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.

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