Tonight on Turner Movie Classics, two of the greatest classic anti-war satires of all time, followed by an exploration of the the Thanhouse Film Company.
8:00 pm (EST): Duck Soup (1933)
Duck Soup is the movie most die-hard Marx Brothers fans will name as their favorite Marx Brothers movie. For years it was mine. It seems like the climax of the best phase of their movie career, their early years at Paramount, with the zaniest script and songs (by Kalmar and Ruby), the biggest pretensions toward satirical meaning, and a director at the helm who himself was a comic auteur Leo McCarey, shaper of the early cinematic work of Laurel and Hardy, and then later director of a long list of classics. The film also reunites the team with Margaret Dumont, magical foil from their first two films.
Dumont plays Mrs. Teasdale, a wealthy philanthropist in the fictional European nation of Freedonia. She agrees to lend a large sum of money to her struggling government, but only if they name Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) their President. The problem is that Firefly is insane. He seems determined to have a war, using tiny slights by Ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern) of nearby Sylvania as the pretext. It just so happens that Trentino is a spy with malevolent intentions. But if Firefly knows it, it is only at the level of instinct. Mostly, he just likes to make crazy shit happen. His confederates are Chicolini, a peanut vendor (Chico), and Pinky (Harpo). Zeppo is busted back down to a secretary role as in the team’s first two features.
Gone completely is ANY semblance of a romantic sub-plot with two lovers, no doubt one reason the film is so much cherished by comedy fans. Unfortunately, the fact that Duck Soup didn’t do as well at the box office as the smash hit Horse Feathers would later be used as an argument that the team needed to restore those boring romances to their films. In many of their later movies, the Marx Brothers would sometimes seem to be playing second fiddle to this inferior element, making fans pine for the glory days of Duck Soup.
When I was a kid I could not for the life of me fathom why 1933 audiences might be less enthusiastic about Duck Soup than their previous and subsequent films. “This world doesn’t deserve to live!” With a much wider exposure to the times now I can better see it. With the benefit of hindsight we are able to look at Duck Soup as a great satire on the arbitrary authority and senseless absurdity of Fascism. Hitler had just come to power. It feels significant. But 1933 was a different landscape. Mussolini and Hitler had been in the headlines for years, and they hadn’t yet committed their greatest atrocities. Thus, the reaction of a lot of critics at the time was essentially “Meh. So what?” Plus, the zany political satire thing had been done recently at the time, not just the previously mentioned Of Thee I Sing (which the Marxes had considered adapting) but also in movies starring fellow comedians like W.C. Fields (Million Dollar Legs, 1932), Jolson, Langdon et al (Hallelujah I’m a Bum, 1933), Jack Pearl (Meet the Baron, 1933) and Wheeler and Woolsey (Diplomaniacs, 1933). The latter movie had even featured Louis Calhern as a scheming diplomat!
And there are ways in which the Marxes seemed to be repeating themselves in Duck Soup, reviving elements from their previous movies, and even cannibalizing dialogue from their recent radio show Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel (written by Arthur Sheekman and Nat Perrin). And furthermore, the elements that McCarey contributes are not just the least Marxian elements, but themselves rehashes. The title of the film had already been used for a Laurel and Hardy film. Many of the bits that fans cherish are not Marx specific. The “mirror routine”, had been done countless times before, by Chaplin, Max Linder, Raymond Dandy, etc. The hat business with Chico, Harpo and Edgar Kennedy is old Laurel and Hardy stuff, they did it in half a dozen films. Granted, the team executes these bits expertly and put their own spin on them, but it’s not like it’s new material.
This isn’t to disparage this brilliant film. It’s to explain why, if you were sitting in a theatre in November, 1933, you might have a different perspective on it than we do. Many people found it funny, but no one found it new or fresh.
We of course see its countless virtues. The crazy musical numbers. Groucho’s dialogue, ranking with Animal Crackers for his best. The spy trial of Chicolini, possibly the funniest Chico routine in the team’s cinematic record. The hilarious battle sequence, which outdoes the football game climax of Horse Feathers for sheer insanity. Harpo’s most surreal gag ever, when a barking dog comes out of the tattoo of a dog house on his arm. The recurring gag of Harpo’s motorcycle taking off and leaving Groucho in the sidecar, with the inevitable topper of Harpo on the sidecar leaving Groucho on the motorcycle.
The Marx Brothers had many great moments ahead of them, as a team and as individuals. But 70 minutes of sustained hilarity all in a row like this here? No, sadly, never again. Five movies and that was that.
9:30pm (EST) The Great Dictator (1940)
By the 1930s there was no avoiding the fact that another buffoon with a toothbrush mustache was vying with Chaplin for the title of most famous man in the world. Charlie Chaplin despised Adolf Hitler. That the German tyrant had spoiled Chaplin’s distinctive brand and banned his films was the least of it. Hitler was against everything Chaplin stood for: humanism, tolerance, sympathy, freedom. He was convincing large numbers of people to hate Jews; the woman Chaplin loved at the time (Paulette Goddard) was half Jewish.
For years Chaplin had been threatening to make a picture about Napoleon, originally with Edna Purviance as his Josephine. It was an easy matter for him to transfer the Napoleon ideas that had been gestating and adapt them into a burlesque on Hitler. Since his trademark mustache had been stolen, the proposed film would also be his sad farewell to his famous screen character. In this film, The Little Fellow (a barber here) is a Jewish war hero who bears an uncanny resemblance to the national dictator Adenoid Hynkel. In the end, he will have the opportunity to briefly replace him and make his plea for common sense and human decency.
