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Back to the Feature: Duck Soup (1933)


          I want to talk about the lasting power of comedy. Like all art, it’s subject to renewed perspectives over time. When does comedy become dated, insensitive, or worse, unfunny? And what makes certain comedy timeless? Why have some routines and comedians fallen by the wayside while others have maintained as staples of the form for decades? I think ideal artists to examine this through are the Marx Brothers.
          Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Zeppo, and for a time Gummo Marx were a vaudeville comedy team that rose to prominence in the 1930s and 40s. While the silent film comedians like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton struggled to stay relevant in the environment of talkies, the Marx Brothers flourished through them. Real life siblings, they quickly developed regular personas in their act and even starred in a number of feature films that rank among the most revered of the genre. Though there are definitely those who remember the antics of Chico and Harpo Marx, the most famous of course, was Groucho, who’s brilliantly quick wit and trademark appearance (consisting of moustache, thick eyebrows, glasses, and cigar) has made him one of the most recognizable figures in the annals of comedy. They’re influence has extended to everything from I Love Lucy to Saturday Night Live to Warner Brothers cartoons like Looney Tunes and especially Animaniacs. One of their most acclaimed films is Duck Soup directed by Leo McCarey and it’s a perfect example of the kind of comedy that not only mostly holds up, but was actually ahead of its time.
          In an insane satire of politics, Groucho’s Rufus T. Firefly is appointed leader of a nation called Freedonia. But the Sylvanian ambassador in an attempt to oust Firefly and marry the rich Mrs. Teasdale employs a couple spies (Harpo and Chico of course) to follow Firefly. Shenanigans ensue and through a number of farces, an international incident is inevitable.
          As with most movies based around comedy teams at this time and of course inherited from the brothers’ vaudeville roots, plot really doesn’t matter in Duck Soup, rather everything’s just a means to get to the next joke. Nothing ever really works or connects plot-wise in this film, it’s just one big excuse to make fun of whatever the Marx Brothers wanted to mock at the time from international politics, to fashion to war to even the Hays Code. All notions of any kind of sincerity are obliterated the moment we see Groucho sliding down a pole to meet with dignitaries and receive his new position. And from there we’re treated to a barrage of really funny scenes and one-liners. Groucho’s fast jokes really are where the film shines most, many of them still incredibly clever and funny, especially when it comes to the innuendo. Some of the suggestive dialogue in this film is really bold for 1933, the very obvious sexual references and undertones being just shy of explicit enough to get past censorship. And even then, there’s a scene where Harpo’s got a spray tube with a sack that releases water when he squeezes it, which he does several times (like the flower gag without the flower), and uses it strapped on his person right around his naval. That’s pretty close to an ejaculation joke the same year Dinner at Eight came out.
          The film also has fun with its political satire. Firefly’s enemy, the Sylvanian ambassador, tries to stir up revolution and connives against Firefly to woo his own love interest, Mrs. Teasdale. And of course Firefly himself despite his sharp mouth, is an absolutely eccentric governor, making important decisions on a whim or personal impulse and carrying grudges (something that was considered satire rather than reality in the 1930s). “Stars and Stripes Forever”, a patriotic American anthem, is played as unwanted noise Harpo tries desperately to destroy. And then Firefly starts a war purely by deciding before confronting the Sylvanian ambassador that the ambassador is going to insult him, and so he draws the comical first blood. It’s a great prod at diplomacy, and is especially interesting coming around Hitler’s rise to power. There’s a hilarious sequence where all four Marx brothers (poor Zeppo in this film is merely playing the straight man secretary to Firefly) re-enact the American Revolution, specifically the ride of Paul Revere. And it’s in a very daring move that they then play out this fictional war as a send-up of the First World War which had only ended fifteen years before. But it’s done with such skill, talent, goofiness, and cleverness. Chico easily and liberally switches sides for the most trivial of reasons, a shell destroys their stock of straw hats (“gentlemen this is the last straw”). And in almost each separate scene of this sequence, Firefly’s wearing a different uniform, essentially making fun of every war America’s fought in (at one point wearing first a Union then a Confederate outfit). He barks orders, accidentally kills a number of his own men in a moment that’s admirably dark for a then very recent mass tragedy, and sends Harpo off to die with the perfect words: “remember while you’re out there risking life and limb through shot and shell, we’ll be in here thinking what a sucker you are!” -I think this movie may have inspired Blackadder Goes Forth. But the jokes are clearly aimed not at the folks dying but the idiots giving the orders, responsible for the war in the first place. And of course they make all their targets look as stupid and puerile as possible, including a finale where at the end of a long and costly war, conflict is resolved by the ambassador merely winding up in the stocks as the heroes pelt him with food.
