Duck Soup (1933) Review

Director: Leo McCarey

Genre(s): Comedy, Musical, War

Runtime: 69 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

“The Marx Brothers go to war” could be seen as the hook to their 1933 film Duck Soup, which was the last movie to feature Zeppo Marx (who plays Bob Roland here). The other three Marxes would continue making motion pictures, but straight-man Zeppo had had enough of acting. Widely considered the Marx Brothers’ magnum opus, the flick in question is about the four siblings finding themselves in the middle of a brewing war between the fictional countries of Freedonia and Sylvania.

For those unaccustomed to the Marx Brothers’ style, the opening scenes of Duck Soup might seem a little creaky and odd, but the work soars when it finds its groove. The kooky and fast-paced comedy, whether it be oriented around bizarre slapstick or witty puns, doesn’t slow down once the movie starts to pick up speed. There are no piano or harp solos to stall the jokes, and the iconic mirror scene has occasionally been referenced in pop culture.

My three favorite types of humor – slapstick, surrealist, and satire – can all be found here, but I’d like to talk about the third one (satire) as it applies here. Some commentators have said the Marx Brothers here are tearing holes in the brand of totalitarianism that would lead to World War II. Despite the film in question being banned in Fascist Italy by that nation’s dictator, Benito Mussolini (who saw the picture as a personal insult), I actually think that Duck Soup is more likely to be lampooning the stuffy, old-timey monarchies from the World War I era. Nonetheless, Groucho Marx (who plays Rufus T. Firefly here) essentially shrugged off the claims that Duck Soup was a brilliant satire, saying “We were just four Jews trying to get a laugh.”

Regardless of what this comedy is parodying, it’s still one of the funnier movies out there, and probably the funniest film I’ve seen yet from the Pre-Code era (the time period from 1930 to 1934 prior to the enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code). Running only sixty-nine minutes, it barely wastes a second and never overstays its welcome. It wasn’t the first Marx Brothers flick, but, if you’re considering jumping into their movies but are skeptical of watching something stagey like The Cocoanuts (1929) first, Duck Soup might be a good entry point.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

China Sky (1945) Review

Director: Ray Enright

Genre(s): Adventure, Drama, Romance, War

Runtime: 78 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Of the innumerable war-time propaganda movies that Hollywood cranked out during World War II, 1945’s China Sky must be one of the lesser ones. One of the intentions of this picture was to foster a friendship between the American and Chinese peoples in the face of Japanese aggression, but that message is overshadowed by a soap opera of plot. You see, Dr. Gray Thompson (Randolph Scott) is aiding a remote Chinese village during the Second World War with its medical needs, when a romantic triangle develops between him, his colleague Dr. Sara Durand (Ruth Warrick), and his wife Louise Thompson (Ellen Drew).

There’s a good story tying to get out of China Sky, but the melodramatic romance does it no favors. Rather than focus on the nitty-gritty of warfare in the Chinese countryside, this work is more concerned with Ellen Drew’s character’s jealousy of her husband working closely with a female coworker. The end result is a dull film with a largely non-combat-related plot that I didn’t care how it resolved.

Fortunately, Anthony Quinn arrives, playing Chinese guerrilla leader Chen-Ta, which brightens things up (yes, Quinn plays a Chinese person in this feature…it’s one of those kind of movies). There is some occasional action, and the war-related part of the story is concluded by a firefight in the streets of a Chinese town. Even Randolph Scott’s Dr. Thompson gets in on the action, mowing down a few Japanese soldiers with a Thompson submachine gun. He just loves healing and killing people.

China Sky is a relatively short flick, but it is not a memorable one. I was pretty checked-out for several scenes in the middle. Even the movie’s star, Randolph Scott, wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about it, with Wikipedia currently saying that he found it “disappointing.” I suppose it had good intentions, but the outcome of the picture was somewhat boring. China (1943) is a far better World War II film with the word “China” in the title.

My rating is 4 outta 10.

Love with the Proper Stranger (1963) Review

Director: Robert Mulligan

Genre(s): Drama, Romance

Runtime: 102 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Love with the Proper Stranger was just one of three movies starring Steve McQueen to be released in 1963, and it’s the weakest of the trio. It also just so happens to be the second McQueen film to have both the words “Love” and “Stranger” in the title (the other being Never Love a Stranger [1958]). Anyway, the picture that this review concerns is about aspiring musician Rocky Papasano (Steve McQueen), who is confronted by a woman named Angie Rossini (Natalie Wood) who says that she’s carrying their child.

