Archive for Duck Soup

Food Fighters

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 3, 2022 by dcairns

Maybe, just maybe, the food fight in THE GREAT DICTATOR was an influence on the deleted pie fight from DR STRANGELOVE? Is it even possible that the fruit-slinging that concludes the Marx Bros’ DUCK SOUP lies behind both? Maybe that’s a stretch. But reducing the horrors of war to the absurdity of food-flinging evidently has an honourable tradition. Maybe Laurel & Hardy suggested the theme by naming their great custard pie fight film THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY?

Chaplin is no slouch when it comes to foodstuffs as ammunition. A childhood of near-starvation left him with a complicated relationship with food — nearly every Chaplin film seems to have a gag about the absence of food, the smelliness of food, the noisiness of digestion, the perils of ingestion, or the use of various platters as ballistic weapons. BEHIND THE SCREEN featured one of comparatively few pitched pie fights in the silent screen’s history.

“To the buffet!” proclaims Billy Gilbert as Garbitsch, and audiences who like anticipating things may already be imagining some sploshy chaos. The swank dinners in Chaplin films always feature bizarre menus, selected not for compatibility but for slapstick possibilities. Here, the presence of the dictator of Bacteria, which stands for Italy, excuses the ever-present spaghetti. Surprisingly, mustard will prove more significant in the battle of the buffet.

Great reaction from Gilbert after he clears the buffet of undesirables, and then finds he’s to be included in their number. The actor has a unique ability to make his eyes stand out like horrified plums, loosely embedded in a slack pudding of a face — only the affronted orbs display emotion, but they compensate by sheer intensity for the limpness of the surrounding flesh.

Chaplin immediately recoils from an odorous Camemberg, a callback to countless cheese jokes in his past, most relevantly SHOULDER ARMS, where a similarly noisome cheese becomes a chemical weapon of devastating power.

Considering this kind of thing is new to him — dialogue played over the silent set-up for a gag where cream and mustard will be confused — he manages it very well. I can’t say that he’s as great a talking comic as he is a silent one, but he shows skill at combining the two forms — only Harold Lloyd and Laurel & Hardy really got to try the same thing.

The dispute as to whether the treaty will be signed before or after Napaloni’s troops are removed from the Osterlich border is classic vaudeville/music hall crosstalk. Anticipating the negotiation scenes in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA and A DAY AT THE RACES. Fiona points out that Chaplin told Groucho he envied his facility with dialogue, adding weight to my hypothesis that Napaloni is a straight steal of Chico’s mangling of English. Here, however, Heinkel is the one playing it deliberately dense, attempting to wear the Bacterian dictator down by sheer refusal to recognize the basis of their argument.

Heinkel makes an angry gesture and spatters cream on the head of a flunky who’s tossing the spaghetti. Napaloni, in a rage, accidentally bites into the treaty, having incorporated it into his sandwich the way he intends to incorporate Osterlich into his empire.

The battle then becomes a matter of demonstrating with the buffet what the military forces of each dictator will do to the other’s. Napaloni stabs a huge sausage into a Devil’s Tower Wyoming heap of mashed potato, then swats it sideways. Heinkel bombards the punch bowl with an orange (I think it’s an orange. We’re in black and white so it’s more of a grey.)

The blocking of the scene is very simple but very, very effective. The two bosses and their two underlings are lines up along the table. Sometimes the leaders face off, sometimes they turn and complain to their seconds, a babel of Tomainian and Bacterian tirades. Dialogue as sheer noise. Overlapping a year before CITIZEN KANE, but to rather different effect.

Heinkel slathers mustard on his fresh plate of strawberries, and —

Then Napaloni bites into a too-mustardy sandwich. Well, he asked for the extra-hot English mustard, and it seems he can’t take it. Notably, perhaps, Chaplin denies Jack Oakie his own close-up, but the two men writhing on the divan as their throats combust is quite amusing.

Mustard was, of course, fully weaponized in the First World War, with far from hilarious consequences.

“Aiuta!” screams Il Duce. Either Chaplin couldn’t be bothered coming up with cod-Italian and resorted to the real thing, or Oakie is improvising.

This is all to get the characters into a furious political discussion in which neither can actually speak — they just mouth at each other in scorching muteness in between stuffing their gobs with hankies.

Recovering a bit, Heinkel attempts to demonstrate on a fistful of spaghetti how he will tear the Bacterians apart. Unfortunately for him, the many strands of pasta exhibit the same unbreakable qualities of the stacks of sticks or fasces used by the ancient Romans to signify group strength — E pluribus unum –– and which give the Fascist movement its name. Heinkel is left huffing as he stretches the spaghetti like a minute Charles Atlas demonstrating dynamic tension.

