Thursday, November 11, 2010

Unsung Heroes: The Direction of Duck Soup

Michael C. here from Serious Film. So far in this series we've most often covered the types of cinematic achievements that go unappreciated because they are so convincing that they render themselves invisible. Yet there is also the case of the artist who goes overlooked because they do their work in the shadow of personalities so big that they suck up all the attention. That is certainly the case with this week's unsung hero.

It is largely agreed that Duck Soup is top to bottom the Marx Brother's most successful, complete film. Yet when I read appreciations of this movie this fact is usually taken as a fortunate happenstance. As if Duck Soup's production was no different from any of the Marx's others save for an extra helping of lucky who-knows-what that afforded them the opportunity for ninety minutes of uninterrupted brilliance. While there was some luck involved - the creative freedom to drop the dopey romantic subplots was not one they would always enjoy - Duck Soup benefitted enormously from having the perfect man in the director's chair: Leo McCarey.

A director of great wit and sophistication - it is rumored he inspired elements of Cary Grant's persona - McCarey had a loose, improvisational style that proved a perfect match for the Marx Bros. On the set of McCarey's Oscar-winning farce The Awful Truth he would sit at a piano surround by actors and writers and toss around story ideas. Like that classic farce McCarey keeps the laughs rolling in Duck Soup with jokes piling up at a pace that would be the gold standard for later comedic classics like Airplane! and Blazing Saddles to be measured against.

McCarey was a good gagman in his own right - to name just one example McCarey was the one who put scissors in Harpo's hand for the whole movie, which in my book justifies a post in his honor all by itself. Duck Soup lacks a lot of the usual creakiness one would associate with a comdy from 1933. Rewatch the famous mirror sequence again. The shooting is perfect, cutting on just the right moments to emphasize the comedy without calling attention to the tricks required to pull off the stunt, all while maintaining a silence that would have made a less confident filmmaker nervous.

According to Roy Blount Jr.'s account of the production, McCarey was dead set against the idea of serving as traffic cop for the Marxes, going so far as to move to a different studio to avoid the assignment. It turned out the fact that McCarey was loathed to take the assignment gave him the perfect balance needed to not be bowled over by them. In other Marx Brothers movies you get the sense that the filmmakers are trying to keep up with the brothers. Not here. Watching Soup there is no doubt that there is a confident presence at the helm.

McCarey greatest accomplishment here may be the way he managed to keep the humor on target. Other Marx Brothers movies were equally funny but none of them managed to so thoroughly dismantle a target the way Duck Soup took aim at politics and war. It's that extra level that makes Duck Soup a stand alone achievement and not just an enjoyable but otherwise interchangeable piece from the Marx Brothers body of work. When they discuss the great director's of Hollywood's Golden Age Leo McCarey is a name that needs to come up more often.


Greg Boyd said...

Nice piece. "Duck Soup" is, hands down, my favorite movie of all-time. It's just wall-to-wall funny, and packs more jokes into its extremely short running time than most movies have in twice the length.

Volvagia said...

For me Duck Soup is position 131. Here's everything above it (1 at top, 130 at bottom):

Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Bicycle Thieves
It's a Wonderful Life
The Bride of Frankenstein
Kind Hearts and Coronets
The Night of the Hunter
Pandora's Box
Far From Heaven
Local Hero
The Man Who Would Be King
A Clockwork Orange
Miller's Crossing
A Matter of Life and Death
I Am Cuba
2001: A Space Odyssey
Seven Samurai
Schindler's List
Donnie Darko
Harold and Maude
The Big Lebowski
Sunset Boulevard
Apocalypse Now
This Is Spinal Tap
Andrei Rublev
Lawrence of Arabia
The Thin Red Line
Fight Club
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Come and See
A Man for All Seasons
Pulp Fiction
8 1/2
Evil Dead 2
Edward Scissorhands
Taxi Driver
Citizen Kane
Blue Velvet
Once Upon a Time in the West
The Godfather
Once Upon a Time in America
Raging Bull
The Shining
LOTR (Full Series)
Partie de campagne
Touch of Evil
Toy Story
Withnail and I
The 400 Blows
The Battle of Algiers
The Third Man
A Woman Under the Influence
Rio Bravo
I'm Not There
The Godfather Part II
Blade Runner
The Conversation
Tokyo Story
A Bout de souffle
His Girl Friday
Singin' in the Rain
Almost Famous
Terminator 2: Judgment Day
La Dolce Vita
Le Samourai
The Princess Bride
American Beauty
On the Waterfront
Blow Out
The Sting
The Searchers
True Romance
There Will Be Blood
The Wild Bunch
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
The Usual Suspects
The Addiction
The Red Shoes
La Haine
A Canterbury Tale
Black Narcissus
Young Frankenstein
Sunday Bloody Sunday
The Wages of Fear
Double Indemnity
The Last of the Mohicans
Stand by Me
12 Angry Men
Annie Hall
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid
Strangers on a Train
The Rules of the Game
Pan's Labyrinth
Blazing Saddles
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
The Dark Knight
The Graduate
Die Hard
Star Wars Episode V: Empire Strikes Back
The Treasure of Sierra Madre
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
The Tree of Wooden Clogs
The Apartment
Rosemary's Baby
Raising Arizona
Casino Royale
Raiders of the Lost Ark

angel said...

Such a truly wonderful film and a gem of a comedy...

Kyle said...

Oh Zeppo, the unappreciated Marx, but oh so valuable nonetheless.

CrazyCris said...

These guys were so much fun!

Wanted to leave a message for Nate... it's been a while since I've had time to visit around here, but thought you guys would be interested in some pics from the Harry Potter premiere in London tonight!

Not best quality in the world, but was a fun experience!


Anonymous said...

Uggh I hate being the lone 'hater' of this film. But then I'm not a big fan of the Marx Brothers and their (race-based) humour. Although I do like their later stuff a bit when it was better paced, and I do think Zeppo should have been called 'the hot one.'

Michael said...

I don't begrudge anyone not finding the Marx Brothers to their taste. They either do it for you or you sit their stone-faced. It's not like, say, Young Frankenstein where if you're not laughing I wonder about you.

I Zeppo is more than welcome to hot one status since he sure wasn't fighting for funny one.

Anonymous said...

And yes, I'll concede that the mirror sketch was genius.