Why a duck?

Last week we looked at a 1937 Jack Benny picture with no regard for narrative cohesion.  To my absolute delight, the comments thread lit up with readers name-checking other anarchic comedies of the 1930s—Hollywood Party, Here Comes Cookie, International House, etc.  Right on!

In fact, the 1930s were chock-a-block with movies like that Jack Benny Artists and Models, closer to a variety revue than a narrative experience.  These kinds of movies jumble together a bunch of entertainers—mostly comedians, but not necessarily—and then drape the flimsiest of plots over them to provide some sort of rudimentary structure, and then just sit back and let them go every which way.

Which, as you may have suspected, leads us straight to Duck Soup.

jpg00017

It’s not hard to fall in love with Duck Soup, the most gloriously anarchic of the most anarchic comedy troupe.  Whether this is your first Marx Brothers experience or not, chances are once you’ve fallen in love, you’ll want more—and the most sensible way of slaking that thirst is to go looking for more Marx Brothers films, right?  And as you obsessively track down and consume the rest of the Marx catalog, you’ll find as everyone before you has that Duck Soup represents a pinnacle of that anything-goes aesthetic, and that as you move out to the farthest periphery of the edge their films are less unbounded.

There’s an easily diagnosed and marked difference between Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera.

Duck Soup is an unruly thing, and the Marxes’ trademark anarchy extends to the structure and style of the film itself: in one celebrated scene, Groucho and Harpo perform an extended silent comedy vaudeville routine (the fabled mirror gag), which is immediately followed by a trial scene.  But Groucho changes sides during the trial, hiring the accused traitor as his Minister of War, only to have the whole scene devolve into a musical number (All God’s Chillun Got Guns).  Which is bizarre enough, were it not for the fact that the depiction of the onset of war involves such non-sequiters as Harpo getting into bed with a horse, and stock footage of monkeys rampaging.  When Groucho gets his head stuck in a vase (how?), and the response is not to break the vase and free him but to draw his face onto the vase and leave it there, that’s almost the most sensible thing that happens in the movie.

jpg00021

By (sharp) contrast, A Night at the Opera includes the Marx Brothers as wacky characters in an otherwise sensible and decidedly generic plot.  The other non-Marx characters have clearly defined motivations that inform their actions (as opposed to being cyphers whose sole purpose is to set up jokes).  The Marxes do crazy things, but even those crazy things are clearly motivated and tied to the ongoing plot.

According to every history of the Marx Brothers I’ve ever read, this transition is universally understood as a consequence of their moving from the poorly managed wilderness of Paramount to the button-down corporate world of MGM.  Not only was MGM infinitely more professional, but their producer at MGM, Irving Thalberg, was a no-nonsense mogul who consciously molded the Marx style to fit the conventional, traditionalist approach of the more august studio.

jpg00020

OK.  All of that is true.  But…

There’s something missing.  The wild anarchy of Duck Soup may be the most unhinged the Marxes ever got on film, but when you compare it to some of the other anarchic comedies of the era its actually fairly tame.

Consider Hollywood Party from 1934.  Here’s the Wikipedia description of this thing:

Hollywood Party (1934) is a musical film starring Jimmy Durante and distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The film is notable for several disconnected sequences that have little connection with each other. Each sequence featured a different star with a separate scriptwriter and director assigned, not unlike Paramount’s If I Had a Million. However young Roy Rowland at 23 is given sole credit by IMDb for the entire production, this film marking his directorial debut which may explain why scenes don’t match or are not correlated to one another.

jpg00012

What happens in it?  Well, Jimmy Durante is apparently the star of a series of Tarzan-like movies, whose box office appeal is faltering because his lions aren’t energetic enough.

That’s the plot.

The film is mostly remembered for Laurel and Hardy’s scene in which they crack eggs on Lupe Velez.

jpg00016

There is also a scene with the Three Stooges–that’s right, it’s a movie that includes both Laurel and Hardy and the Three Stooges.

jpg00011

But wait, there’s more–Mickey Mouse is in it, too, because apparently cartoon characters can interact fully with live actors in this particular world—Mickey introduces a bizarre animated sequence renowned for its sexual imagery.  In a film that barely cracks an hour’s running time there are no fewer than 8 musical numbers, including Durante’s catch-phrase “Inka Dinka Doo” turned into a song.  Mind you, the whole Durante-as-Tarzan thing was a last-minute addition to the movie, somehow, even though it’s the main narrative thread.  Which tells you something about how highly the filmmakers rated narrative coherence.

jpg00013

Basically, Hollywood Party is a wild anarchic mess that makes Duck Soup seem sensible by comparison—and we should  compare them, because they emerge from the same tradition.  It’s harder to see when you focus on watching just Marx Brothers movies, but when you broaden the lens to encompass all of 1930s comedy, you can see that the 1930s had a thriving subgenre of movies that disregarded narrative in favor of vaudeville-inflected spectacle: here’s some funny people, watch them do their thing.  And maybe have some songs, too.

