The following is, after a long respite, another in a continuing series of attempts to write about each of the movies included in the SLIFR Top 100.
One of the challenges of the most recent SLIFR quiz, a quiz to which I have yet to submit myself (and I promise I will—no incompletes allowed here), is to think of a comedic performance worthy of some kind award—Oscar, Golden Globe, whatever—that was rounded ignored by the folks who hand such awards out. Less than a difficult challenge it turned out to be however—the real challenge was trying to keep from submitting more than 20 good and true and worthy suggestions for a less than definitive answer. And after looking over the list of submissions from those who took the quiz, I’ve come to the not unreasonable conclusion, when we’re talking about comedic performances, that anything and everything that makes you laugh is worthy of an award. The eliciting of a belly laugh is one of the most difficult things for a performer to achieve, and its effect on the viewer so exhilarating and therapeutic that it has to be considered on some level criminal the degree to which comedy is devalued by this society, often by the very people who ought to know better.
Another element to factor in when thinking about comedy is the way we watch movies in the home theater age. Everyone knows the logistical, economical and experiential advantages of seeing films at home (the subject of yet another quiz question)—the surroundings are cozier, more relaxing; the cost is minimal—about two bucks a shot at one of those lowest-common-denominator DVD-dispensing robots in your local grocery store, around five clams a rental at the Vaderian Blockbuster empire, maybe a pinch or two less at one of the few surviving mom and pop shops, on up to $18 or so per month for unlimited rentals at the somewhat less Vaderian Netflix empire, where the selection is almost as unlimited as the imagination of the average renter; and one is likely, even sans the toppest-notch home theater viewing system, to have a much more pleasant experience actually watching the movie if one doesn’t have to worry about getting into a shouting match with obnoxious neighbors who can’t keep their mouths shut, their cell phones off or their feet from kicking the back of your seat’s headrest. (Ironically, it’s these very positives that have created, for me, a relatively new problem—the increased likelihood of my falling fast asleep, however compelling the narrative, before even 10 minutes of the movie has passed. This is why I’ve had much better luck with Godard in movie theaters as I’ve gotten older.) All of these factors have allowed for us to achieve that dreamiest of dreams (as least as far as film buffs go), our own private screening rooms.
Yet measuring by the way we as an audience have experienced movies even up through the age of television, until the explosion of the Betamax and VHS in the late ‘70s-early ‘80s, the operative principle has been that collective experience in the dark with, ideally, 300 or 400 hushed and attentive viewers with whom we could share the wonder of a Cary Grant quip/pratfall combo, or the breathtaking intertwining of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, or the rush of being immersed in a Robert Altman wide-screen, six-track tapestry, or the mass terror of being on the receiving end of Spielberg’s Jaws. Obviously, in a home theater setting that collective experience is lost, and with the erosion of many of the standards of public conduct, general sensitivity and consideration towards one’s fellow humans a simple fact of the modern multiplex, many have come to feel that the loss of that collective experience is a trade-off worth making. After all, is it not possible to be as wowed by the artistry of Top Hat sitting next to your significant other on your living room couch, or submerged in the audio-visual depth in movies as disparate as Nashville and Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy if you have all the highest-rated Best Buy bells and whistles, or even if you don’t? I’d say, perhaps. The sense of scale of the theatrical experience is something that goes missing in any movie, Top Hat, Nashville or The Return of the King, when it gets traded down to a 42-62” TV screen, no matter how flat it is or how close you sit to it. But even sans the occasional theater-wide gasp of terror that comes just after Roy Scheider tosses out that last cup of chum, or the audible swoon of a rapt audience attendant to Gene Kelly singin’ in the rain, those movies can still sweep us away and often still do. My suspicion is that where the home theater experience saps the most from a movie, or more to the point where the collective experience of seeing a movie with an audience is most missed, is in the viewing of comedies.
Wait, you say-- funny is funny. If it’s gonna make me laugh it’s gonna make me laugh, no matter where I see it or who I see it with. Norval Jones courting Trudy Kockenlocker is a ritual no less hilarious just because my best friend couldn’t come over to watch The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek with me, and when Donald O’Connor implores Gene Kelly and company to “Make ‘Em Laugh,” by God we do, even if it’s 2:30 in the morning and we’re staging our own solitary version of that old staple, made irrelevant by VCRs and (1)57 channels with nothing on, the late, late show. And I’d say if you made that argument you’d be absolutely right—even if we weren’t not in constant hysterics over Steve Martin in The Man with Two Brains watching it on home video, we can still appreciate on an intellectual level just how funny that movie is, and how inspired he is in it. But taking The Man with Two Brains as an example, this was a movie that did not do ripping business at the box office. Those who saw it theatrically, as I did several times during its brief run during the early days of summer 1983, did so to less-than-packed houses, and we are significantly fewer than the throngs who became intimately familiar with it when it arrived on VHS. On tape TMW2B became the kind of movie that you and your friends rented and gathered together to enjoy over a couple of pizzas and a few beers on a Saturday night. This experience, as you may have noticed, is not the more typical relative isolation of a home theater screening, a reduction of the audience down to you and/or your immediate family, but instead one in which a group experience is often actively sought.
