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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.


Michael J. Gerardi

Alexandria, Va.

The author replies:

I appreciate Mr. Gerardi’s enthusiasm for Leo McCarey’s work with a number of our greatest comic performers, including Laurel and Hardy, Harold Lloyd, Mae West, and the Marx Brothers. Who would argue that McCarey’s skill, sensitivity, and good taste enhanced his collaborations with these immortal screen clowns?

All the same, I think it is easier to discern traces of McCarey’s early work in his mature films than it is to find signs of his mature films in his early work.

To put it another way, McCarey’s willingness to insert little bits of humor in otherwise serious films such as An Affair to Remember can be attributed to his background in comedy; on the other hand, I simply cannot believe that audiences who saw such comedies as Duck Soup, Belle of the Nineties, or The Milky Way would have ever guessed their maker would one day produce a film as sincere and serious in its intentions as An Affair to Remember.

McCarey himself preferred his serious films (leavened with comedy) to his more plainly comedic efforts. When he received the Academy Award for Best Director for the screwball comedy The Awful Truth, released the same year as his sadder-than-sad drama Make Way for Tomorrow, he is purported to have said that he won the Oscar for the wrong picture.

Peter Tonguette

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