Here’s the thing: Hollywood Party was produced by… (wait for it) Irving Thalberg!  He was perfectly capable of indulging in such unrestrained anarchy when he felt like it.

Duck Soup belongs to a bigger family of 1930s vaudeville-inspired absurdities that flourished for several years and then faded away.  Coming along in 1937, Artists and Models is already a late-period entry of the form.  By the time the Marxes were ensconced in MGM, that mode of comedy filmmaking was no longer in vogue.  Thalberg’s Hollywood Party days were well behind him.  The Marx Brothers films start taking a more consciously narrative bend because that’s where comedy was going overall.  1935 was the key transition year when screwball comedy came into its own.

jpg00019

Or, put this way: in 1933, Duck Soup shared the screen with the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink version of Alice in Wonderland, Dinner at Eight, Dancing Lady (Joan Crawford and Clark Gable vs. the Three Stooges),  Footlight Parade, Gold Diggers of 1933, Hallelujah I’m a Bum, and International House—which all scurry in various ways around the vaudeville revue aesthetic.

And in 1935 A Night at the Opera shared the screen with Hands Across the Table, Ruggles of Red Gap, Top Hat, Twentieth Century, and It Happened One Night—which married screwy comic behavior to carefully worked out stories.

Watching only Marx Brothers films limits one’s ability to observe how Marx Brothers films related to the culture at large—and distort our understanding.     Moving the Marxes from Paramount to MGM wasn’t the most important detail in explaining the difference between Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera.  It’s just the one that pops out when all you have is the filmography of the Marxes to work with, and go looking for answers within their personal and professional history.

18 Responses Why a duck?
Posted By swac44 : June 22, 2013 8:24 am

Makes me want to renew my plan to have a double feature of Duck Soup and the Wheeler & Woolsey comedy with a very similar storyline, Diplomaniacs. Love those 1930s comedies set in imaginary countries. Million Dollar Legs, anyone?

Posted By swac44 : June 22, 2013 8:24 am

Makes me want to renew my plan to have a double feature of Duck Soup and the Wheeler & Woolsey comedy with a very similar storyline, Diplomaniacs. Love those 1930s comedies set in imaginary countries. Million Dollar Legs, anyone?

Posted By Tom S : June 22, 2013 9:39 am

Duck Soup also represents an evolution away from sensible narrative within the Marx bros movies, though- everything up to that had fair structural logic, often aided as it would be in the MGM years by storylines featuring a bunch of dull stiffs doing dull things with one another. So while it may not be unique in its insanity (though I would argue that it feels much more crazy than a genuinely half assed series of unconnected sequences, because the logic of the thing seems to hold together even as the plot falls apart) it’s not as though it’s just one mode they’d been working in, followed by another after the switch to MGM. It’s more the glorious exception to the rule that Marx movies have some dull parts.

Posted By Tom S : June 22, 2013 9:39 am

Duck Soup also represents an evolution away from sensible narrative within the Marx bros movies, though- everything up to that had fair structural logic, often aided as it would be in the MGM years by storylines featuring a bunch of dull stiffs doing dull things with one another. So while it may not be unique in its insanity (though I would argue that it feels much more crazy than a genuinely half assed series of unconnected sequences, because the logic of the thing seems to hold together even as the plot falls apart) it’s not as though it’s just one mode they’d been working in, followed by another after the switch to MGM. It’s more the glorious exception to the rule that Marx movies have some dull parts.

Posted By Doug : June 22, 2013 10:27 am

I love me some “Duck Soup” but would also love to explore that “bigger family of 1930s vaudeville-inspired absurdities” David mentions.
Would it be sacrilege to mention that Hollywood recently tried this format again with “Movie 43″? I haven’t seen it, but it sounds like kin.

