Anarchy at the circus

Though the Marx Brothers’ post-Irving Thalberg films get a rather bad rap, they’re really not as awful as their reputation. Certainly they’re not as polished, classic, and consistent as everything which came before, but they’re hardly the bottom of the barrel. At the Circus, released 20 October 1939, is my favorite of their later films.

Unfortunately, this film does have one big thing going against it—their worst pseudo-Zeppo by a very large margin, the extremely annoying, Mickey Mouse-voiced Kenny Baker. At least the only real fault of Tony Martin in The Big Store (1941) is that he takes up way too much screentime and performs the cringey “Tenement Symphony,” not that his actual character is annoying.

Jeff Wilson (Kenny Baker)’s troubles go far beyond his annoying voice. Circus manager John Carter (James Burke) loaned him $10,000, which Jeff is ordered to repay before their agreed-upon Saturday deadline. If he doesn’t cough it up in time, Carter will take over.

Jeff’s wealthy aunt Suzanna Dukesbury (Margaret Dumont) disinherited him for joining the circus, which means he’s broke.

Jeff promises to give Carter the money that very night on the circus train.

Jeff’s buddy Tony Pirelli (Chico) calls lawyer J. Cheever Loophole (Groucho) to help. When Loophole arrives, Tony gives him a hard time about getting on the train, since he hasn’t a badge. The badge scene is one of the film’s classic routines.

Also in the circus is strongman Goliath (Nat Pendleton)’s lookalike understudy Punchy (Harpo), who’d love to take over the role full-time. Tony suggests Loophole might make that dream come true if Goliath and his cohorts are booted.

After Loophole performs the classic novelty song “Lydia the Tattooed Lady,” Goliath knocks out Jeff by gorilla Gibraltar’s cage and steals his $10,000 for Carter.

Loophole, Punchy, and Tony set to work investigating who attacked Jeff and where the money disappeared to. They predictably, hilariously bungle everything, though they strongly suspect Goliath is behind it, and that he was aided by Little Professor Atom (Jerry Maren), the midget (to use the parlance of the era).

Tony later suggests Carter might know something about Jeff’s money, and that his girlfriend Peerless Pauline (Eve Arden), an upside-down walker, might thus have inside info too.

Loophole finds the money in Pauline’s trunk and sticks it in his pocket, but Pauline is wise to him, and sticks it in her cleavage. Loophole breaks the fourth wall to say “There must be some way of getting that money without getting in trouble with the Hays Office.”

Loophole’s prayer is answered when Pauline demonstrates ceiling-walking, but when the money falls out, she jumps off the ceiling, grabs it, and runs off, leaving Loophole stuck on the ceiling. Punchy comes to his rescue.

Loophole’s next plan of attack is to visit Jeff’s aunt Mrs. Dukesbury and beg for $10,000. Mrs. Dukesbury jumps to the serendipitous conclusion that Loophole’s an associate of conductor Jardinet, who’s soon due to arrive. She agreed to pay him $7,500, which Loophole convinces her to up to $10,000 based on the exchange rate.

Back at the circus, Tony and Punchy are still hot on Goliath’s heels, and search his wagon. They don’t exactly choose the best time, since Goliath is there, albeit asleep when they arrive.

Jeff is thrilled to get a call from Loophole, announcing his aunt will provide the money. Loophole then sets to work getting rid of Jardinet and his orchestra.

Now the stage is set for one final confrontation between Carter’s henchmen and Tony, Punchy, and Jeff, complete with lots of comedic mayhem at Mrs. Dukesbury’s party.

The name J. Cheever Loophole was inspired by financier John Cheever Cowdin, who served as president of Universal and chairman of its board of directors from 1936–46. He loaned the studio $750,000 to finance Show Boat, and when the Laemmles were unable to repay the investors before release, Cowdin took control of the studio. Had the repayment request not been made till after release of that very successful film, the Laemmles easily would’ve been able to pony up the money and retain ownership of their family business.

Buster Keaton was famously a gag writer for At the Circus. His comedy style was rather at odds with that of the Marx Brothers, which frustrated both parties. At this point, Buster’s career was deep in the toilet (thanks to being sabotaged by Louis B. Mayer, who also screwed over the Marx Brothers), and had to do whatever he could for money.

Hijinks in a hotel

Though the Marx Brothers made a (now lost) short film in 1921, Humorrisk, their first true film was The Cocoanuts. It premièred 23 May 1929 in NYC, and went into general release on 3 August. Typical of their Paramount films, the plot is rather thin and ramshackle. It’s just a vehicle for their zany, anarchic brand of comedy.

