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Films: D is for...

Duck Soup

As a change from Norman Z MacLeod, the Marx Brothers, for the first time, insisted on picking their own director, and went for larger-than-life Leo McCarey, who’d done sterling work with WC Fields, and was largely responsible for the early-doors brilliance of Laurel and hardy, in classics like Christmas tree-flogging pathosfest Big Business. McCarey, a seasoned pro by no means awed by the brothers, set about putting his stamp on things – inserting bits of visual business where none was scripted, suggesting his own gag lines to replace the written epithets, and bringing in old L&H mucker Edgar Kennedy to man a lemonade stand and defend it against Harpo and Chico’s onslaught, in a scene that’s not so much a subplot as another, entirely unrelated film crashing into the main feature with no formal introduction. McCarey also threw some prime stuff out with the comedy bathwater, to wit – an impromptu American football scrum after the plans of war; a cherishably terrible ‘neurosis/new roses’ Chico pun and, less forgivably an entire big musical number sung by Groucho (for some reason these kept getting inexplicably dropped – see also I’m Dr Hackenbush in A Day at the Races, or rather don’t, if you see what we mean). Plus the Hardy helmer was adept at matching the Marxes’ on-set tomfoolery joke for joke, craftily coinciding their habitual desertions from the set with a leave of absence of his own. The brothers had only themselves to blame for hiring this loon. With all this going on though, the film still manages to be a  doozy. From Groucho’s dictatorial inauguration (interrupted by the dictation of a letter to his dentist) through the big All God’s Chillun got Guns number (the only surviving musical performance of all four Brothers together in existence, archive fans!); some excellent cigar-swapping business from Harpo; Chico and Harpo variously and noisily breaking in and out of Margaret Dumont’s house in a McCareyan homage to Laurel and Hardy’s Early to Bed; the ‘mirror routine’ cinephiles are always wittering on about – in this case rightly – which is of course as old as the vaudeville hills and was worked out by Groucho and Harpo under McCarey’s guidance on set, presumably to replace some bit of verbal business McC had just shredded in front of the hapless writer’s face. And of course there’s the gleeful destruction of the final war scene, featuring that slightly odd-looking but nevertheless wonderfully evocative effect wherein a bit of slapstick prop-work deemed ‘too slow’ in the rushes is saved by slightly speeding up the central bit of action, leaving the start and end at the same old pace. It always looks weird to our eyes, but weird in a good, funny way, not in a smug, Green Wing way, of course.

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