In conclusion — we have reached the end of my examination of the films of the Marx Bros excluding the Marx Bros. In this regard, DUCK SOUP, by general agreement the best Marx Bros film, at first seems to offer slim pickings — it has no romantic interest, no songs not either about or involving Groucho, no instrumental interludes, and practically no plot. Nevertheless I shall not fail you.
“Waiting for Groucho is agony,” wrote one reviewer, complaining about the amount of business required to prepare for the star’s eventual entrance. But here at Shadowplay we wallow in that agony and exult in that business.
First proudly waves the flag of Freedonia. While the Ruritanian/Graustarkian kingdom’s descent into Marxian dictatorship suggests a satire of current events in Europe, viewers are continually reminded of how American Freedonia is, “Freedonian” was an early synonym for “American,” the nation has its president and, we are told its House of Representatives, Groucho will pass through a variety of American military uniforms, and Harpo will shamelessly parody Paul Revere’s ride (with the William Tell Overture as backing/alibi). I suggest that the film is not a parody of Nazism or Fascism, but a crumbling democracy. it feels very now, with an insult comedian in the Oval Office, out to rob the country blind and create chaos for the sheer pleasure of it. Groucho makes that seem liberating, and perhaps offers a clue as to why some people support Trump — as a big fuck you to the smooth Ambassador Trentinos of the world.
Would love to know where the stock shot of Freedonia was taken. Apparently the later view of Sylvania is in Andalusia, making Trentino an Andalusian Dog (and Dali would later write his own Marx Bros treatment, GIRAFFES ON HORSEBACK SALAD).
A second wipe takes us inside a boardroom where Mrs. Teasdale forces the Great Bearded Men of Freedonia to accept Rufus T. Firefly as their president in exchange for bailing out the bankrupt nation etc etc. Mrs. T. is the mighty Margaret Dumont in one of her supreme roles. Frequently she’s cast as someone who has an inexplicable faith in Groucho’s character. In ANIMAL CRACKERS he’s supposedly a great off-white hunter, though we have our doubts, but at least there’s some basis for her admiration. In A DAY AT THE RACES Groucho is an imposter horse doctor offering quack remedies to a hypochondriac, so her dependency on him is explicable, her tendency to overlook his misbehaviour almost pitiable understandable. But here there’s no possible explanation for why she should think Firefly suitable leadership material. one presumes she’s just lonely since the death of Chester (a newspaper article tells us her late husband was Chester V. Teasdale, which does sound like a Groucho character. And she does urge him to follow in CVT’s footsteps).
Rosalind Russell is supposed to have said “You can’t play comedy on big sets,” but Leo McCarey pays her no mind. This huge room is stuffed with about twelve beard guys milling about, several of them importuning the fiery widow Teasdale, but she has an iron will and an iron won’t. The main desperate minister here seems to be a monocled fellow called Edwin Maxwell, who gets rubbished by Groucho later.
Groucho’s pen-pal T.S. Eliot had this to say on the subject of Mr. Maxwell:
No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.
Groucho has this to say: “You get awfully tiresome after a while.”
Edwin Maxwell, we salute you!
And so we’re on to scene 2 — what the Freedonia Gazette terms a “mammoth reception” (“One morning I shot a mammoth in my reception”) in a seemingly vast set that’s mostly glass painting. It looks midway between a Trumpian palace and a Busby Berkeley nightclub. Here we’re going to be kept in a holding pattern while Ambassador Trentino, Vera Marcal and Bob Roland shuffle on and off, with Groucho as our eventual reward for patience. These are all solid supporting characters, but they only become entertaining once Groucho has his teeth in them.
The oily ambassador “bears a startling resemblence to Louis Calhern” because he’s played by Louis Calhern, the walking fontanelle himself, back when he had hair on his unusually thin skull. Calhern is in calhoots with Marcal, the luscious Raquel Torres, a minor starlet of the exotic brand, best-known otherwise for 1930s THE SEA BAT, where she’s menaced by a plastic manta ray while the sound man tries and fails to capture decipherable dialogue by the raging surf.
Bob Roland is Zeppo, and I guess bringing him on first makes sense, as a kind of aperitif for the funny brothers. Poor Herbert! As part of the film’s ruthless efficiency, he has even less to do than usual, and the movie seems to have made up his mind to retire from acting and become an agent. From playing Groucho’s son in HORSE FEATHERS, here he’s demoted back to secretary, as in ANIMAL CRACKERS, but without any long dictation scenes to pad his screen time. (Just a brief letter to Firefly’s dentist and his secretarial duties are finished.)
I guess the few lines sung here do set up the sense that this is going to be an appalling operetta-film, thus giving Groucho something well worth disrupting.