At an opportune moment he releases one end and twangs Napaloni in the kisser. So it’s war! Chaplin wields a sausage like a short sword, while Oakie grabs a pie. As Chekov says, you can’t introduce a custard pie in act two without going splurch in the kisser almost immediately, so a hack from the international press is introduced, peeping into the buffet room, his snooping features plastered in pie at once.

By the time Henry Daniell reenters, Heinkel and Napaloni are threatening one another with huge platters of mashed potato and something unidentifiable. Mutually assured destruction. Herring defuses the crisis and the stage is set for Tomainia’s invasion of Osterlich.

Very nice closing gag where Napaloni hands his mash to the Bacterian ambassador (Carter DeHaven? Really?), a much (even) smaller man, who totters under the unexpected weight of the potatoes, before crashing to the floor, offscreen. We don’t get to enjoy the sight of him buried in spud, but again Chaplin is enjoying the use of the audience’s imagination, which has the added advantage that he doesn’t have to cut away from HIMSELF.



Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 2, 2022 by dcairns

Title above is a headline that appears towards the end of THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK, which I always found obscurely hilarious. I presume Mussolini must have been awkwardly translated from time to time in the early forties, often enough for the gag to be comprehensible, but it’s still funny even if not comprehended.

Salute envy — Napaloni’s salute is bigger than Heinkel’s. And the massive clock — not easy to devise a monument more outlandish than any real dictators have built to themselves, but Chaplin manages it — is two minutes slow.

This brief section of the film is full of visual effects — the kind of thing which, CC complained, took a long time to prepare and necessitated the precise planning of the script.

As the dictators drive off, poor Mrs Napaloni gets separated from her husband and mixed in with the crowd.

Planning scene: Garbitsch outlines how Napaloni can be made to feel inferior, by psychology. This kind of set-up is new to Chaplin, and it’s made possible by dialogue. One could, I guess, find ways to do it in a silent, but it would be even more laborious. The idea is to set out clearly what the intention is, so we can enjoy everything going wrong. A boring scene in itself, but one that builds anticipation and gets paid off in laughs.

I once had a brief conference with the acting head of my institution, Edinburgh College of Art, in his office. I was a mere student. He had an incredibly low chair for me to sit in, my arse practically scraping the floor, while he sat erect behind his desk. I remember feeling not so much intimidated as contemptuous.

I’ve forgotten who was it who told the story about Harry Cohn’s office being modeled on Mussolini’s. And Cohn described how Mussolini, after dismissing him, had the door open on cue, with an electric button on his desk. “That son-of-a-bitch!” Then Cohn dismissed his interviewee, and as he reached the door, it automatically clicked open.

So, things go wrong — Napaloni comes in via the wrong door, surprising Heinkel with a back-slap that knocks him from his chair, banging his chin on the desktop. Napaloni, of course, is oblivious or indifferent to this mishap.

A reprise of the very good salute/handshake gag from the station, the two men’s hands shooting up then out, always missing one another.

Jack Oakie’s Chico Marx imitation even goes so far as to borrow his unique truncation of words: “Ah, my brother dictate!”

The low chair works momentarily — Benzino is discomfited. He simply cannot perform from such a low position. Has trouble even crossing his legs. Chaplin tracks in to savour the triumph.

Sitting on the desk, he reverses the situation, and on “They like to see new faces, he not only does the weird Mussolini lower lip thing, emulated by Trump, he turns right to the camera, as Chaplin had advised Oakie to do if he wanted to upstage the maestro.

The barbershop gag is good, but curiously mistimed — it starts fading out too soon for my taste, “stepping on the gag” to use Jerry Lewis’s phrase. I think the situation is good enough that they could have extended the action of the two idiots cranking themselves ever higher. Curious also that nothing is made of the connection to Chaplin’s other character, a barber. But I don’t know what he could have made of it.

Review of the army: Napaloni eating nuts from a paper bag (DUCK SOUP?), discarding the shells with blithe malice all over his pall “Hinky.” This scene works by not showing any of the tanks or aircraft under review, just the reactions and a few sound effects. Chaplin is really embracing sound cinema. In fact, its use of the unseen approaches the medium of radio. It’s not, admittedly, as great as his silent sequences — the best bits of this film are more visual. But it’s funny and odd.