          Yeah, the other thing this movie does incredibly well is its slapstick, which the Marx Brothers are less remembered for then the likes of Laurel & Hardy (who had coincidentally starred in a 1927 movie, also called Duck Soup) and the Three Stooges, but perform it just as well. The most obvious instances in Duck Soup are the encounters Harpo and Chico have with a lemonade vendor. They torment and fight with him in really well choreographed bits. Anyone who knows the rules of slapstick knows that the humour comes from the reaction more than the action. This in mind, Edgar Kennedy who plays the vendor, is really good at taking the abuse. One of my favourite slapstick jokes is the running gag where Groucho hops into the sidecar of a motorbike driven by Harpo, only for Harpo’s bike to take off without him. It both leads to a great line (“this is the fifth trip I’ve made today and I haven’t been anywhere yet”), and a great pay-off on the third time when Groucho gets on the bike and Harpo in the sidecar now takes off on its own. The other really great examples of this include Harpo’s tie-cutting gag, Groucho handkerchief-slapping his enemy, Groucho’s head being stuck in a pot, and Harpo hitting each enemy soldier trying to infiltrate their base on the head with a brick. But easily the most famous bit in this movie is when Harpo and Chico are trying to steal Firefly’s war plans, and through an elaborate farce, both disguise themselves as Firefly (in the process revealing the secret to Groucho’s make-up). Harpo accidentally breaks through a mirror and then has to fake that he’s Firefly’s reflection. And the timing and absurdity of this scene is comedy perfection! Firefly tries many elaborate things in front of the mirror to assure himself it’s his reflection and Harpo mimics them brilliantly in sync. It’s a routine that clearly needed lots of rehearsal, but it pays off, making for memorable and still hilarious sequence that’s become a classic to imitate. 
          There are a couple areas where Duck Soup shows its age though, with jokes that wouldn’t fly today. Though it is part of his character to insult everyone, some unfamiliar with Groucho Marx might take objection with his sexist jokes. But even objectively, they’re hit and miss. “I can see you standing in the kitchen bending over a hot stove, and I can’t see the stove” feels a little too much of a cheap shot. However, "I could dance with you ‘til the cows come home. On second thought, I'd rather dance with the cows ‘til you came home.” is still pretty funny, especially for the delivery. As good as these jokes are though I wish some of the characters reacted a bit more. Again, reaction is vital to good comedy and in a few scenes, particularly when Firefly is first introduced, he spouts off his witty lines and insults, only for the people around him such as Mrs. Teasdale to just take it with no real response. And in a way the script’s a bit lazy, as whenever non-Marx Brothers cast members are in a scene with Groucho, their dialogue is virtually all set-up. No one in this movie has character, apart from the stars themselves; and much like Charlie Chaplin, they’re playing their customary parts, just in a different environment. There’s also a potentially controversial portion of the “This Country’s Going to War” song, where patriotic fervour is parodied with a minstrel show-tune. However the Marx Brothers are smarter than Holiday Inn, and since there’s no actual black-face, it’s highly unlikely most people today would recognize the politically incorrect style they briefly sing in. And anyway, given how they parody the First World War, a very recent conflict the trauma of which was still very close to a lot of people, they’re not exactly comedians who’d have cared for political correctness.
          I can definitely see why Duck Soup is considered a comedy classic. As far as films written around jokes go, it’s pretty good, and has a ton of well-known snappy quotes. In addition to ones I’ve already cited, there’s this exchange: “Not that I care but where is your husband?” “Why, he’s dead.” “I’ll bet he’s just using that as an excuse.” And possibly funniest of all: “gentlemen, Chicolini here may talk like an idiot and look like an idiot. But don’t let that fool you. He really is an idiot”. But even besides the dialogue and fun wordplay, there’s a lot to love about this movie, from the genius slapstick to the clever satire, to how unabashedly ludicrous everything is. I love the riddles Groucho and Chico ask each other and get hung up on, I love the sight-gag of the horse in bed with Chico because they couldn’t show him in bed with a woman, and I love the “help is on the way” montage that may as well have been something from a Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker movie. There’s a reason Duck Soup has remained timeless, and why its’ comedy still works. Because slapstick and satire done right never ages. And the Marx Brothers master that as well as the classic cartoon characters many of us have grown up on, and of which they are the live-action equivalent. 

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