Very often, when people discuss film directors, they restrict themselves to those widely perceived as the great auteurs – the ones with identifiable thematic preoccupations and a discernible style. That’s all very well, but it does mean that some very fine talents tend to get forgotten about, simply because their strength is versatility rather than consistency.
The critic David Thomson touched on this in the latest issue of Sight & Sound in his feature about the late Mike Nichols; he mentioned Vincente Minnelli, George Cukor, David Lean and Stephen Frears as other important directors who might be considered members of the “assignment profession”. I wouldn’t have included Cukor on that list – his abiding fascination with performance and pretence seems to me to warrant at least a degree of auteur status – but the point stands.
Indeed, full-blown auteurs are and always have been less numerous than the metteurs-en-scène who are less bothered about self-expression than about simply making the best of their material. And many of the most popular films of all time – think Gone with the Wind (1939), Casablanca (1942), Titanic (1997) – have been made by directors whose claims to auteur status are somewhat shaky.
One such is surely Leo McCarey, who made one of the most heart-wrenching Hollywood movies of all time (the extraordinary if woefully underseen Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), which was famously an influence on Ozu’s Tokyo Story), some of the most mawkish (I’ll refrain from mentioning the titles), and some of the funniest. He worked on a great many shorts with Charley Chase – including the hilarious Mighty like a Moose (1926) – and Laurel and Hardy, before making Mae West’s Belle of the Nineties (1934), Ruggles of Red Gap (1935) and The Awful Truth (1937). Best of all, however, was Duck Soup (1933), starring the Marx Brothers.
You might think it would be nigh on impossible to ‘direct’ the supremely anarchic Marxes, but look how much tamer their later films were; the early Paramount movies are by far the freshest and least diluted by romantic flummery for juve leads. Clearly the Brothers did take ‘guidance’ of a sort, even if it was sometimes the wrong sort.
You might also think that it was the writing that primarily defined the quality of a Marx Brothers movie. Well, yes and no. Obviously the screenplays for the earlier films are generally better than those for the later films; Duck Soup was written by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, who along with George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind were responsible for writing most of the Marxes’ best work.
But let’s not forget just how much Groucho, Chico and Harpo – and yes, maybe Zeppo too, if we’re feeling generous – brought to the brew themselves; delivery is all important. Also, their comedy was only partly about outrageous puns, wisecracks and insults. And superb as Animal Crackers (1930), Monkey Business (1931), Horse Feathers (1932) and much of A Night at the Opera (1935) are, Duck Soup is by almost universal consensus rather better. Indeed, for this writer at least (and a few acquaintances) along with It’s a Gift (1934) and His Girl Friday (1939) it’s probably the funniest black-and-white comedy of the sound era.
I’d argue that there are two things that make Duck Soup the best of the Marx Brothers’ movies. First, while all of their films delight in taking potshots at figures of authority, Duck Soup is even more irreverent – and more substantial – in its satire in that it mocks militarism, politicians and patriotism.
It is, after all, a kind of anti-war movie, with Groucho’s Rufus T. Firefly, president of Freedonia, picking a needless argument with the ambassador of a neighbouring nation simply out of piqued personal pride and – more likely – a perverse sense of mischief. He knows “this means war!” but goes ahead anyway, happy to sacrifice the life of any fool – particularly Harpo’s Pinky – who will sign up for the conflict.
Made when the First World War was not such a distant memory, at a time when fascism and Nazism were gaining ground in Europe, the film’s clear contempt for jingoism and warmongering had a relevance that endures to this day. That said, it never once feels remotely preachy or heavy-handed – and McCarey, with his light touch, can certainly be given some credit for that.
Then there’s the perfect comic timing. Duck Soup is probably the fastest of the Marxes’ films; certainly it is the shortest, its 68-minute running time undercutting even Monkey Business (77 minutes) and Horse Feathers (70 minutes). There’s not an ounce of fat on the film; each scene is meticulously paced and structured, and each gag given just enough time (usually a second or so) to sink in before the next one comes along.
Again, however, it’s not just the verbal delivery that counts; it’s the physical business too, be it Pinky and Chicolini’s tormenting of Edgar Kennedy’s irascible street vendor, or the justly famous scene involving a broken mirror. The Brothers, without a doubt, display sheer, unadulterated brilliance at such moments, but McCarey knows exactly how to make the most of their genius. And for that we should be forever grateful.