I’ve been thinking a lot about director Leo McCarey lately and, in particular, how so many of his movies , from the 1928 Laurel and Hardy short Two Tars (which he supervised) through 1958’s Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys! (just released on DVD) , culminate in anarchy. He is easily one of the most subversive filmmakers this side of Bunuel.
Watching The Milky Way (1936) on TCM last week, I was also struck by how funny everybody is in a McCarey comedy. Not just the comic stars , like The Milky Way‘s Harold Lloyd , but everybody. In The Milky Way, Adolph Menjou as a fight promoter is funny. As his moll, Veree Teasdale, a stage actress who had just played Queen Hippolyta in the Reinhardt/Dieterle Midsummer Night’s Dream, is extremely funny. In Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys!, the often humorless Paul Newman (swinging from chandelier, below) is quite funny, and Joan Collins is hilarious. (Yes, McCarey also appreciated a good-looking woman when he saw one.) Play is the supreme value in McCarey’s world, and its spirit infects everyone.
“The end of the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup” is the only cinematic work mentioned by literary theorist Harold Bloom in his canon of the “twentieth-century American Sublime,” his short list of the greatest works of American art produced in the 20th century. However, Bloom fails to mention McCarey, without whose contribution the film would be inconceivable. So much for literary critics.
Yet, at least until Dr. Strangelove, Duck Soup truly is the peak of a certain type of American cinema, of a homegrown comedic vision so uncompromised that it obliterates nearly everything in its path. Note how in McCarey’s Duck Soup, nothing is respected , neither man, woman, institution, country, nor the rules of conventional narrative filmmaking. See how Groucho’s uniform arbitrarily changes from shot to shot , starting well before the excerpt above , as if to say, “The uniforms may change, but war is always absurd.”