October 5, 2010  |  An Auteurist History of Film
A Leo McCarey Program

Duck Soup. 1933. USA. Directed by Leo McCarey

Duck Soup. 1933. USA. Directed by Leo McCarey

These notes accompany the Leo McCarey screening program, October 6, 7, and 8 in Theater 3.

Leo McCarey (1898–1969) has long been one of the most unheralded major directors in film history. (I made my own small effort to resurrect his status in a 1973 Film Comment article.) At that time, I reminded readers of a quote from critic (and later screenwriter) Frank Nugent from 1939: “McCarey directs so well it is almost antisocial of him not to direct more often.” Unfortunately, McCarey remains all too obscure to this day.

McCarey entered the film industry at the tender age of twenty, and became a full-time director and writer of Hal Roach shorts by 1924. He made or supervised hundreds of shorts, and he was the man most responsible for bringing together Laurel and Hardy. Full disclosure: Stan and Ollie have always been one of my guilty pleasures, and I am delighted that Duck Soup is short enough to allow me to incorporate two of their best McCarey-directed shorts, We Faw Down and Wrong Again into this program. William K. Everson claimed that the latter film had been inspired by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou. McCarey’s background as en educated and erudite man makes this plausible, and, in any case, the Roach films helped McCarey develop a unique sense of comic timing and provided bits of business that served him well in his features. In spite of its infernally brilliant use of language, some of the best things in Duck Soup are silent, such as the three Grouchos in the mirror (derived from Stan and Ollie’s Brats, which McCarey wrote).

After a half-dozen of these features, he was ready for the challenge of the Marx Brothers, who apparently were even zanier off camera than on. They were, of course, beloved by the Surrealists, and much of the film’s characteristic anarchism would seem to be antithetical to McCarey’s personality and sensibility, politically conservative and devoutly Catholic as he was. Robin Wood tried to grapple with the “problem” of McCarey as an auteur: “In fact, it might be argued that McCarey’s work validates a more sophisticated and circumspect auteur approach: not the author as divinely inspired creative genius, but the author as the animating presence in a project within which multiple determinants—collaborative, generic, ideological—complexly interact. The only adequate approach to a McCarey film would involve the systematic analysis of that interaction.” Maybe, but Duck Soup is, after all, the Marx Brothers, and Groucho’s character is Rufus T. Firefly. I would love to hear Firefly’s comments on “multiple determinants” and “systematic analysis.” McCarey’s main contribution to this film is his comic genius and the wisdom to dispense with Harpo’s harp and Chico’s piano numbers and the callow romantic subplots (I can only say this now that Kitty Carlisle has gone to her reward) that infest most of the Marx Brothers’ other films. In Duck Soup we have the Marx Brothers and Margaret Dumont raw and unrelieved, leaving no time for tedium and stagnation. It’s McCarey who makes this soup effervesce; his tureen runneth over.

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As this is being written, word comes of the death of Arthur Penn (1922–2010). After Bonnie and Clyde and Alice’s Restaurant, back in the days when he was being talked of as the American François Truffaut, I suggested to a then-friend that Penn might be the “future of the American cinema. “ She scoffed at this, and I guess she was right. Still, Penn had a substantial and honorable career, and he was a very personal filmmaker of talent and occasional brilliance. There are too few of those still around.