Like most early talkies, there were a lot of technological drawbacks. However, to its advantage, The Cocoanuts, like their other early films, was based on a stage play. It works for the action to be limited to a few sets without a lot of movement from the camera.

In the very early sound era, with a few notable exceptions, cameras couldn’t move very far, and microphones had to stay as close to the actors as possible. Because these microphones picked up every little sound, all the paper used in The Cocoanuts had to be soaked in water to avoid rustling.

A longer transitional period could’ve worked out these technological kinks, but people were so eager to play with the shiny new toy, they didn’t care about anything but the excitement of sound cinema.

During the Florida land boom of the 1920s, Mr. Hammer (Groucho) and his assistant Jamison (Zeppo) manage the Hotel de Cocoanut as ineptly as you can imagine. Mr. Hammer hasn’t paid his employees for two weeks, and Jamison prefers to sleep at the front desk.

Wealthy guest Mrs. Potter (Margaret Dumont) is keen for her daughter Polly (Mary Eaton) to marry Harvey Yates (Cyril Ring), whom she believes will give Polly a big step up the social ladder. Polly, however, prefers struggling architect Bob Adams (Oscar Shaw), who works as a hotel clerk and dreams of turning the entire area into Cocoanut Manor.

Predictably, Yates is a conman scheming to steal Mrs. Potter’s diamond necklace, with assistance from his girlfriend Penelope (Kay Francis).

Two more conmen, Chico and Harpo, presently arrive, with plans to fill their empty suitcases by robbing and tricking the other guests. Also predictably, they drive Mr. Hammer, the employees, and the other guests crazy with their wacky antics.

Penelope realizes these guys are total dopes, and hatches a plan for them to take the fall for the theft of Mrs. Potter’s necklace.

Another predictable plot development is Mr. Hammer’s attempted wooing of Mrs. Potter.

Harpo is invited into Penelope’s room, and hides under her bed when Yates visits. He overhears them discussing their scheme, and holds out his hat to catch an incriminating note Penelope drops.

Penelope and Mrs. Potter, whose rooms are connected by a door, are quite bemused at Mr. Hammer, Harpo, and Chico running in and out. During this whirlwind back and forth, Penelope goes into Mrs. Potter’s room and steals the necklace.

Mr. Hammer tells Chico about his plans for a Cocoanut Manor auction, during which Mrs. Potter announces her necklace was stolen and offers a thousand-dollar reward.

Harpo presently produces the necklace, to Mrs. Potter’s great gratitude. A detective blames Bob, which spurs Penelope on to spin a wild fish story corroborating the accusation. Mrs. Potter believes Bob is guilty, but Polly believes in his innocence.

The situation worsens when Mrs. Potter orders Polly to stay away from Bob, and announces Polly’s engagement to Yates. Now it’s up to Harpo and Chico to get Bob out of jail and prove his innocence.

Typical of early talkies, there are a lot of musical and dance numbers. They feel kind of pointless and space-filling, much like the musical performances cluttering up the later MGM films. We can understand the story perfectly well without these interruptions! Seriously, you can skip all of them and not miss anything.

The film was shot at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, where follow-up Animal Crackers was also shot. Paramount moved all their production to Hollywood in 1932.

The Marxes were horrorstruck by the final cut, so much so they tried to buy back the negative. Paramount refused, and released the film to great critical success. It earned $1,800,000 gross ($26,962,421 today) and was one of the most successful early talkies.

Reviews were mostly positive, esp. regarding the Marxes. The other parts of the film garnered more mixed reactions. They felt the romantic subplot and musical performances were pointless. Critics also mentioned poor audio quality in spots and poorly-filmed dance sequences.

The audiovisual issues were finally corrected in a long overdue 2016 remastering of the Paramount films. The original 2004 boxed set was just embarrassing!

Duck Soup at 85, Part III (Legacy)

While the Marx Brothers’ MGM films were more financially successful and popular than their Paramount films during their respective original runs, today the situation has reversed. By and large, fans tend to strongly prefer the five Paramount films, and don’t think that highly of any but their first two MGM films.

In the 1960s, as interest in 1930s films grew, Duck Soup finally recovered from its initial lacklustre reception and gained classic status.

