Goodbye Silent Comedy, Hello Groucho

WEA Sydney Film Society, Sunday 16 December at noon

Bacon Grabbers USA 1929 28m at 18fps bw silent D: Lewis R. Foster, with Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Edgar Kennedy, Jean Harlow. Stan and Ollie attempt to collect a payment on a radio from Edgar Kennedy. Their penultimate silent comedy as usual builds gradually from a simple premise into an absurd destructive climax, in a visual acting style soon to be rendered old fashioned by the fast moving scripted gag comedy typified by the Marx Brothers (Harpo excepted).

Horse Feathers USA 1932 68m bw D: Norman Z. McLeod, with Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo Marx, Thelma Todd, David Landau, Robert Greig, Nat Pendleton. The advent of sound allowed the Marx Brothers to record on film their style of verbal comedy, honed for years in vaudeville, Broadway and more recently on radio. In Horse Feathers Groucho is the unlikely dean of Huxley College, where the only subjects seem to be sex and football. The brothers all pursue Thelma Todd, the ‘College Widow’ (!), but the biggest problem on everybody’s brain is how to win the big football game against Darwin College. Made as a parody of Hollywood’s college musical genre, the film makes pointed reference to the college football betting scandals of the day.

Dangerous Females USA 1929 21m bw D: William Watson, with Marie Dressler, Polly Moran, Frank Rice, Arthur Millett, Tom Dempsey. An early Marie Dressler sound comedy, largely dependent on her hilarious visual reactions to a reputed murderer on the loose in her neighbourhood.

Duck Soup USA 1933 68m bw D: Leo McCarey, with Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo Marx, Margaret Dumont, Louis Calhern, Raquel Torres, Edgar Kennedy. Including the classic mirror routine and lemonade vendor scene, this unprecedented satire on politics and war is the best of the Marx Brothers films, with Groucho as an out of control president. Patriotism is lampooned, war is declared on a contrivance, friendly fire is covered up, politics is corrupted and the law is hypocritical – but don’t worry, it’s only happening in a mythical European country. Mussolini banned the film when he recognised Groucho as himself.

Bacon Grabbers

USA 1929 28m at 18 fps bw silent
directed by Lewis R. Foster

Producer, Hal Roach; writers Leo McCarey, HM Walker, cinematographers, Jack Roach, George Stevens: film editor, Richard Currier. Process servers (Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy), Edgar Kennedy (Colliss P Kennedy), Jean Harlow (Mrs Kennedy), Harry Barnard (cop).

Stan and Ollie’s penultimate silent film finds them as tyro debt collectors whose first job is to collect a late payment due on a very large radio by a very large customer. A relatively minor confrontation gradually escalates into mayhem and destruction in the best Laurel and Hardy tradition. A treasurable example of silent clowning, already rendered almost obsolete in 1929 by talking pictures. L & H survived the leap from silence to sound, eventually appearing in more than 100 films together.

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy had been working solo for Hal Roach when they were teamed for the first time in The Second Hundred Years (1927) on an inspiration of the writer Leo McCarey, who wrote Bacon Grabbers and later directed Duck Soup. Edgar Kennedy, the target of their relentless zeal, was Duck Soup’s lemonade seller, the cinematographer George Stevens became a top director (A Place in the Sun, Shane, Giant) and the unknown 18-year old playing Mrs Kennedy became the very famous Jean Harlow.

Horse Feathers

USA 1932 68m bw
Directed by Norman Z. McLeod

Paramount Pictures. Producer, Herman J Mankiewicz; writers, Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, S J Perelman, Will B Johnstone, Arthur Sheekman; cinematographer, Ray June; composer, Harry Ruby; lyrics, Bert Kalmar; dance director, Harold Hecht.

Groucho Marx (Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff), Harpo Marx (Pinky), Chico Marx (Baravelli), Zeppo Marx (Frank Wagstaff), Thelma Todd (Connie Bailey), David Landau (Jennings), Robert Greig (biology professor), Nat Pendleton (MacHardie), James Pierce (Mullin), Arthur Sheekman (typing sportswriter).

