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Issue 15 – Lent 2023



This issue's letters and comments.


I enjoyed Peter Tonguette’s tribute to Leo McCarey in your Christmas issue. But I write to suggest that Mr. Tonguette is too quick to dismiss McCarey’s work directing famous comedians, particularly his work with the Marx Brothers. Mr. Tonguette is, of course, correct that McCarey “functioned more as a presenter” in directing Duck Soup (although he did suggest inclusion of the famous “mirror scene” between Groucho and Harpo). But that does not mean McCarey’s role was passive or inconsequential. As Andrew Sarris observed in The American Cinema, McCarey exerted a level of control over Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo that eluded other directors, resulting in a more integrated film that stood out from the “mediocre mise-en-scene” of their other work. And to the extent that any Marx Brothers movie can be said to have a point, Duck Soup does: its satire of corruption and incompetence in government is as withering as it is timeless.

Duck Soup rankled audiences in 1933 in part because it deviated from the classical formula of the Marx Brothers’ early films and vaudeville shows. But time has vindicated McCarey’s directorial judgment. Duck Soup is held in high regard today by critics and audiences alike not only because it shows the Marx Brothers at their anarchic best but also because it embodies the qualities of McCarey that Mr. Tonguette rightly extols: his capacity to understand the people he worked with and his appreciation of the moral center at the heart of great comedy.

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About the author

Peter Tonguette

Peter Tonguette writes for the American Conservative, National Review, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Examiner, and many other publications.