I’m a socially awkward movie lover and that means that sometimes I lift my regular delivery of certain lines from movies. My favorite one to constantly use because a lot of people think I hate them is Casablanca‘s “If I gave you any thought, I probably would”. There’s a few others that my sleep-deprived brain isn’t bothering to think up right now but I know I wait with bated breath for the moment where I can liberally quote Mifune Toshiro in Yojimbo being a great big badass. Instead, I have to opt for being the sarcastic wit of Groucho Marx (born Julius Henry Marx) in Duck Soup, tossing off lines appropriate insults like “I bet s/he’s just using that as an excuse” if a person’s significant other doesn’t show up or “He may look like an idiot, he may sound like an idiot, but don’t let that fool you. He IS an idiot” if somebody’s an idiot. I may very well have plagiarized the image I gave to my friends who find me a charming bundle of sardonic humor from Groucho Marx’s antics, especially Duck Soup.
And yet, Groucho’s snappy statements are only the tip of the iceberg. He’s definitely the most readily recognizable of the family comedy troupe The Marx Brothers without even opening his mouth. All one has to do is recognize his greasepaint eyebrows and mustache with a cigar in his mouth. And yet, there’s also the dim Italian caricature of Chico Marx (born Leonard) and the boyish mute clown of Harpo Marx (born Adolph). And then there’s Zeppo (born Herbert Manfred), who I find somewhat underrated as a potential straight man (though whether or not that potential was reached… eh.) There’s also Gummo (born Milton)’s existence but that’s far before the Marx’s move from stage vaudeville to the silver screen. And for a time, they actually have been on top of the cinematic comedy world working with Paramount Studios in Astoria, where they were slowly gaining more and more creative control over their pictures until it came crashing down with Duck Soup finishing their Paramount contract and they were in their own personal hell of ingenue romance subplots and diluted comedy in MGM Studios.
Which is a shame because I don’t think Duck Soup is the height of the brothers’ career, I think it is pound-for-pound the funniest movie I’ve ever seen. And here’s where I must humbly ask the reader’s allowance for what will almost certainly be the most subjective review in this whole subjective review series. Your mileage may vary on what you might find funny and all that jazz, but I’m not gonna let up on my review of Duck Soup, it makes me laugh. It makes me laugh so hard I have to catch my fucking breath. It made me laugh so hard I have reserve laughs for when I need them if I’m depressed. I’m sure there’s some kind of stone-faced people that might not find it even close to amusing but it’s a complete grab bag of gags and humor in all sorts of forms: verbal, physical, musical number (and oh I love the lyrics to the opening sudden musical number where he happily proclaims firing squad for chewing gum or losing a gentleman’s game), slapstick. It’s almost like Groucho, Chico, and Harpo felt themselves at their biggest hurrah and so pulled out any stop they could.
Duck Soup is just a little over an hour. That doesn’t leave much time for anything but getting to the point and when you come to think about it there’s not that many plot points to the picture. For indeed, there is obviously a plot about Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho), the newly appointed “president” of Freedonia (despite not being appointed through any democratic means) being assigned to help the country out of bankruptcy, except he gets too distracted by trying to court the rich widow Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) who had him appointed in the first place. This gets him almost immediately in trouble with Trentino (Louis Calhern), the ambassador to the next-door country Sylvania. Trentino appoints Chico and Pinky (Harpo) to work as spies towards Firefly’s antics so that Sylvania can annex Freedonia and… y’know actually there is a plot. And not even one that really skips points very much, it’s all given some amount of narrative momentum by director Leo McCarey, an underrated master of 1930s filmmaking (his very Make Way for Tomorrow inspired Ozu Yasujiro’s Tokyo Story). Though I don’t think Duck Soup is a fair showcase of McCarey’s talent and ability. It’s entirely the Marx Brothers show. And I don’t think anybody’s watching Duck Soup for its plot, so very extraneous to the point that it’s pretty hard to call a movie based in politics to be a political satire in this realm of the upcoming World War II.
There is one great thing the plot provides other than a narrative anchor. In all of its irreverence and the ability of McCarey to allow it flow so naturally and coherently while stopping for lengthy brilliant cinematic vaudeville like the famous mirror scene (if you don’t laugh at this, you are dead) or Chico and Harpo bullying a lemonade stand salesman just because they can, there’s a very tight big bang of anarchy that runs its energy all the way through Duck Soup‘s 60 minutes up until the complete mess of its wartime finale where the Marxes spend the majority of the scene in one room shouting and making a fuss and acting like living Looney Tunes loud enough that you’d think they were simply at war with each other. It’s a shame MGM sobered them up because the Marxes were best when unleashed without oversight.
To end on an anecdotal note, when my friends and I attended Cannes 3 years ago, we had the damn movie playing every night before we went to sleep. You’d think that to be a sign of how much we loved it, but all four of us always fell asleep before the film had completed (given that we stayed up late). You’d think THAT to be a sign that we weren’t fans, except by the end of our two weeks at Cannes, we were are quoting Chico’s Italian accent liberally and saying “thassa goo, eh?” at any given moment. It’s like the film’s energy seeped into us via osmosis. Or we’re just entirely insensitive to the Italians. They ruined Italy after all.
Oh and one more thing: Tim Brayton on Alternate Ending opened his review of Monty Python and the Holy Grail with lamenting how that movie’s humor has been so ingrained into pop culture that the jokes aren’t as sharp anymore. Yeah, I bet that sucks.
Never had that problem with Duck Soup, but I bet that sucks.
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