The brothers Marx: Chico (Leonard, 1887-1961); Harpo (Adolph, 1888-1964); Groucho (Julius 1890-1077); Gummo (Milton 1892 -1977), and Zeppo (Herbert, 1901-1979) were the sons of migrant parents from Alsace who settled in New York in the late 19th century. In 1907 Groucho and Gummo became a teenage singing act in vaudeville, joined later by their mother and an aunt and still later by Chico and Harpo. It was not until 1912 that this unremarkable family act evolved from song into comedy. Gummo joined the Army in 1917 and was replaced by 16-year old Zeppo. When in 1924 a major disagreement with the leading vaudeville chain led to their blacklisting, they moved to the Broadway stage as headliners in their own shows. Chico, Harpo and Groucho had morphed over the years into three remarkably distinctive clowns, notorious for free spirited uninhibited behaviour and outrageous puns; the kind of highly original characters that are virtually impossible to create to order. Does anyone remember the Ritz Brothers?

The success of the film versions of their Broadway shows The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1931) shot in Paramount’s New York Astoria studios convinced them that, after 25 years on stage, making one film a year would be more agreeable than faking spontaneity night after night on Broadway, then on tour. In 1932 they willingly moved to Hollywood to make Monkey Business.

Their following film, Horse Feathers, begins as a lampoon of academia, with Groucho, the perpetual con man, as the unlikely new dean of Huxley College, Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff, proclaiming in song his anti-authoritarian and perverse philosophy to the assembled fuddy-duddy faculty: “I don’t know what they have to say, it makes no difference anyway, whatever it is, I’m against it”. Chico, with his bad puns and fake Italian accent, and Harpo, the eternal child, were students. Possibly because neither the brothers nor their two main scriptwriters had been to college, Horse Feathers soon segues from academic parody into the familiar college musical genre, with a plotline of sorts suggested by the rigged college football betting scandals of the day. As the rival Darwin College has two professional players in its team, Groucho visits a speakeasy to hire two for Huxley but in the inevitable confusion engages Chico, Huxley’s bootlegger and iceman, and Harpo, the town dogcatcher. Reflecting the growing antagonism against prohibition in the U.S., the film takes a casually tolerant attitude towards bootlegging and speakeasies, still illegal until the end of 1933.

Horse Feathers minimised the conventional romantic element of their earlier films – sexual attraction and pursuit was mainly played as farce. For the second time Thelma Todd, playing the never explained ‘college widow’, was the target of all four Brothers’ attentions. While attempting to wheedle secret football moves out of Groucho during a canoe date, she ends up in the lake – a cheeky reference to a crucial incident in the recently published “An American Tragedy”. The straight man Zeppo was allowed a more traditional wooing.

It is surprising that such spontaneous comedians needed multiple scriptwriters, whose patience and forbearance were sorely tested daily. Although Harry Ruby remembers working with them as “a memorable experience” and Nat Perrin “had more fun on their films than any other”, the more intellectual humourist S J Perelman called them “capricious, tricky beyond endurance and also unreliable”.

Duck Soup

USA 1933 68m bw
Directed by Leo McCarey

Paramount Pictures. Producer, Herman J Mankiewicz; story, Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby; additional dialogue, Arthur Sheekman, Nat Perrin; cinematographer, Henry Sharp; film editor, LeRoy Stone; sound mixer, Henry Lindgren, composer, Bert Kalmar; lyricist, Harry Ruby.

Groucho Marx (Rufus T Firefly), Harpo Marx (Pinkie), Chico Marx (Chicolini), Zeppo Marx (Lt. Bob Roland), Margaret Dumont (Mrs Vera Teasdale), Louis Calhern (Ambassador Trentino of Sylvania), Raquel Torres (Vera Marcal), Edgar Kennedy (lemonade vendor), Edward Arnold (politician), Dennis O’Keefe (bridegroom).