Ballroom — as seen in Syd’s colour home movies. All the women are blonde. Another planning session with Garbitsch. The Chaplinverse’s version of the Anschluss is prepared, and it involves Henikel going duck hunting — the set-up for the film’s final comedy of errors.

Brief comic dance with Madam Napaloni. We see more of this in Syd’s home movies, and I wish we had more of it here — it plays better in longshot, even in Syd’s makeshift compositions. “Can you see my feet?” was Chaplin’s most common question to his cameramen, and here we don’t. It’s a loss.

Next up — Napaloni’s last stand! (It was over too soon.)

Marx for Trying

Posted in Comics, FILM, literature, Painting, Radio with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 20, 2022 by dcairns

I was thinking of getting rid of my copy of Moving Pictures by Budd Schulberg — “Will I ever read this?” — when I opened it at random — a fair test — and discovered that Schulberg had attempted to co-write a Marx Bros movie at Paramount in the thirties, where he was the boss’s son.

BUGHOUSE FABLES was the intended title, which I somewhat approve of, since it has the required animal reference. But is it a common phrase or saying like “monkey business,” “horse feathers,” “animal crackers,” and “duck soup”? (Two of these are by now UNcommon phrases or sayings but I’m prepared to believe that in pre-code days they were familiar to the American public.)

BUT I’m wrong — here’s proof, from 1922, that Schulberg’s title WAS extant.

It was supposed to be about the Marxes running an asylum. I’m unsure about this. The results could easily be tasteless, even for the 1930s, and Schulberg says that part of the impetus was to hit back at the censors who had been objecting to MONKEY BUSINESS. Also, surrounding the Bros with lunatics could easily diminish their powers. The possibilities for spot gags would be endless, but we can hardly have Groucho, Chico and Harpo seeming less crazy than everyone else. Presumably we would have a “lunatics taking over the asylum” scenario and there are strong possibilities for annoying headshrinkers (cue Sig Rumann) and wealthy patrons (Margaret Dumont). But I think the Marxes need a sane, generically-consistent story world to interact with, and be the craziest element of. When Groucho is placed in charge of a sanatorium in A DAY AT THE RACES, the most eccentric person he meets apart from his own brothers is rich hypochondriac Dumont.

Schulberg himself sounds pretty uncertain about whether his efforts to write funny were in fact hitting the mark or Marx (atsa some joke, huh boss?)

The same problem is multiplied by a thousand in Salvador Dali’s Marx scenario, GIRAFFES ON HORSEBACK SALAD. Two animals for the price of one. But not a common phrase or saying, except perhaps in the Dali household. It’s understandable that Dali, a Spaniard, may have misunderstood “horse feathers” and “animal crackers” as pieces of surreal word salad, which they sort of are, but they were also pre-existing expressions which the domestic audience understood.

But the title is merely a clue to the full-blown insanity of Dali’s vision. And while that may sound mouth-watering, most commentators have concluded that surrounding the Marx Bros with an UN CHIEN ANDALOU world already chaotic and surreal would render them redundant, with nothing left to disrupt.

This image derives from a graphic novel adaptation, and you can listen to a subsequently-produced audio version here, for money.

Much, much later, Billy Wilder contemplated A NIGHT AT THE UNITED NATIONS. The title here places the project in the later MGM tradition though I doubt Wilder would have filled the movie with songs. The concept of positioning the Brothers in the context of international politics does smack promisingly of DUCK SOUP though. It would be untrue to say that the gags would write themselves — but I believe Wilder could write them. I’d love to see Chico working as a simultaneous translator. And then Harpo taking over.

Wilder never made a film built around an actual movie clown — his comedies are built around thespians with comedic chops. He uses Marilyn Monroe a little bit like a clown, and Jimmy Cagney as an icon whose famous moments he can built jokes around, but mostly his characters are not totally dependent on casting choices. He did try to work with Peter Sellers, twice, but Sellers had neither persona nor, he claimed, personality.

Wilder did also want to make a film with Laurel & Hardy — he got as far as planning an opening showing them sleeping rough in the last two Os of the HOLLYWOOD sign. So clownwork was something he had an interest in. But I suspect the collaborations would have been fraught. Stan liked to be in charge, and Groucho eventually kicked Wilder out of his house after receiving one too many lectures on the right wine to serve with dinner. (This is all from Maurice Zolotow’s semi-reliable Wilder bio.) It would have been like Preston Sturges and Harold Lloyd trying to collaborate, and finding their mutual respect could not overcome their need to be true to their individual comic muses.