Some film critics feel it’s not only on par with other comedic, satirical send-ups of politics and wars, like The Great Dictator and Dr. Strangelove, but even more effective and unnerving because it wasn’t consciously trying to be anything but irreverent comedy.

In 1990, Duck Soup was chosen by the Library of Congress for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry, owing to being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” On those incessant best-of lists and surveys, it’s routinely included as one of the greatest comedies and films of all time.

The film has been cited as strong inspiration for many comedians over the years, as well as some political satires and animated cartoons. The Beatles also named it as inspiration for their madcap film Help!, and other of their comedic stylings.

In 2004, the five Paramount films were released in a boxed set, along with 15 minutes of interviews and a rather shallow 40-page booklet. Many fans were deeply disappointed with the shoddy condition of the prints and audio, and the lack of bonus features.

In contrast, the MGM films (and the one-off RKO film), which show a gradual, painful decline in quality, got the deluxe DVD treatment.

Thankfully, in 2016, this disgraceful situation was finally rectified, and now we can enjoy these films properly, with pristine prints, audio commentaries, and bonus features.

I first saw Duck Soup on New Year’s Eve 1999. In 1997, I’d seen my first two Marx Brothers’ films, which I wouldn’t wish on any new fan. Of all the great films to start out with, Love Happy (1949) ain’t it! That horrible, unrepresentative first impression was followed up by another poor choice for a new fan, Room Service (1938).

I decided to give them one more chance when my father rented Duck Soup from Blockbuster. Lo and behold, it was much better than the first two films I’d seen, and significantly changed my impression. I finally understood what all the fuss was about.

The third time was the charm. While it took me awhile to fully grow in love with the Marx Brothers (vs. immediately falling in love, as I did with Laurel and Hardy and the Three Stooges), it ultimately created a very strong bond.

I wasn’t ready to be a true Marx Brothers fan till my mid-twenties, through no fault of theirs, or mine. I just most strongly prefer slapstick and physical comedy. Some things, like fine wine or a piano, are best when aged.

There are also books, films, and albums one always enjoys, but doesn’t have the maturity to fully appreciate and understand until going through more of life. That’s what the Marx Brothers have been to me.

Duck Soup at 85, Part II (Behind the scenes)

Though urban legend has it Duck Soup was a box office bomb and caused Paramount to drop the Marx Brothers, it was the sixth-highest-grossing film of 1933. It earned mixed reviews, despite not earning nearly as much money as Paramount hoped for.

The Marxes left Paramount because of contract disputes; deteriorated relationships between them; and a threatened walk-out. Duck Soup also fulfilled the five-film contract they’d signed, so they were free to go elsewhere.

Audiences didn’t warm to it so well because they were in the throes of the Great Depression. They sought lightweight, escapist entertainment, not cynical political satires. The subject matter wasn’t something they felt should be made into a joke.

As MGM wonder boy Irving G. Thalberg explained when they switched studios, there wasn’t enough of a solid story. Audiences needed someone to root for, not a nonstop, disconnected parade of freewheeling comedy, gags, and anarchy.

The MGM films have more tightly-plotted scripts, but they also added something else Thalberg insisted on—a romantic subplot, with the brothers helping the couple to get their happy ever after. Had Zeppo stayed, he would’ve gotten so much more screentime as the romantic lead and straightman!

Most of the characters’ names were altered from the original script. Groucho’s surname was Firestone; Harpo was Brownie; Ambassador Trentino of Sylvania was Ambassador Frankenstein of Amnesia; and Vera Marcal was June Parker. The lattermost started as Mrs. Teasdale’s niece, then became Trentino’s niece, before finally just becoming Trentino’s partner in crime.

Zeppo was also originally Groucho’s son.

Prior to filming, Paramount was near bankruptcy, and on the eve of reorganization. They thought they could use the Marx Brothers as cash cows (like Universal later used Abbott and Costello), based on the huge success of 1932’s Horse Feathers. Unfortunately, the brothers feared they’d never get paid what they were already owed, and threatened to start their own company.

They planned their first indie film as an adaptation of Of Thee I Sing, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway musical. There was talk of Groucho and Chico starring as the characters they played on their radio show, Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel.

In 1941, they finally played these characters, Flywheel and Ravelli, in the dreadful The Big Store. Many of the gags and routines in the final script came from the radio show.

This indie film never came to fruition, and the team of Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, and Arthur Sheekman, whom they’d worked with before, began writing a script with the working title Firecrackers. Two months later, it was changed to Cracked Ice. Several more months later, it became Grasshoppers.