Now generally recognised as the best of the Marx Brothers films, Duck Soup is a relentless satire on politics and war, with Groucho as Rufus T Firefly, a shameless opportunist who is loved devotedly by Vera Teasdale, widow of the late president of the bankrupt mythical European country Freedonia. She will lend them 20 million dollars on condition that Firefly, who she believes has “the humility of Lincoln, the statesmanship of Gladstone and the wisdom of Pericles”, is made president. Ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern), from the neighbouring and equally mythical Sylvania, also has a covetous eye on Mrs Teasdale and her 20 million dollars.

With the exception of Dr Strangelove, has any film so brazenly attacked the pillars of its society? Under the capricious and morally corrupt Firefly, patriotism is lampooned, diplomacy is weakness, war is declared on a contrivance, friendly fire is covered up, cabinet positions are awarded to incompetents and the law is hypocritical, while the citizens go happily off to war on the wings of patriotic song and dance – it seems eerily familiar except that – whew! – it’s only happening in mythical Freedonia.

At his inauguration President Firefly warns in song of his killjoy social philosophy: “… if any sort of pleasure is exhibited, report to me and it will be prohibited. I’ll put my foot down, so shall it be, this is the land of the free!” The reference to liquor prohibition is unmistakable and of course Firefly cynically flouts his own laws. Mussolini recognised himself in Firefly and promptly banned Duck Soup.

How different might Duck Soup have been under its originally intended director Ernst Lubitsch? But it was assigned to Leo McCarey, who began in 1923 as a Hal Roach gag writer and now had 20 years of successful filmmaking still ahead of him. Harpo and Chico didn’t perform their popular harp and piano solos, which they thought had become formulaic and held up the action. However Duck Soup has possibly the Marxes’ two finest non-plot interpolations: the incomparable mirror scene, performed in silence and based on a traditional vaudeville routine, and the scene of escalating torment between the peanut vendors Harpo and Chico and the lemonade seller Edgar (Slow Burn) Kennedy, showing the propensity for warfare at the simplest level of human society – probably a McCarey reprise of his earlier Laurel and Hardy comedy routines.

It was the Brothers’ final film in their Paramount contract and not a commercial success. Apart from the number of sacred cows being lampooned, the world was in the grip of a depression at least partly attributable to the three preceding ineffective laissez faire presidents – Harding, Coolidge and Hoover – and unemployed people in the audience must have felt uneasy watching a comedy about an uncaring, incompetent government.

Before Duck Soup the Marx Brothers, for all their anarchic behaviour, had kept the sympathy of most audiences, who enjoyed identifying with these free spirited wild cards who comically broke through conventional society’s repression of human needs and desires. This was particularly true of Groucho’s self-centred disregard for the feelings of others, especially his gratuitous insults to the majestic Margaret Dumont, who represented the unassailable upper class to which his raffish con man character aspired and was his perfect foil, barely comprehending his devastating repartee and quickly regaining her gracious demeanour.

Firefly’s seemingly unmotivated determination to start a war (after all, he’s paid a month’s rent on the battlefield) is at least partly explained by an earlier draft script which cast him as an agent for the Eureka Munitions Corporation who also tries to sell ammunition to the other side. That had to go – lampooning dictatorships is one thing, disrespecting the international arms trade another. During the inevitable war Commander-in-Chief Firefly wears a different period uniform in every shot – an allusion to the various U.S. wars waged up to that time. The war is played for laughs, even to Firefly’s covering up a “friendly fire” report. The final scene takes one last shot at patriotism, then proves the old showbiz adage: it’s not over until the fat lady sings.

Contemporary reviews of Duck Soup either did not recognise or ignored its savage satirical intent. After describing plot incidents by “those mad clowns”, the pompous New York Times critic Mourdant Hall merely mentioned in passing “the government activities in Freedonia”. Mr. Hall, at his patronising best, found Louis Calhern “adequate” and Margaret Dumont “satisfactory”. Variety’s reviewer “Bige” called it a “burlesque” but did at least refer to a “satirical congressional session”. Most other US reviews were less than complimentary while the intellectual weeklies New Republic and New Statesman ignored it. There were no Sydney reviews, as Duck Soup was here relegated as a support to, of all things, Paramount’s live action Alice In Wonderland, a satire from another time. When Duck Soup was later rediscovered on late night TV it finally received overdue positive reappraisal.

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