Maybe this just isn’t my type of movie, but I found it to be a bore and a chore to get through. Love with the Proper Stranger toys with some interesting topics, like some moral issues (that I won’t spoil here) and the importance of asserting one’s individuality, but it sinks into a mire of talkiness. I would also fault it for having a false climax or two.

“I don’t care what happens to these people” (referred to as the Eight Deadly Words by the website TV Tropes) is a saying that can stop a film dead in its tracks. This was the reaction that I had to this feature. For most of the runtime, I was pretty apathetic to the outcome of the plot. Like any bad flick, I just wanted the whole thing to end (at 102 minutes, it certainly could’ve been worse, though).

In my opinion, the Elmer Bernstein musical score is just about the only thing to go right in Love with the Proper Stranger. The critics thought differently at the time, and it was nominated for five Academy Awards (although it didn’t win any). I guess I’m in the minority on this call. I find little redeeming value here, so I’d say that you can safely skip this one unless you’re a Steve McQueen completionist.

My rating is 4 outta 10.

Bringing Up Baby (1938) Review

Director: Howard Hawks

Genre(s): Comedy, Romance

Runtime: 102 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The “screwball comedy” subgenre, rather than referring to just any comedy about silly characters, is actually something a bit more specific. It was actually a popular style of romantic comedy in the 1930s and 1940s that focused on mismatched partners who engage in a battle of the sexes. One of the most famous examples of this subgenre is, of course, Bringing Up Baby, about stuffy paleontologist David Huxley (Cary Grant) who finds himself caught up in a series of misadventures with ditzy heiress Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn).

For a movie released all the way back in 1938, this is a generally fast-paced work. The way that the two main characters find themselves in a constantly escalating parade of comic mishaps feels somewhat modern. This zippy and zany rom-com will make you laugh. It’s no surprise that this is usually considered one of the best screwball comedies of all time. However, the true scene-stealer of the flick is Baby – Katharine Hepburn’s character’s pet leopard.

Bringing Up Baby is, indeed, a winner, but it is not without a few faults. Hepburn’s woefully incompetent character is a bit grating at first, which briefly made me worry about the picture I was about to watch. One character goes through a change-of-heart at the end that wasn’t completely convincing. While the feature handles the compounding troubles that the characters face admirably, it does feel like a tad much after a while, especially during the jail sequence.

Directed by the versatile Howard Hawks (yes, the man who did Scarface [1932] helmed this project), this is a remarkably lighthearted and entertaining movie. It could be considered one of the building blocks of the modern rom-com, although it still holds up on its own. Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn fans need to view it, but the real reason to watch it might be for the animals.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Horse Feathers (1932) Review

Director: Norman Z. McLeod

Genre(s): Comedy, Musical, Sport

Runtime: 68 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Many comedy acts sit at the intersection of stupid and intelligent humor, and the Marx Brothers are some of the most famous. At the time of its original release in 1932, Horse Feathers was the best thing that the Marxes had put out. You see, Quincy Adams Wagstaff (Grouch Marx) is made the new president of Huxley College, and his son Frank (Zeppo Marx) convinces him to focus his efforts on improving the school’s football team. So, Wagstaff hires two goons – Baravelli (Chico Marx) and Pinky (Harpo Marx) – to kidnap some football-players-for-hire at the local speakeasy.

The gags in Horse Feathers, both the verbal and the physical, are uproariously funny. It’s a lightweight work, but it has me laughing frequently throughout the runtime. Everybody on planet Earth incessantly describes the Marx Brothers’ sense of humor as “anarchic” and it’s a fitting word. While rock-solid jokes are littered throughout the movie, it’s the ludicrous football game at the end that seals the deal…and you thought that the football match in MASH (1970) was amusing!

Horse Feathers is not a long film, running only a little over an hour. Story structure is somewhat loose, but it does build up to an exciting climax that you can’t take your eyes off of (the aforementioned big game). Only the obligatory harp solo from Harpo Marx threatens to slow things down. The Marxes’ growing confidence in their abilities is apparent. All four of them get their chances to shine in different scenarios.

