There are endless cliches out there about the importance of a first impression, but whatever truth they may hold in our everyday lives they go double for film. When there’s only a couple of hours to tell a story and capture its players, an audience’s first chance to meet a character is an asset no filmmaker worth their salt is going to waste. So with that in mind, CHUD is going to take a look through the many decades of cinema to extract the most special of those moments when you are first introduced to a character, be they small moments that speak volumes, or large moments that simply can’t be ignored.
Inevitably it will be the major characters and leads that are granted the grandest of entrances, but don’t be surprised to see a few supporting players and minor individuals get their due, when the impact of their appearance lingers longer than their screentime. Also know that these moments may be chosen for any number of reasons, and the list could never be exhaustive. But here you’ll find moments that make a big splash, say a lot with a little, or we think are just particularly cool.
We hope you enjoy, and can’t wait to hear from you about each and every entry. Don’t spend the effort guessing future choices or declaring what must be included– just enjoy the ride!
The Film… Duck Soup (1933)
Director… Leo McCarey
Entering From Stage Left… Groucho Marx in the role of Rufus T. Firefly.
What Makes it Special… The staging.
Following the immense success of their first string of feature films, including Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, and Horse Feathers, the Vaudeville comedy siblings still billed as ‘The 4 Marx Brothers’ (Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Zeppo) made their final film in what could be called “the Zeppo Era” — Duck Soup. The film was their first flop and was widely shunned by critics and audiences alike. History would prove much kinder to the film, which is now considered not only one of the best (if not the best) Marx Bros film, but one of cinema’s greatest comedies. Though the film’s most iconic moment is undoubtedly the oft-imitated “mirror scene” – in which Harpo (dressed as Groucho) pretends to be Groucho’s reflection in an open doorway – the introduction of Groucho’s central character, Rufus T. Firefly, is the film’s finest structural gag; a masterstroke of comedic concept and staging that encapsulates everything great and original about the Groucho persona, both before and ever after.
The film opens with a short succession of scenes and newspaper headlines in which we learn that the small country of Freedonia is completely bankrupt. The wealthy Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) refuses to continue bankrolling the nation unless a man named Rufus T. Firefly be appointed leader — a man she clearly fancies and admires. A lavish reception is staged to introduce this impressive gentleman to the administration, and us (a classic device to fortify the importance of a new character). With much fanfare two columns of guards and two lines of petal-tossing ballerinas create a stage for a big entrance, while a heralding row of trumpeters crescendo to a grandiose climax announcing the arrival of Firefly. The crowd bows with respect.
Nothing happens. Firefly is announced once more, trumpets blow, and everyone returns to their respectful poses.
Nothing happens again.
Then we cut to a bedroom, where an alarm clock bursts to life and Firefly (glasses on, cigar already in mouth) sits bolt-upright in bed. He yanks off his nightgown, revealing that he’s already wearing a long-tailed suit underneath, and jumps onto a fire-pole next to his bed, which plants him in the ball room directly behind the throng waiting in silent anticipation. In that perfect way Groucho always does, Firefly – slightly stooped – slinks around the room as though maybe he misunderstands what is happening or maybe he’s just fucking with everyone. He gets in line next to a guard and inquires if they’re expecting someone. When informed that, yes, they are, Firefly takes a respectful pose himself, using his cigar in place of a sword. Everyone continues waiting.
Finally Mrs. Teasdale ends the farce when she spots Firefly. Then, setting the stage for the anarchic verbal absurdity that will ensue for the rest of the film, while Teasdale is warmly greeting Firefly on behalf of Freedonia, Firefly curtly interrupts her:
Rufus T. Firefly: Never mind that stuff. (holding out deck of cards) Take a card.
Mrs. Teasdale: (taking card) Card? What will I do with the card?
Rufus T. Firefly: You can keep it. I’ve got fifty-one left. Now what were you saying?
Why it Resonates… Good jokes don’t need to be explained, as they say, but simply from a storytelling viewpoint… Even before Firefly pulls off his nightgown and hops on that fire-pole, we already know everything we need to know about him and what kind of presence he is going to have in Freedonia and the film itself — he’s sleeping through his own gala, and he sleeps with a cigar in his mouth. If you had never heard of the Marx Brothers or Groucho prior to sitting down with Duck Soup, you would immediately grasp everything with just that shot of Firefly waking up. This is a cartoon. Reality and decorum are out the window. The Groucho ‘character’ is one of 20th-century comedy’s most amazing archetypes; one that influenced everything from Bugs Bunny (whose famous catchphrase “You realize this means war,” was a direct Groucho quote from this film) to Rodney Dangerfield’s many lovably acerbic film roles. Groucho was already well established by Duck Soup, but Firefly was his most deft and, dare I say, elegant introduction.
Other Grand Entrances… Well, there are of course three more Marx Bros to present to the audience. Zeppo’s name didn’t become synonymous with “irrelevant” by accident — clearly he arrives with little fanfare (poor guy). Chico also doesn’t get much love in this regard, but Harpo at least arrives with typically silly panache. Needing to leave the capital, Firefly demands “his Excellency’s car,” a line which is then repeated by a string of servants and trumpeters until we hear a vehicle approaching. In a similar subversion of expectations as witnessed in Firefly’s intro, Harpo’s Pinky arrives, not late, but in an unimpressive motorcycle with a sidecar. Dressed to the nines, Firefly is helped into the sidecar by some guards. He tells Pinky to hit the gas, which Pinky does, speeding off camera and leaving the sidecar behind. Firefly sits for a beat, then gets out smiling and looking up at his home. “Well, it certainly feels good to be back again.”