Why? Because regardless of the intellectual appreciation of comedy, the involuntary outward appreciation of it—laughter-- is, at the risk of being obvious, contagious. If someone ends up in stitches over something you also find funny, the bit seems just a smidgen funnier. Someone else’s laughter tends to cue your perceptions and you may find yourself belly laughing at something you might have found only mildly amusing by yourself. The laughter of a big audience at a genuinely hilarious comedy carries with it its own momentum, and if the filmmaker is fortunate enough to have a good sense of rhythm and pacing, so that the dead spots don’t come too frequently or last too long when they do come, that momentum can become an unstoppable force, like a very happy boulder rolling down a hill. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve seen a classic comedy—if you’re lucky enough to see one in a situation where the audience is naturally, vocally feeding off of the appreciation of the humor and the generosity of the filmmakers and/or on-screen talent free-floating through the auditorium, you’re likely to remember it for a good long while (once you have regained the ability to breathe).
The last time I saw Duck Soup with a live audience was probably close to 30 years ago, on a double feature with Woody Allen’s Bananas at my beloved old Cinema 7 in Eugene, Oregon. The Cinema 7 was a very small auditorium on the third floor of an upscale downtown mall called the Atrium—there were maybe 100 seats in total—and the screening was, as I recall, nearly full, a good crowd for a program that probably would have easily drawn twice the crowd for a 16mm campus showing in some nondescript lecture hall. The Cinema 7’s métier was Hollywood revival cinema and, given the age during which it operated, the German New Wave, so one could be forgiven for associating the theater and its patrons more with the kitchen-sink gloom of Ali- Fear Eats the Soul than with the merriment of the Marx Brothers. I believe this screening was my first encounter with Duck Soup (I was lucky enough to get my actual introduction via Horse Feathers, on Saturday afternoon TV), and the audience was appreciative and laughed heartily, but I don’t recall them being in hysterics, an appropriate response, it seemed to me, given the state of hysteria in which the movie itself operated with such freewheeling, anarchic abandon. Nevertheless, the movie, over three decades of viewing on various formats—I’ve owned it on Betamax, VHS, laserdisc and now DVD—solidified itself as one of my favorites, one of the unassailable masterpieces of movie comedy.
As is well known to anyone who follows this blog with regularity, one of the prime joys of my life, as my children get older, is enriching their lives with classic movies of all stripes, either at home or, whenever we get the chance, on the big screen. And so when the New Beverly recently announced on its calendar a double feature of Duck Soup and Animal Crackers, I immediately made plans for my oldest daughter and I to attend. Nine years old, and a bit of a maniac herself, I had a strange feeling she would respond well to the antics of Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo. (When I named the four Marx Brothers for her, she cackled wildly at Zeppo’s name, perhaps the biggest laugh this wallflower Marx ever got.) When we pulled up to the theater, the first thing we both noticed was the consistent rather dazed look of happiness on the faces of those spilling out into the evening twilight from the matinee showings. Then she pointed out that there were a lot of kids coming out, and she was right—a lot of parents seemed to have had the same idea I did. So we got our seat and I spent a little time before the lights went down giving her a brief history of the kind of theatrical origins from which the Marx Brothers sprung, and clued her in to imagine Animal Crackers as if it were a play—something she was easily able to do thanks to director Victor Heerman’s tendency to stage the movie as if he were shooting it from the third row. The movie’s relative creakiness and sub-par sound made me nervous—Would she grow impatient if she wasn’t able to follow the rhythm and the verbiage of the wisecracks? But she seemed gratifyingly amused and was, as all kids probably are, fascinated by Harpo’s geniality and rubbery physicality, as well as the vague sensation of watching Chico and Groucho and being witness to something new, a child admitted to a sophisticated club for adults who was enjoying the show nonetheless because she knew something silly and kind of grown-up was going on, even if she didn’t quite “get it.”