This is simply one of the funniest comedies of the Pre-Code era (the time period from 1930 to 1934, before the enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code). I won’t spoil any specific gags, but, trust me, this one has a little something for every comedy buff. Silly musical numbers? Check. A barrage of wise-guy cracks from some snarky bastard? Check. Outrageous slapstick? Check.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Citizen Kane (1941) Review

Director: Orson Welles

Genre(s): Drama

Runtime: 119 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

In both the 1998 and 2007 editions of the American Film Institute’s lists of the greatest American movies of all time, Citizen Kane came in at number one. Can this motion picture possibly live up to the ecstatic levels of praise that’s heaped upon it? The plot of the flick in question is about reporters struggling to figure out the meaning of “Rosebud,” the last word spoken by dying newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles).

Citizen Kane is an interesting feature to review because of the near-universal acclaim it has received. It’s an unquestionably ostentatious and pretentious movie, but perhaps rightfully so. It’s surprisingly modern-feeling and undated by time, with various elements competing for the audience’s attention in some scenes. While the flick was intended to be a take-that aimed at William Randolph Hearst, it does sometimes feel like a brilliant tech demo searching for a compelling story. The film is a parade of one terrific use of cinematic technique after another, making the viewer wonder what trick the filmmakers are going to pull next. The story takes a backseat to all of this experimentation.

Citizen Kane is sometimes compared and contrasted with one of its rival movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood: Casablanca (1942). I have a hypothesis that moviegoers can largely be divided into two groups: Citizen Kane People (who adore certain films for the impact they have on the art of cinema as a whole) and Casablanca People (who love certain pictures for the impact that these works have on them as a person). Count me in as a Casablanca Person through and through.

Some modern viewers of Citizen Kane are left with the impression that it’s “dated.” I disagree. This feature probably never appealed to the normal filmgoer in the first place, even back in 1941 (it’s easy to appreciate, but nearly impossible to love). It’s mostly for hard-core cinephiles. We also need to put to rest the false notion that films were “proto-movies” prior to the release of Citizen Kane. One viewing of The Wizard of Oz (1939) will put that idea in its grave. Anyway, I’m going to give Kane a positive, but not euphoric score, as I enjoy it, but, as far as pictures I’d bring with me on a desert island go, this one’s not very high on the list. Hey, I’m a Casablanca Person. What do you expect?

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Monkey Business (1931) Review

Director: Norman Z. McLeod

Genre(s): Comedy, Crime, Musical

Runtime: 77 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

With this movie, you can really feel the Marx Brothers starting to hit their stride. Here, the four Marxes play stowaways on an ocean liner who raise Hell on the ship and get caught up in a brewing gang war. Being based on an original screenplay, rather than one of their Broadway shows (like The Cocoanuts [1929] and Animal Crackers [1930]), this film feels significantly less physically-constrained than its predecessors.

With the Marx Brothers constantly harassing the rich folks on a transatlantic cruise (probably to please Great Depression-era audiences), one can easily see why critics incessantly refer to their style of humor as “anarchic.” The slapstick comedy here is timeless and the verbal stuff isn’t bad either. As with The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, it’s Harpo Marx (playing a character imaginatively named “Harpo”) who has the best gag – this time it’s a zany puppet show.

Monkey Business could actually be one of the more underrated gangster flicks of the Pre-Code era (the time period before the Hollywood Production Code was enforced). Okay, it’s a goofy, anything-goes comedy first and foremost and there’s no shootouts, but organized crime still plays an important role in what could be described as the picture’s plot. One of the best parts of the feature isn’t really even that funny. It’s the somewhat-played-straight fist fight that Zeppo Marx (playing a character named – you guessed it – “Zeppo”) gets into with mobster “Alky” Briggs (Harry Woods) at the end.

Monkey Business was the best Marx Brothers movie (in my opinion) at the time of its original release. It has an appropriate runtime and ends on a climatic note. This serves the humor well. It feels less like a stage play adopted into a film and more like…well, a true film. This flick is quite a bit of fun, and is recommended for fans of comedies – especially older ones.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Animal Crackers (1930) Review

Director: Victor Heerman

Genre(s): Comedy, Musical

Runtime: 97 minutes

MPAA Rating: G

IMDb Page

The second-oldest surviving Marx Brothers movie, Animal Crackers, has the four actors getting more comfortable with being silver screen stars. I’m not sure if telling you the plot is even necessary, since this is a prime example of a comedy film where the jokes overshadow everything else to an extreme degree. Anyway, the story’s about a party being thrown in honor of returning explorer Captain Geoffrey T. Spaulding (Groucho Marx) and the “mystery” of a stolen painting that takes place at said shindig.