The amazing transforming jacket.
No explanation is ever offered for why Groucho has his own personal fire pole to get him into the mammoth reception. but once he’s in, it’s all about him, so I can’t talk about it. Maybe I can talk about his suit, which transmogrifies utterly, twice — from a tail coat to a kind of smoking jacket with gloves sticking from the pocket, then back to a tail coat. This doesn’t seem like a joke, exactly, though later one, at the climax, Groucho will cycle through a dizzying series of military uniforms, and that IS a joke, but it’s not as blatantly a continuity error.
I suspect Raquel Torres is late with her line here, or else Groucho is forgetting she HAS a line, because he utters a low, non-specific vowel sound after saying “Here’s another one I picked up in a dance hall.” A kind of “Uh-” sound. Evidently a retake was considered beyond the bounds of possibility. We know Groucho was rather intolerant of retakes.
I grow old, I grow old, I will wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Come to think of it, J. Alfred Prufrock would make a pretty good name for a Groucho character.
Groucho’s costume undergoes a further shift when he exits the building, his shirt now untucked. Was Groucho just waging a quiet little war on the continuity girl?
Ever noticed this bizarre structure outside the palace, just before Harpo motors up? It’s part matte painting and all strange, a wall with a gate leading outside, but the outside seems to have a roof over it. A truly Marxian, or Escheresque construction.
Harpo wears his topper here, as it’s an official occasion, whereas he will switch to deerstalker in his next scene, where he’s revealed as a spy. But already he pauses in his duties to snap a picture of Groucho in the best Alexi de Sadesky manner.
Fiona was charmed by the fact that the ceremonial sidecar is decorated with tassels and a flag.
Sylvania! Their flag has a big Gothic S in the middle, to match Freedonia’s F, and while that F is set inside a star, Sylvania favours a stripe motif.
Now we meet Leonid Kinskey, giving a performance almost unseemly in its fervor, as the Sylvanian agitator. Really he has no reason to be here save a tiny amount of necessary exposition and a certain atmospheric value, setting this up as a serious scene of espionage before Chico and Harpo come it to destroy another illusion. LK is best known for CASABLANCA, which means he really ought to have been in A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA.
Trentino’s secretary is the only one of the film’s blonde’s identified by the IMDb — she’s Verna Hillie.
The seat of Louis Calhern’s pants bears mute witness to the attentions of Harpo’s glue-stick on multiple takes. The costume department really seems to be asleep on the job, what with Groucho’s morphing suit and this tacky trouser adhesion. Tiny grunt of pain from Louis as he pulls rat trap from fingertips during fadeout. Seems to rhyme with Groucho’s “Uh-” earlier. I should assemble all these sounds together, maybe they’ll spell out the key to the location of the secret war code and plans.
To the Chamber of Deputies! Did Groucho’s walnut-laden desk inspire the nutty office in Berolucci’s THE CONFORMIST? After all, it’s another portrait of 1930s fascism with a surrealist slant. I dig how Zeppo seems to impressed by his boss here, watching hypnotized as Firefly bores the deputies silly with his silly game. And then we have more from Edwin Maxwell, who storms out in a minute and a huff. The IMDb claims that Edward Arnold appears in this film as a politician, but I haven’t seen him. Is it possible someone mistook the similarly bull-necked Maxwell for E.A.?
But Edgar Kennedy is sure in it! A Leo McCarey alumnus, he plays a bellowing oaf/lemonade salesman, mercilessly targeted by Harpo and Chico. McCarey’s fingerprints are all over this — it’s a tit-for-tat routine straight out of Laurel & Hardy, with endless hat exchanges also straight out of Laurel & Hardy. But, as befits the Marxes, it’s more malicious. The only reason Kennedy doesn’t totally deserve our sympathy here is that he’s loud. Braying, abrasive jackasses exist to be taken down by the Marxes, just as stuffed shirts do.
Slightly awkward script construction results in us fading out on the incineration of the Kennedy chapeau, and then fading back up on the same scene, a little later, where Groucho recruits Chico. A strong supporting performance from Chico’s dog, Pastrami, which scratches itself luxuriantly in almost every shot.
Note: minutes later, we will meet a second dog, the dog that lives inside Harpo’s chest, like the Xenomorph within John Hurt. Simple economics would dictate that this might as well be the same dog, but it isn’t. Either the special effect was filmed on a different day and a different dog was sent by Canine Central Casting, or McCarey purposely requested a different dog. “Chico’s dog is outside at the peanut stand. This dog is inside Harpo’s chest. It CAN’T be the same dog. That would make no sense!”