Posted By Doug : June 22, 2013 10:27 am

I love me some “Duck Soup” but would also love to explore that “bigger family of 1930s vaudeville-inspired absurdities” David mentions.
Would it be sacrilege to mention that Hollywood recently tried this format again with “Movie 43″? I haven’t seen it, but it sounds like kin.

Posted By Christine in GA : June 22, 2013 6:20 pm

I’ve never heard of “Holiday Party” before but it sounds like a lot of fun. I do think the Marx Brothers Paramount movies are funnier than the MGM ones although I get your reasoning on the changing nature of screen comedy. Paramount seems like a pretty cool studio with its pre-code output and then noir stuff later on. The mirror sequence in “Duck Soup” is, to me, hands down, one of the funniest movie bits of all time and I laugh every time I see it.

Posted By Christine in GA : June 22, 2013 6:20 pm

I’ve never heard of “Holiday Party” before but it sounds like a lot of fun. I do think the Marx Brothers Paramount movies are funnier than the MGM ones although I get your reasoning on the changing nature of screen comedy. Paramount seems like a pretty cool studio with its pre-code output and then noir stuff later on. The mirror sequence in “Duck Soup” is, to me, hands down, one of the funniest movie bits of all time and I laugh every time I see it.

Posted By Jeffrey Ford : June 23, 2013 5:08 pm

Arriving a little late to the party (“That’s a wise quack,” said Groucho), but I just have a few observations of my own that I’d like to put forth:

One: DUCK SOUP is without question now considered the greatest of the Marx films, and yet I’ve always had the slight feeling that MONKEY BUSINESS and HORSE FEATHERS were actually — if not in any way superior to DUCK SOUP — were certainly purer representations of the Marx Brothers humor for the simple reason that the Marxes dominated director Norman Z. McLeod in a way that they could never dominate director Leo McCarey. In short, being a highly distinctive or talented director was not something you necessarily wanted to be on a Marx Brothers film.

Two: There is perhaps another reason for the ramsackle structure of both DUCK SOUP and HOLLYWOOD PARTY other than deliberate intent. How about directorial indifference? It is well documented that McCarey HATED working with the Marx Brothers (as did nearly every director they worked with), and PARTY supposedly went through three or four director’s, all of whom were so embarressed by the result that the film was released without a director credit. And both films supposedly had a lot of footage deleted from them by the studio at the last minute (who wouldn’t love to see some of those Marx Brothers outtakes?), which doubtless accounts for their relatively short running times (especially in relation to their costs) and their Jupiter sized plot holes. In the end, both studios (MGM probably more than Paramount) just finally decided to release the things and get back whatever money they could, and prepared to brave the critical storms that they knew would ensue (particularlly in regard to PARTY) because the films were so unorthadox and, according to the Hollywood standards of the time, so unprofessional.

Three: I don’t know how much influence Irving Thalberg waved over HOLLYWOOD PARTY. Sure, he was around and surely had his finger in some of the subsequent tinkering, but the end result is surely more a result of studio panic than it was any serious intent. The whole history of the fiasco was very well covered by Richard Barrios in his book A SONG IN THE DARK, and I don’t recall him mentioning Thalberg’s name in relation to it at all (I beleve he said Harry Rapf — I’m not sure I’m spelling that right and I don’t have the book handy — was the nominal Producer). In any case, don’t forget that the thing actually started life as THE HOLLYWOOD REVUE OF 1933 or something, and was supposed to be an all-star extraviganza. But when the studio finally saw what an unsalvagable mess the film was becoming, they pulled all of the big stars out and went into desperation mode, finally deciding — as I said in a previous post — to pass the whole thing off as Jimmy Durante’s bad dream. As far as MGM was concerned, the whole affair was a bad dream.

Thanks again Mr. Kalat, for another interesting and thought provoking piece.

Posted By Jeffrey Ford : June 23, 2013 5:08 pm

Arriving a little late to the party (“That’s a wise quack,” said Groucho), but I just have a few observations of my own that I’d like to put forth:

One: DUCK SOUP is without question now considered the greatest of the Marx films, and yet I’ve always had the slight feeling that MONKEY BUSINESS and HORSE FEATHERS were actually — if not in any way superior to DUCK SOUP — were certainly purer representations of the Marx Brothers humor for the simple reason that the Marxes dominated director Norman Z. McLeod in a way that they could never dominate director Leo McCarey. In short, being a highly distinctive or talented director was not something you necessarily wanted to be on a Marx Brothers film.

