Duck Soup (1933)

Directed by Leo McCarey


Duck Soup is a Marx Brothers movie.  The Marx Brothers are not quite Charlie Chaplin, but they might have been as well-regarded.  Really, I know very little about Groucho, Harpo, Zeppo and Chico.  They are Chaplin-esque in movement, but this movie is about half silent and half talkie, allowing one Marx brother to remain completely silent while the other, Groucho, gets all the witty one liners and winks to the camera.

In some ways it’s a blend of different eras of comedy.  Groucho is the most iconic (in my mind) of the brothers, with an absurdly thick black ‘mustache’ which acts more as a costume and mask than any kind of authentic persona.  His minimalist design would be as recognizable as Charlie Chaplin or Walter White:

While Harpo is the silent era comic, drawing laughs from a series of entirely visual gags, Groucho is of the Woody Allen mold.  Granted, much of Allen’s persona was derived from Groucho Marx, but because of that, Groucho’s humor feels surprisingly modern.  He gets to comment on everything said to him like a member of Mystery Science Theater 3000, with a continuous stream of one liners.

Part of the humor comes from Groucho’s inexplicable role as the leader of a small nation, Freedonia.  Again, like later Woody Allen movies, the gag is simply that this ne’er do well character is in such a position of authority, with people bowing down to him.  Groucho seems to be the only one who acknowledges that maybe he doesn’t deserve such a position.

I could describe the plot, but I’ve forgotten much of it.  There are fictional countries, a war, a couple of inept spies and a peanut vendor.  The most memorable moments are gags that exist mostly out of context.  The story only serves to loosely structure a series of small vignettes.

In one of these vignettes, Groucho finds a vase lodged on his head, and when he turns around, his face is drawn onto the vase.  It’s silly, and it draws a reaction (I saw this movie with an audience).  In an earlier moment, Groucho and another Marx Brother (I don’t remember who) stand opposite each other, unsure if they’re looking in a mirror or not.  The other Marx Brother must mimic the other’s behavior, and of course this premise is stretched way beyond belief in probably the funniest moment of the film.

I realize now that my first exposure to this type of comedy came through old cartoons, Tom & Jerry style.  I guess I don’t have much to add to this, but it’s a style that appeals to children.  I know that because a few seats down from me sat a man constantly “shhh”-ing his two children who were laughing their asses off.

So there’s something innocent about a movie like this.  It tackles issues, I suppose, relating to government, politics and social ethics, but it subverts all of them and presents these ideas as very easy to take down, or fickle, in other words.  There’s nothing daunting about the government of Freedonia or even all that horrific about the war they fight.  Similarly, our introduction to Groucho, through a comically elaborate pageant is undercut about how ineffective that pageant is, particularly since Groucho doesn’t even realize it’s for him.

No one is above the joke, and everyone is susceptible to something.  The Marx Brothers, if I’m going to make a generalization, exist as a way to take down those in power.  Right?  I don’t know, there comedy isn’t very self-deprecating and most often at the expense of those around them.  Harpo, for example, derives laughs from the constant nuisance he represents, most notably shown through his ongoing feud with the peanut vendor.  He also has a proclivity for snipping things with a pair of scissors, whether that’s a tie, inside out pockets or a man’s suit ‘tail.’

The Marx Brothers invade these landscapes the way I suspect many of us might, given free reign and no consequences.  They come in and poke holes in the facade of the ruling class, much like Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game would soon do for French audiences (to mixed results at the time) just as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart would do to politics.

Up Next: Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009), Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), The Rock (1996)

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