The gags here come fast and frequent (this is the picture where Groucho Marx has a one-liner about hunting elephants in his pajamas). Despite Groucho’s wordplay, the funniest bit might be the Professor (Harpo Marx) horsing around with some firearms (don’t try this at home, kiddos!). The musical numbers are also slightly better-integrated than the ones found in the previous flick to feature the Marxes – The Cocoanuts (1929).

I know that people typically don’t watch a Marx Brothers film for the plot, but the one in Animal Crackers feels especially weak. The tale of a swapped painting could’ve been interesting and added some excitement to the proceedings, but little is done with it. The “climax” of the work is impossibly limp. The resolution of the case of the stolen art seems to come out of nowhere and it holds little-to-no weight.

Released in 1930, during the Pre-Code era of Hollywood (prior to the enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code), this movie still feels pretty creaky, even if it is somewhat technically superior to The Cocoanuts. Still, the humor hits the mark more than it misses. Overall, I’d say that the viewer should simply forget about the lame story and just focus on the rapid-fire jokes.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Cocoanuts (1929) Review

Directors: Robert Florey and Joseph Santley

Genre(s): Comedy, Musical

Runtime: 96 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Believe it or not, The Cocoanuts wasn’t actually the first Marx Brothers movie. There was an unreleased, silent film that they starred in, Humor Risk (1921), that is now considered lost. Anyway, back to The Cocoanuts. This anything-goes comedy is about Hammer (Groucho Marx) and Jamison (Zeppo Marx) running a Florida hotel that’s visited by con artist duo Harpo (Harpo Marx) and Chico (Chico Marx) and that is the sight of a plot to steal some valuable jewels.

Being the oldest surviving Marx Brothers picture, this one has some rough patches. Early on, there were a few moments that had me wondering if I was watching the wrong flick (these were scenes when the Marxes weren’t onscreen). The Cocoanuts sometimes feels like a weird variety show that somebody decided to film, with its semi-random musical and dance numbers and comedy “sketches.” Its stagey nature makes it very obvious that this was based on a play.

However, when this feature gets on a roll, it can be quite funny. Its sense of humor is audaciously corny, largely revolving around wordplay and slapstick. The Marxes even threw in a quick musical number about a side character’s briefly-stolen shirt, probably just for shits and giggles. However, it’s probably Harpo Marx who gets the biggest laugh (well, from me anyway) in his truly absurd scene with a telephone and an inkwell.

For being the first released Marx Brothers movie, this one is a surprising success. Yes, it’s older than dirt, being sent to theaters in 1929, but the sequences where the Marxes get to do their thing are a sight to see. Stick with it and you’ll be rewarded. While much of the comedy feels of its time, other moments of humor feel downright avant-garde.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Danger Close (2019) Review

Director: Kriv Stenders

Genre(s): Action, Drama, War

Runtime: 118 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Danger Close is a recreation of one of the most dramatic military engagements to involve Australian and New Zealander troops during the Vietnam War. In 1966, a patrol of soldiers from those nations is ambushed by communist forces in the middle of the South Vietnamese jungle, prompting a desperate relief attempt (the clash is known as the Battle of Long Tan). This reverent war picture is one I want to love, but merely end up liking and respecting.

Part of the reason that Danger Close stumbles a bit is because of how hard it is to keep track of many of its characters. A few stand out, but this combat-heavy movie doesn’t give enough time to flesh out most of them. It tries to keep the audience informed on the strategic situation in the battle with the use of a map or two, but this is soon drowned out by numerous scenes of up-close-and-personal warfare. To be honest, I found the movie somewhat confusing at times, regarding the placement of the various characters on the battlefield.

There’s plenty of action to go around in this flick, as I’ve alluded to. It definitely prevents the overall feature from becoming unengaging, although the battle sequences are above-average at best. It’s mostly just Australian and New Zealander troops lying on their bellies, mowing down waves of charging communists, with an occasional commie being sent flying into a tree by an exploding artillery shell. A scene detailing, in slow-motion, the trajectory of an artillery shell flying through the air struck me as a bit melodramatic, like something Michael Bay would do.

This movie could be seen as the Down Under version of The Outpost (2019), which premiered the same year. Danger Close is a respectful combat picture that lists all of the Australian and New Zealander fatalities from the Battle of Long Tan at the end, complete with their ages. This hits as hard as anything in the film proper. It’s a solid war-action feature, but I am disappointed in the way that it played the “who’s-who?” game with the characters it depicts.

My rating is 7 outta 10.