And then came the reckoning. Accused of sleepwalking, Groucho’s Captain Spaulding admits that he occasionally found himself up and about during nights on the African plain: “I once shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I’ll never know.” That was it—the dam broke, and she went off into peals of laughter so loud that even people sitting nearby, themselves caught up in all manner of guffaw and chuckle, noticed her zeal, and I like to think it made them laugh a little bit harder. I know it worked that way for me. By the time we got the section where Groucho steps forward from the action for the first in a series of mock-lofty asides to the audience (“This would be a better world for children if their parents had to eat the spinach”) my daughter was a thoroughly converted Marxist and I was thrilled just to watch her reaction through the tears of my own laughter. She didn’t even let the lumpy, uneven pacing of the movie and its leaden “plot” bring her down—there was always Chico’s piano solo, Harpo’s harp solo, or any number of unexpected gags, physical bits and arched eyebrows to keep her buoyant. At the climax she howled through Harpo’s triumphantly hilarious exposure as a doe-eyed silverware thief with the wheezing bliss and battle-tested lungs of a true believer.
But as much as she enjoyed Animal Crackers, I could never have prepared her for Duck Soup. By now Groucho’s patented machine-gun delivery was familiar to her, and the sound recording on Duck Soup vastly improved over that of Animal Crackers, so we both settled in for enjoyment right off the top. She loved Groucho’s insults and one-sided jousting with Margaret Dumont even more in this movie—several times since seeing the movie she has tried out lines from the opening sequence (“Well, that covers a lot of ground. Say! You cover a lot of ground yourself. You'd better beat it. I hear they're gonna tear you down and put up an office building where you're standing!”) and is never discouraged that she can never quite get it; it just makes her want to go back and see the movie again. The movie’s streamlined lunacy and relative brevity (68 minutes) made it seem even more perfect after the shortcomings of Animal Crackers. The downside to the movie’s lack of respite within a harp solo or Chico piano number is that the movie is, for its length, perhaps packed with more grade-A gags and bits than anything other movie ever made, and such borderline exhausting. But here’s where that near-exhaustion made the difference for my daughter and me. Throughout the movie’s manic first half we were part of an audience that was far more vocally appreciative than the one I first saw it with 30 years before, and that state of communal bliss, of mass hyperventilation, was one we keyed in on immediately, one which informed the way we thought about and experienced the entire movie.
But the movie’s pacing only escalates in the second half, beginning roughly with the brilliant mirror gag, and created such an infectious, unstoppable force of laughter for us all that my daughter and I were eventually reduced to twitching, coughing wrecks, a sign, I assured her, of the movie’s true hilarity. Every time I looked over at her doubled over and grinning it made me laugh even harder, and then I became aware of the eruption going on all over the auditorium. By the time Rufus T. Firefly holes up in the house with the other three, all under attack from the military forces of neighboring Sylvania, his military uniform nonsensically and anachronistically changing to that of another historical period after each explosion-punctuated cutaway shot, the audience was whipped up into a state I couldn’t believe was possible for a movie with which I was so familiar over so many viewings. And at the point which Firefly calls out for help, and director McCarey cuts to a stock footage montage of everything from fire engines and crew rowers to rampaging elephants and schools of dolphins all rushing to the rescue, my daughter lost her tiny little mind and hit the floor of the theater, unable to process the unrelenting input anymore. Fortunately, for her sanity, my respiratory system and the audience’s general well-being, the movie was soon over and we went spinning out into the night, high on the after-effects of a most generous, absurd and out-of-control film.
In the days that followed I was so happy to have been able to introduce my daughter to the Marx Brothers and to Duck Soup in particular, but I was also exceedingly grateful that her introduction did not have to come via the preserved-in-digital-amber DVD. I am grateful to have the DVD to reference and to revisit with her, and I suspect that my overwhelming desire to show her my other favorite Marx Brothers classic, Horse Feathers, will be too strong to hold off and wait for a theatrical screening, unless the New Beverly manages to come to my rescue sometime this summer. But seeing Duck Soup with a packed house was a revelatory experience, one in which the momentum that the film builds was organically fed by the audience’s response, and I am convinced that my daughter’s experience with either film on the bill that night would have been markedly less pronounced and emphatic had we seen it together late one night on DVD after everyone else was supposed to be asleep. With an audience, the power of the Marx Brothers and Duck Soup is truly revealed, the laughter of the audience providing the all-important connective tissue that leads heightened expectations to the next brilliant sequence and covers up the necessary lulls in the pacing that allow a convulsed crowd to not miss as many of the movie’s absurdly, generously high ratio of good/great gags to groaners. (There is only really one, and its lead-balloon quality has nothing to do with technique and everything to do with racial notions that were depressingly prevalent in 1933). Pound for pound, minute for minute, the experience of seeing this movie with 200 or so gasping, grinning ticket-buyers was a singular thrill. And if you are lucky enough to see it in a similar situation, don't be surprised if you are lead to the same conclusion that I came to last week. Duck Soup? Funniest… movie… ever.
For the table: What's the funniest movie you ever saw in a theater with a packed house?