The ultimate title was the same one director Leo McCarey had used for a 1927 Laurel and Hardy short. In U.S. slang of the time, duck soup referred to an easy job.

The title also continued their animal theme, after Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, and Horse Feathers.

Mussolini banned the film, taking it as a personal insult, while the city of Fredonia, NY, wanted the fictional nation’s name changed. They thought it’d hurt their reputation. The brothers fired back, telling them to change their name to avoid hurting the movie.

Duck Soup at 85, Part I (General overview)

Released 17 November 1933, Duck Soup was the final Paramount Marx Brothers’ film, and their final film with the gorgeous, underappreciated Zeppo. All their MGM films featured a pseudo-Zeppo (the best being Allan Jones), and as Fate would have it, the pseudo-Zeppos got way more screentime than the real Zeppo ever did!

Though the film wasn’t such a wild success when it was released, it wasn’t a box office bomb, as urban legend claims. It was the sixth-highest grossing film of 1933. Regardless, it wasn’t received very well by critics, and didn’t make enough money for Paramount. Duck Soup only became a classic in the Sixties.

Mrs. Gloria Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) is sick and tired of loaning her riches to the beleaguered, bankrupt nation of Freedonia, but after the authorities wheedle enough, she relents one last time. There’s only one condition—Rufus T. Firefly must become Freedonia’s new leader.

An ambassador from neighbouring nation Sylvania, Trentino (Louis Calhern), immediately begins making plans to overthrow Rufus, with help from Vera Marcal (Raquel Torres).

Firefly then lays out his wacky rules for governing, in “Just Wait ‘Til I Get Through with It.” This is the film’s second song, after “When the Clock on  the Wall Strikes Ten.”

Trentino has enlisted two spies, Chicolini and Pinky (Chico and Harpo), to dig up dirt on Firefly. It’s obvious from the jump they’re incompetent dopes, which drives Trentino up the wall with frustration and exasperation.

We now see Firefly by a meeting of the Chamber of Deputies, who are also overcome with exasperation and frustration. Rufus isn’t exactly the kind of leader anyone wants!

The next scene is one of the film’s most famous, featuring slow burn comedic character actor Edgar Kennedy as a lemonade stand vendor. He has the misfortune to be next to Chicolini’s peanut stand, and nothing goes right after he crosses paths with Pinky and Chicolini.

Rufus offers Chicolini the position of Secretary of War, in spite of his utter incompetence and chutzpah. Pinky also comes into Firefly’s office, and shows off a bunch of tattoos.

Firefly’s secretary, Bob Roland (Zeppo), has developed suspicions about Trentino’s intentions, and suggests a plan to get rid of him. Firefly will insult Trentino, and goad him into a slap. However, the plan backfires, and Firefly ends up slapping Trentino instead.

More mayhem follows between Pinky and the lemonade stand owner.

Mrs. Teasdale invites Firefly over, which delights him. He uses the opportunity to put the moves on Mrs. Teasdale. This seduction is interrupted by Trentino. Mrs. Teasdale begs them to put aside their differences, which doesn’t exactly go according to plan. Firefly is insulted and enraged anew, and turns Trentino into even more of an enemy.

Trentino begs Vera to find war plans in Mrs. Teasdale’s safe. This scheme is complicated by the presence of Firefly, who’s spending the night. Things get even more complicated when Vera sneaks Chicolini and Pinky inside.

Pinky and Chicolini impersonate Firefly to try to fool Mrs. Teasdale and get the plans. This night of double-crossing includes the famous mirror scene, which was first used in the Harold Lloyd short The Marathon (1919), and again in the Max Linder feature Seven Years Bad Luck (1921).

It demonstrates how sound can be used selectively without a film losing anything. So many early talkies were just that, talky, with barely any breathing room. Not everything needs constant dialogue to be understood or deeply felt!

Chicolini is put on trial for treason, and naturally acts like a total nitwit on the witness stand. During the proceedings, Mrs. Teasdale comes to beg Firefly one final time not to go to war. Firefly initially cheerfully agrees to meet Trentino and make peace, but soon is overcome with rage about what might happen. Trentino gets another slap, and war is officially declared.

The film’s final song, “This Country’s Going to War,” is performed. Needless to say, the trial is over.

The remainder of the film is more trademark Marxian anarchy, freewheeling comic mayhem, and chaos. These aren’t films one watches for carefully-plotted storylines!