Zeppo gets one of the biggest laughs of his career by entering after Harpo exits, wearing half a straw hat. (1) Delightful to imagine the offscreen action of Harpo scissoring through the headgear at lightning speed while Zeppo is wearing it, without Zeppo noticing. (2) There’s a major theme of hat destruction in this movie, from the plumed helmets of the marching guards, to two Kennedy hats, two various Groucho hats (“This is the last straw.”)
Mrs Teasdale’s garden party is the biggest real exterior, shot in Pasadena. Prize-winning insolence from Groucho: stealing a donut is cheeky, but dunking it in someone else’s coffee is supreme.
I’ve just read a nice appreciation of Edgar Kennedy by Donald Phelps, Edgar Kennedy: The Bull of the Woods in The Film Comedy Reader. Phelps ably captures the Kennedy persona with the phrase “roaring buffoon” but errs slightly when he says we never see any of Kennedy’s lemonade customers. There’s the guy into whose pocket Harpo’s hand somehow strays, during the first altercation. In the second altercation, business is booming, with a queue of grotesque peasant types driven away by Harpo paddling in the lemonade. The men have hobo clown beards. I love Harpo’s joyous look to camera during the fade-out. Did they intend for us to see that? I hope so.
We were watching with Marvelous Mary, BTW — we had a dictators’ double bill of this and THE GREAT DICTATOR. Mary remarked that she admired “the hoor’s dresses,” a slightly back-handed compliment for Raquel Torres. She has been poured into her glittery gown, but some of her has spilled. This is the kind of non-Bros scene we can tolerate, because it’s all about swiftly setting up the next opportunity for Groucho to be outrageous, plus it has Dumont.
Groucho eating crackers in bed — the crackers literally splayed out all over the sheets — under the Great Seal of Freedonia. His end of the phone conversation is intercut with a DRAMATIC TRACK-IN on Margaret, a very surprising bit of technique. It’s the kind of shot you expect when Christian Bayle as Batman is saying something bad-ass. Mrs. Teasdale has never looked so full of moment.
Firefly joins Teasdale, then Trentino and Marcal join them, and we’re back to the kind of laundry-line composition Marx films are full of. Though arguably inelegant, it does allow us to get the gags and the reactions all at once. Either Groucho demanded this kind of blocking, or his directors saw the effectiveness of it, or he exhausted them until all they could think of was turning the camera on and hoping to God the minimal number of brothers turned up for the scene.
Trentino is seen plotting with four flunkies. They look suspiciously like the politicians humiliated by Groucho earlier, but there’s no Davison Clark so I don’t think it’s intentional.
The budget wouldn’t stretch to a belt for Raquel Torres’ robe. McCarey evidently ruled that making it easier for her to keep the garment closed would work against the very concept of “production values.”
This next reel or so offers little except Margaret Dumont, cruelly treated (though in this movie everything’s her fault) and the Marxes, at one point fusing/dividing to form a trio of Grouchos. So we pass on to the trial, only noting that we’re skipping over the radio and the mirror sequence, the artistic climax of the Marxes’ adventures onscreen. Also Chico’s “Who are you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?” which has become a defining lines of the Trump administration.
The Freedonia Gazette notes Chicolini’s arrest, noting also the following stories of the day: “Mayor and Aide in Train Wreck,” “Woman Driver Gets Jail Term,” “Foreign Radio Artists Arrive” and “War Games are Nearing Finish” — that last one will shortly be proved very wrong.
Another big set — quite a bit of this one is real, but again, the top half seems to be a painting.
Charles Middleton, the Emperor Ming, now appears as a prosecutor. Freedonia does look quite a bit like Mongo, all art-deco neo-classicism. I choose to interpret Middletons’ casting as another jab at Von Sternberg’s AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY, previously ridiculed in HORSE FEATHERS — Middleton played a lawyer in it. Groucho, apparently. disliked that Sternberg as heartily as nearly everyone else did. Sternberg was in the habit of intoning “Beware the Ides of Marx” whenever he passed behind Groucho in the Paramount commissary. Nobody gets to pun at Groucho.
Middleton is a great foil because he’s a stiff, stuffy, dignified, not very good actor. Ideal cannon fodder. It would be kind of perfect if Edward Arnold WAS lurking in this movie somewhere.
A sea of unfriendly faces/ludicrous Freedonian peasants.
War! I’m not aware of another occasion where Charles Middleton sings. He’s actually quite good at it. FLASH GORDON ought to have been a musical. This is the number that famously restores Woody Allen’s will to live in HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, the nicest tribute by one comedian to another I can imagine (and a lot more successful than Preston Sturges’ roping-in of Walt Disney and Pluto to make a case for entertainment in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS.