Two: There is perhaps another reason for the ramsackle structure of both DUCK SOUP and HOLLYWOOD PARTY other than deliberate intent. How about directorial indifference? It is well documented that McCarey HATED working with the Marx Brothers (as did nearly every director they worked with), and PARTY supposedly went through three or four director’s, all of whom were so embarressed by the result that the film was released without a director credit. And both films supposedly had a lot of footage deleted from them by the studio at the last minute (who wouldn’t love to see some of those Marx Brothers outtakes?), which doubtless accounts for their relatively short running times (especially in relation to their costs) and their Jupiter sized plot holes. In the end, both studios (MGM probably more than Paramount) just finally decided to release the things and get back whatever money they could, and prepared to brave the critical storms that they knew would ensue (particularlly in regard to PARTY) because the films were so unorthadox and, according to the Hollywood standards of the time, so unprofessional.

Three: I don’t know how much influence Irving Thalberg waved over HOLLYWOOD PARTY. Sure, he was around and surely had his finger in some of the subsequent tinkering, but the end result is surely more a result of studio panic than it was any serious intent. The whole history of the fiasco was very well covered by Richard Barrios in his book A SONG IN THE DARK, and I don’t recall him mentioning Thalberg’s name in relation to it at all (I beleve he said Harry Rapf — I’m not sure I’m spelling that right and I don’t have the book handy — was the nominal Producer). In any case, don’t forget that the thing actually started life as THE HOLLYWOOD REVUE OF 1933 or something, and was supposed to be an all-star extraviganza. But when the studio finally saw what an unsalvagable mess the film was becoming, they pulled all of the big stars out and went into desperation mode, finally deciding — as I said in a previous post — to pass the whole thing off as Jimmy Durante’s bad dream. As far as MGM was concerned, the whole affair was a bad dream.

Thanks again Mr. Kalat, for another interesting and thought provoking piece.

Posted By jbryant : June 23, 2013 9:35 pm

Looks like imdb may have updated the directorial credits for HOLLYWOOD PARTY. They list Richard Boleslawski, Allan Dwan, Edmund Goulding, Russell Mack, Charles Reisner, Roy Rowland, George Stevens and Sam Wood, each with a parenthetical “uncredited” after his name. This usually means the actual print of the film doesn’t give a specific directorial credit.

Posted By jbryant : June 23, 2013 9:35 pm

Looks like imdb may have updated the directorial credits for HOLLYWOOD PARTY. They list Richard Boleslawski, Allan Dwan, Edmund Goulding, Russell Mack, Charles Reisner, Roy Rowland, George Stevens and Sam Wood, each with a parenthetical “uncredited” after his name. This usually means the actual print of the film doesn’t give a specific directorial credit.

Posted By DBenson : June 24, 2013 3:46 am

HOLLYWOOD PARTY is both amazing and frustrating. There’s that sharp and sexy Rodgers & Hart number under the opening credits. I kept waiting for another song as catchy or a production number as flashy. No dice.

There IS Jack Pearl (I think) doing a knockoff of “Hooray for Captain Spaulding”, which only makes you think of Groucho’s showstopper. That army of babes in slinky gowns undulating behind him is nice eye candy, but just nonsensical. The song gives you plenty of time to reflect on all the small-town beauties who descended on Hollywood, their careers capping in this. Were they ALL somebody’s girlfriends?

This is a bit like the much later movie POPEYE. You look at all the names and talent, thinking it can’t be as weak — not joyously awful, just weak — as you remember. Then you give it another chance and it is.

Posted By DBenson : June 24, 2013 3:46 am

HOLLYWOOD PARTY is both amazing and frustrating. There’s that sharp and sexy Rodgers & Hart number under the opening credits. I kept waiting for another song as catchy or a production number as flashy. No dice.

There IS Jack Pearl (I think) doing a knockoff of “Hooray for Captain Spaulding”, which only makes you think of Groucho’s showstopper. That army of babes in slinky gowns undulating behind him is nice eye candy, but just nonsensical. The song gives you plenty of time to reflect on all the small-town beauties who descended on Hollywood, their careers capping in this. Were they ALL somebody’s girlfriends?

