quite a bit with Cary Grant (The Awful Truth, My Favorite Wife, and Penny Serenade).

So my advice is, go back and give Love Affair a watch. It’s still by McCarey with much of the same story so it’s really a personal preference what film you like more.

3.5/5 Stars

Love Affair (1939)

Love Affair (1939)Imagine meeting someone through a porthole, that’s what happens in this film when a gust of wind sends Michel Marnet’s letter flying. The lady who is kind enough to return it is the friendly Terry McKay. The two acquaintances enjoy each others company and strike up a friendship in the few days before they dock in New York. Both of them have fiancees waiting for them. They begin seeing a lot of each other, but they also start to notice that the other passengers are looking on.

One day they make a stop and Michel pays a quick visit to his grandmother. Terry agrees to come along and strikes up a fast friendship with the elderly woman who really likes her. As they get close to New York Michel and Terry agree to meet in 6 months at the top of the Empire State Building. By then he will know if he can carry a job to support her. So it goes.

The 6 months finally passes and the time of the meeting arrives. An excited Terry rushes off to “get married” but tragedy strikes. Michel waits all alone and she never shows. For a long while they lose all contact as Terry recuperates and Michel continues to paint while nursing a broken heart. When he finally tracks her down, they share a slightly awkward introduction. In a marvelous sequence, Michel tells her about how “he” missed the meeting and apologizes for what “she” must have gone through. She knows what happened now, but Terry still will not tell him what happened to her, because she did not want to be a burden. In a eureka moment, Michel figures it out and goes to embrace his love. As she did the whole film, Terry accepts the hardship and meets it with a joyful heart.

Love Affair is just that, but it fails to lower itself to uninhibited passion and romance without any substance of character. Its leads are not that superficial. They are better than that and certainly more complex. In all honesty, I never have been a big fan of Charles Boyer. I see his appeal as a suave, debonair Frenchmen with an accent, but he never did anything for me. Here I saw him as more than a playboy. He filled that expectation at first, but the scenes with his kindly grandmother and then when he thinks Terry have forgotten him, show a softer, more vulnerable side.

I do not quite know why, but Irene Dunne is especially enjoyable to watch. Whether it is her skill as a comedienne with comic timing or the expressions on her face, I find her endearing every moment on the screen. She makes me smile just as she smiles. In many ways, she reminds me of another actress of the 1930s, Jean Arthur. However, Arthur I know far better because of films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. With Dunne, I have seen very little and yet I have been so impressed by her. Love Affair was another film that proved her genial appeal.

Furthermore, Leo McCarey does not get enough credit, because he is a great director with some great films to his name like The Awful Truth. He would later remake Love Affair as An Affair to Remember, which was a success in itself.

4/5 Stars

The Awful Truth (1937)

99f81-theawfultruth1937Starring Irene Dunne and Cary Grant, the film revolves around a couple after they split up over unfounded assumptions of unfaithfulness. The divorce is granted and after the wife gains custody of the beloved dog Mr. Smith, the 90 day waiting period begins. First she tries to get over him by spending time with a kind but dimwitted man from Oklahoma. Then Grant gets involved, and at first he gets enjoyment seeing his wife uncomfortable, but he soon becomes a bit jealous and sad. He then takes up his own relationship with an heiress and on the eve of their divorce they seem to be parting ways. However, Dunne’s character will not let it end that easily and she poses as his sister, eventually getting him away from his fiancee. Needless to say that in the end they get back together. This screwball comedy has very funny dialogue and Grand does some wonderful slapstick. It probably is one of my favorites from the genre.

4.5/5 Stars