When the Marxes get the whole courtroom putting their hands on the floor and kicking their legs in the air, not everyone is very good at it. But its cool the way everyone keeps freezing as the Bros go into their various bits. The Mannequin Challenge is invented!
“Oh how we’d cry for Firefly if Firefly should die,” is a slightly embarrassing show of emotion from Zeppo, a very funny show of proud simpering from Groucho, but I only just noticed (after fifty-plus viewings) Chico’s reaction — bewildered contempt, or contemptuous bewilderment. Either way, perfect. “Ah! You craze!”
Followed by tableau vivant of Marxes as heroes of the Revolution, and a special effect clock tower that lights up. Then the aforementioned Paul Revere spoof, and Harpo taking his rapacious instincts very nearly too far with a sexy blonde who turns out to be, implausibly enough, Edgar Kennedy’s wife. the weird Bohemian/American/period/modern mix is at its most boggling here. Kennedy, the Mitteleuropean lemonade salesman with the peroxide blonde wife in the medieval house with the 30s bathroom. Harpo goes into a Von Stroheimesque Threatening Slow Advance, but fortunately Kennedy’s arrival turns things back into bedroom farce, or in this case, bathroom farce. Kennedy’s signature gesture, rubbing his bald head and face in disbelief, becomes even more appropriate when he’s in the tub.
Harpo and his horse now shack up with a brunette, who seems a good match for him, since she communicates with a musical toot. But it turns out that horselover Harpo prefers his steed’s company in the sack, a gag which evidently defused the risk of offense at the time, which is odd when you think of it. I guess sleeping with a tooting tootsie is sexy, sleeping with a horse is just ridiculous.
Freedonia’s military HQ. Zeppo brings a message from the front. Groucho seems to indicate that he can’t actually read — another bit of contemporary relevance, though we saw Groucho WRITE earlier.
Huge cannonshells, like those fired by Big Bertha in THE GREAT DICTATOR, keep flying through the window until Groucho thinks to pull the blind. War is hell.
Dumont, dressed like Mata Hari, calls Groucho from her cottage, which is perpetually exploding. Seriously: when they filmed a shot of a miniature cottage exploding, they apparently forgot to get any shots of it NOT exploding. You can see why Salvador Dali liked the Marxes, can’t you? There’s a man who would LOVE to live in an exploding cottage. Strangely, the cottage seems to be equipped with the exact same radio left behind at headquarters, though Mrs. Teasdale called the Bros by phone.
Zeppo liked working out. For the only time in movies, he gets to show it here.
The film’s reckless lack of continuity now builds to a frenzy. Harp gets locked in a cupboard with ammo. He petulantly discards a cigarette, the explosives go off like firecrackers, and he is already pounding at the door to be released — no moment of realisation, no moment of even standing up and approaching the door, he’s just THERE. His brothers, believing the enemy is attacking from the rear, barricade him in, the only moment one actually feels sorry for Harpo despite all the later Thalberg-era attempts at pathos.
The rest of the war is mostly stock footage from WWI, some of it rear projected. This sets up the insane “Help is on the way!” montage, when Firefly is promised rescue by: the fire brigade; a swarm of motorcycle cops; marathon runners; a rowing race; swimmers; baboons; elephants; more baboons; even more elephants; porpoises.
Groucho gets a large amphora thing stuck on his head. Harpo paints his features on it: the Groucho golem is born.
Moments later, Harpo blows the jug up with dynamite, and when he’s freed from within, Groucho is inexplicably sporting a noose around his neck — evidently the trailing vestiges of a deleted gag. Presumably Harpo and/or Chico tried to release their boss by hoisting him aloft with a rope. I would like to see that, but EVERYTHING is being sacrificed to furious pace here.
In the nick of time, when all seems lost, Trentino for some reason sticks his head through the door so he can lose. He’s the Sylvanian ambassador but for some reason he’s on the battlefield, in uniform, and for some reason his capture spells victory for Freedonia. The boys start pelting him with hard fruits. For Heaven’s sake, don’t they realize his skull is only tissue-thin? If you held a candle behind his head the whole thing would glow like a thumb pressing an illuminated switch. A satsuma hurled by muscleman Zeppo could penetrate his brow like a meteor cratering a moonscape. (Poor Calhern takes several direct hits.)
Dumont sings, the boys start pelting HER (with surprising chivalry, they all aim to the right of where she’s standing) ~world’s hastiest fade-out. As conclusions go, it makes VERTIGO look measured. It makes MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL look drawn-out. Audiences must have looked pretty startled when the lights came up. Like a dream interrupted.