This is a bit like the much later movie POPEYE. You look at all the names and talent, thinking it can’t be as weak — not joyously awful, just weak — as you remember. Then you give it another chance and it is.

Posted By jtransistorblast : June 24, 2013 10:20 am

I wish I could remember the source, but I’m sure I read somewhere that Hollywood Party was essentially constructed around an expensive musical sequence cut from another movie, in order for the studio to recoup some of the cost of its production. That would explain the anarchic nature, and the story Jeffrey Ford mentions sounds very similar (I haven’t read A Song in the Dark, though I will one day).

Posted By jtransistorblast : June 24, 2013 10:20 am

I wish I could remember the source, but I’m sure I read somewhere that Hollywood Party was essentially constructed around an expensive musical sequence cut from another movie, in order for the studio to recoup some of the cost of its production. That would explain the anarchic nature, and the story Jeffrey Ford mentions sounds very similar (I haven’t read A Song in the Dark, though I will one day).

Posted By jtransistorblast : June 24, 2013 10:21 am

I wish I could remember the source, but I’m sure I read somewhere that Hollywood Party was essentially constructed around an expensive musical sequence cut from another movie, in order for the studio to recoup some of the cost of its production. That would explain the anarchic nature, and the story Jeffrey Ford mentions sounds very similar (I haven’t read A Song in the Dark, though I will one day).

Posted By jtransistorblast : June 24, 2013 10:21 am

I wish I could remember the source, but I’m sure I read somewhere that Hollywood Party was essentially constructed around an expensive musical sequence cut from another movie, in order for the studio to recoup some of the cost of its production. That would explain the anarchic nature, and the story Jeffrey Ford mentions sounds very similar (I haven’t read A Song in the Dark, though I will one day).

Leave a Reply

Current day month ye@r *

MovieMorlocks.com is the official blog for TCM. No topic is too obscure or niche to be excluded from our film discussions. And we welcome your comments on our blogs and bloggers.
See more: facebook.com/tcmtv
See more: twitter.com/tcm
3-D  Action Films  Actors  Actors' Endorsements  Actresses  animal stars  Animation  Anime  Anthology Films  Art in Movies  Australian CInema  Autobiography  Avant-Garde  Aviation  Awards  B-movies  Beer in Film  Behind the Scenes  Best of the Year lists  Biography  Biopics  Blu-Ray  Books on Film  Boxing films  British Cinema  Canadian Cinema  Character Actors  Chicago Film History  Cinematography  Classic Films  College Life on Film  Comedy  Comic Book Movies  Crime  Czech Film  Dance on Film  Digital Cinema  Directors  Disaster Films  Documentary  Drama  DVD  Early Talkies  Editing  Educational Films  European Influence on American Cinema  Experimental  Exploitation  Fairy Tales on Film  Faith or Christian-based Films  Family Films  Film Composers  Film Criticism  film festivals  Film History in Florida  Film Noir  Film Scholars  Film titles  Filmmaking Techniques  Films of the 1980s  Food in Film  Foreign Film  French Film  Gangster films  Genre  Genre spoofs  HD & Blu-Ray  Holiday Movies  Hollywood history  Hollywood lifestyles  Horror  Horror Movies  Icons  independent film  Italian Film  Japanese Film  Korean Film  Literary Adaptations  Martial Arts  Melodramas  Method Acting  Mexican Cinema  Moguls  Monster Movies  Movie Books  Movie Costumes  movie flops  Movie locations  Movie lovers  Movie Reviewers  Movie settings  Movie Stars  Movies about movies  Music in Film  Musicals  Outdoor Cinema  Paranoid Thrillers  Parenting on film  Pirate movies  Polish film industry  political thrillers  Politics in Film  Pornography  Pre-Code  Producers  Race in American Film  Remakes  Revenge  Road Movies  Romance  Romantic Comedies  Satire  Scandals  Science Fiction  Screenwriters  Semi-documentaries  Serials  Short Films  Silent Film  silent films  Social Problem Film  Sports  Sports on Film  Stereotypes  Straight-to-DVD  Studio Politics  Stunts and stuntmen  Suspense thriller  Swashbucklers  TCM Classic Film Festival  TCM Underground  Television  The British in Hollywood  The Germans in Hollywood  The Hungarians in Hollywood  The Irish in Hollywood  Theaters  Thriller  Trains in movies  Underground Cinema  VOD  War film  Westerns  Women in the Film Industry  Women's Weepies