Louis Calhern

Duck Soup (1933, Leo McCarey)

Duck Soup is madness. It’s not divine madness or sublime madness. It’s comedic madness, which is fine, but it’s a tad frantic and a tad distracted. The film opens with Margaret Dumont’s wealthy widow getting Groucho Marx installed as a head of state. Turns out evil Louis Calhern–a neighboring country’s ambassador–wants to create unrest and he’s setting vixen Raquel Torres on Groucho to get it done.

Only Groucho isn’t interested and he never really gets interested. Oh, Zeppo’s his assistant. Zeppo has nothing to do in Duck Soup.

Groucho as President is funnier in concept than execution–director McCarey seems disinterested in Groucho’s storyline, instead focusing on Chico and Harpo’s battles with a lemonade stand owner, played by Edgar Kennedy. There are some musical numbers, which get a smile and are well-produced, but they’re filler. Duck Soup runs under seventy minutes. There shouldn’t be a lot of filler and there’s a whole bunch of it.

Chico and Harpo are spies for Calhern, but Chico also works for Groucho. It’s madness, after all, a series of non sequiturs run together, with the audience left out of most of the jokes. The finale has all four Marx Brothers in a variety of soldier outfits. It’s cute and not a bad setup, only the jokes never arrive. McCarey’s rushing to get the thing finished.

There are some great Harpo moments and a fantastic Harpo and Chico dress as Groucho sequence. Those moments simply don’t add up or make enough of a difference. Duck Soup doesn’t have much narrative logic–something McCarey could embrace and amp up the lunacy; he doesn’t. By the end of the second act musical number, everyone looks exhausted. The whole picture has become a metaphor for McCarey’s universal disinterest and Zeppo’s growing on.

Then comes the third act, which has the two countries at war. It’s mostly poorly cut sight gags–uncredited editor LeRoy Stone never does a great job, but in the third act, he completely gives up. Duck Soup is a surrender (no spoilers). The film doesn’t even come up with a good comeuppance for Calhern, who really, really, really deserves one.

The script–from Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby–and then also Arthur Sheekman and Nat Perrin contributing additional dialogue (perhaps the funnier stuff for Chico and Harpo)–is always problematic. McCarey’s direction is always problematic. The actors get away mostly unscathed, however. Even if Dumont gets almost nothing to do. She’s in the picture a lot–Zeppo’s got nothing to do, but he’s barely in Duck Soup; but the film breaks the cardinal rule–it’s a Marx Brothers movie and it wastes Margaret Dumont.

It’s a shame too, as the film’s probably only a rewrite or two away from greatness.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Leo McCarey; screenplay by Arthur Sheekman, Nat Perrin, Bert Kalmar, and Harry Ruby; director of photography, Henry Sharp; edited by LeRoy Stone; produced by Herman J. Mankiewicz; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Groucho Marx (Rufus T. Firefly), Harpo Marx (Pinky), Chico Marx (Chicolini), Zeppo Marx (Bob Roland), Margaret Dumont (Mrs. Gloria Teasdale), Raquel Torres (Vera Marcal), Louis Calhern (Ambassador Trentino), and Edgar Kennedy (Lemonade Vendor).


The Blot (1921, Lois Weber)

The Blot has a lot of plot. Lot of plot. Director Weber fills the film with characters and subplots–unfortunately, not many of the supporting cast get credited so I’ll just have to compliment based on their characters.

The main plot is about rich college kid Louis Calhern who discovers–because he has the hots for his professor’s daughter–white collar jobs sometimes means less than working class wages. The professor, top-billed but mostly absent Philip Hubbard, has a blue blood wife who married down. The wife, played by Margaret McWade–she’s awesome–spends her days fretting over the household accounts, daughter Claire Windsor, and the rolling in dough neighbors. The neighbor husband is an uneducated salesman.

Weber gets in a lot about class and a lot about privilege. One of the most effecting scenes is when Calhern can’t eat his country club dinner because he’s just found out sometimes Windsor doesn’t have enough to eat. Oh, and she’s sick. Weber cuts back and forth between Calhern and the drama at Windsor’s house. McWade is fed up with the poverty and has to do something about it. It’s a somewhat difficult sequence because Weber keeps pushing the line where she can get to with The Blot without lecturing. The film’s got a message–pay people, whether it be the college professor, the library clerk, or the minister–and Weber’s got to sell it through her actors. If they can’t make it believable–Calhern becoming progressive, McWade’s desperation–it’s not going to work.

Luckily, the actors and Weber make it happen. Calhern is fine, but he’s something of an enigma. He’s the lead–though he occasionally relinquishes to McWade for a scene or two–but the viewer’s perception of him is through the Windsor and her family. He’s just this weird rich kid who goofs off in the dad’s classes.

McWade is in the opposite position. Weber lays her bare for the viewer over and over again–from her first scene–and McWade’s phenomenal. By the end of the movie, whenever she’s got to do a scene with Windsor, McWade just overshadows her. It’s not intentional because McWade’s not doing anything, it’s a combination of Windsor basically vogueing through all her scenes and the script’s been far better to McWade than Windsor. Windsor sits out a lot of the second act sick in bed.

Some really good performances from the uncredited supporting cast. The mom next door who hates the professor’s family for being stuck up and being cruel to them. The minister is all right. He’s just there to help Calhern on his path to being a white savior. But Weber makes it work, because the love quadrangle is really strangely handled. None of the suitors interact over Windsor. They just stew (or don’t stew) and fidget. It’s awesome.

Weber does it run a little long, especially in the first half. The shots just run on and on–Blot has sparse intertitles; Weber instead lets the actors’ energy carry the plot forward. But she lets it go long even when taking into account someone getting back from the can. It’s not the scenes, they’re decently paced, it’s the shots themselves. They drag.

Except that awesome dinner sequence; then the cuts are way too fast.

Great performance from McWade, decent one from Calhern, decent enough one from Windsor. And all those great supporting actors whose names are lost to history. The Blot is excellent silent melodrama.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Lois Weber; written by Marion Orth and Weber; directors of photography, Philip R. Du Bois and Gordon Jennings; released by F.B. Warren Corporation.

Starring Louis Calhern (The Professor’s Pupil – Phil West), Claire Windsor (The Professor’s Daughter – Amelia Griggs), Margaret McWade (The Professor’s Wife – Mrs. Griggs), Marie Walcamp (The Other Girl – Juanita Claredon), and Philip Hubbard (The Professor – Andrew Theodore Griggs).


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