This was a momentous theme, important enough for Chaplin to drop his decade-long rear guard action against dialogue. This would be a much larger job for him than it had been for any other silent comedian who had gone into talkies. Lloyd, Keaton, Langdon, Laurel and Hardy, Charley Chase, all of them were highly collaborative artists. When it came time to talk, writers would write their screenplays, which they would undoubtedly tweak, but that was the extent of it. But, aside from the minor contribution here and there, Chaplin had always been the sole creator of his works. This meant that in addition to the many hats he already wore, he would now have to reinvent himself as a screenwriter in the modern sense: somebody who sits down at a typewriter and writes a playscript, spoken dialogue and all, for the screen. It seems to me he made an amazing adjustment. While Chaplin did hire helpers to assist with early drafts, to anyone who is familiar with his voice there is no doubt that most of what winds up on screen is Chaplin’s.
The thing that most surprises about The Great Dictator is, despite its weighty purpose, how out-and-out funny it is. It may be his most Mack Sennett-like film since his Essanay days, frankly comical in an accessible earthy way. All of the fun with names (Tomainia, Bacteria, Garbitsch, Herring, Napoloni) is straight out of the Ben Turpin playbook. And Chaplin has been careful to balance the introduction of spoken dialogue with copious amounts of slapstick and physical business throughout the entire movie. The World War I flashback that opens the film (evoking Shoulder Arms) showcases the Little Fellow’s misadventures with a ridiculously large gun named Big Bertha, followed by a bit where he and an injured pilot (Reginald Gardiner) fly their bi-plane upside down without noticing it. Later when we get to the present, there is a great scene where the girl, Hannah (Paulette Goddard, in her second and last Chaplin role), is hitting storm troopers on the head with a frying pan. When she accidentally strikes Charlie, he goes classically goofy with concussion and does a little dance up and down the sidewalk as though soused. Chaplin is amazingly agile in this film. At one point, the fifty-ish comedian leaps into the air and dives head first into a barrel as though he were half his age. But now that it is 1940 and he has sound with which to play, he experiments with the ways in which movement and sound can interplay. The barber shaves a customer in time to a Hungarian dance being played on the radio. A microphone withers when Hynkel yells into it (another Sennett-style gag). And then there is Hynkel’s famously beautiful dance with the globe to the music of Wagner’s Lohengrin, one of Chaplin’s most famous scenes.
But he also saw that there were ways to make similarly symbolic points without losing the humor, as when Hynkel and Napoloni jack up the adjacent barber chairs in which they’re seated to the height of the ceiling so that they can be taller than one another. Another bit, both funny and dark, reminds me of the tone of The Gold Rush. In a grim contest to see who will go on a suicide mission to kill Hynkel, the Little Fellow and the men from the ghetto are eating cupcakes, one of which has a gold coin in it. Not particularly heroic, the barber weighs each plate that comes his way. Satisfied, he begins to eat, only to have the guy sitting next to him switch cupcakes on him. No matter which cupcake he eats, the Little Fellow seems to get the gold coin.
A lot of the verbal humor is broad, as well. Much of it is lifted from vaudeville: Jack Oakie’s dialect as Napoloni is straight from the Chico Marx school of Italian impersonation, and Chaplin’s own parodies of Hitler’s speeches is a piece of “Dutch” comedy worthy of Weber and Fields, Baron Munchausen, or for that matter Ford Sterling. The doubletalk business hearkens back to his first onscreen spoken words, the nonsense song from Modern Times.
Some of the ethnic lampoon backfires somewhat. With no awareness of the Holocaust then in progress, Chaplin’s gentle Jewish stereotypes, hearkening back to his own “Sam Cohen” routine on the London burlesque stage, seem out of place and distasteful to say the least. But how could he have known? Conversely, the storm troopers are WAY too gently represented. Here they are painted as mere buffoons and lummoxes in the Keystone Kops mold. It rings uncomfortable and false even in the context of 1940, as the thugs, just like the real ones of the time, are painting “Jew” on storefronts, smashing windows, and beating up women and old men in the street. With hindsight it’s easy to see that the best strategy would have been to treat these characters with no humor whatsoever. There is a way to integrate such serious villains into a comedy without losing the overall humor. Chaplin had done it in films like The Kid and The Gold Rush. It seems like he flinched here.
Surprisingly, despite the fact that America had not yet joined the war, and a large part of the public was either pro-Germany or pro-neutrality, The Great Dictator was Chaplin’s biggest grossing film to date. This no doubt was in part due to curiosity on the part of the public to hear Chaplin speak. Nowadays, I would venture to say the film is less well-known than his best-known silents The Gold Rush, City Lights, and Modern Times. However, it seems to be picking up steam all the time thanks to frequent television airplay and in the long run it may come to match them in popularity.
Then, starting at midnight, a special treat for silent movie fans — a few hours devoted to the exploration of the pioneering Thanhouser Film Company (1909-1917). The program will begin with a screening of Ned Thanhouser’s 2014 documentary The Thanhouser Studio and the Birth of American Cinema and then continue by showing three of the studio’s films: Cry of the Children (1912), Evidence of the Film (1913) and Petticoat (1912). I’ve seen the latter two films — well worth a look!
For more on silent and slapstick comedy film history please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc