Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Classic Movie Review: Duck Soup

The best comedy is anarchic. It defies rules and conventions. If it’s truly superb, it creates new ones. The Marx Brothers were just such a comedy team. Their best films date from the early years of sound. Their act depended on, in addition to great sight gags, spoken dialogue and quips. Groucho, whose visage of a thick painted-on mustache and eyebrows and those signature glasses is one of the most famous in the history of movies, rivaling only Chaplin’s Tramp, provides the great zingers. His performance depends on his flawless delivery of double entendres and bawdy comments. Chico had the persona of an Italian immigrant, speaking quickly in a thick accent. Harpo was, of course, silent, except when he played the harp in some films. They started as a vaudeville troupe, performing music, dance, and comedy numbers on stages across America. The advent of synchronized sound in motion pictures brought them the lucrative contract with Paramount to make movies as well as the chance to reach an even wider audience.


The last film the brothers made for Paramount was Duck Soup, which was not as critically well-received at the time and had less box office success than their previous films, but has since reached iconic status and is now regarded as their greatest film. What sets it apart from A Night at the Opera (the only other film of theirs that I’ve seen to date) is its lack of a romantic plot or characters we’re meant to identify with. Every scene in the film involves the brothers in one way or another and it is absolutely riotous straight through. I couldn’t believe how often I found myself in stitches while watching it.

The plot is hardly worth speaking about as it’s just a string on which to hang a bunch of hysterical gags. The dictatorship Freedonia has ousted its leader and the wealthy socialite Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) is sponsoring Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) to fill the position. Neighboring Sylvania wants to go to war to take over, so ambassador Trentino hires two spies (Chico and Harpo) to dig up dirt on Firefly. And it’s funny I should still regard it as a wonderful movie in spite of the observation about the plot. If any comedian today made a film with such a thin story and lack of character development, I would lambast it as not worth my time. My argument is always that comedy is greatest when it’s paired with something I care about. Why is this not the case with Duck Soup? That’s hard to say, but maybe it’s because they are so damn good at what they do. I have always tended to favor clever wordplay over physical comedy. Groucho and Chico have it in spades and then there’s Harpo delivering some of the best physical sight gags in film history. Zeppo also makes his final appearance in a Marx Brothers film. As the straight man, he gets none of the laughs and glory and so you barely notice him as Firefly’s assistant.

Two of the best in the film (and they are bona fide classics) really had me going. The first is the famous three-way hat switching. Chico has set himself up as a peanut vendor. Harpo, a passerby, gets himself and Chico into an altercation with a lemonade vendor played by Edgar Kennedy, a hulking straight man to the duo’s antics. In a great ballet of expert timing, they proceed to exchange hats over and over with Kennedy always one step behind the brothers. Later, Harpo ends up disguised as Groucho. After accidentally breaking a wall-sized mirror, he is forced to pretend to be the real Groucho’s reflection to avoid detection. Once again, in a brilliant feat of expert timing, he matches him step for step until Chico enters, also disguised as Groucho, and the ludicrousness reaches fever pitch. Interestingly, although the brothers made that mirror bit famous, it was used by Chaplin seventeen years earlier in The Floorwalker.

Director Leo McCarey later went on to win two Oscars for directing, but it seems like here he still had a lot to learn. Granted, he was working with a team of artists who likely had a great deal of say and control over the content of the film, even though there as many as four credited story and dialogue writers. With the exception of the final war sequence, which is composed in such a way that manages some great laughs with its clever editing, the early sections are rather shoddily put together. The timing of the editing is often jaunty and haphazard.

Nevertheless, Duck Soup accomplishes what it sets out to do, which is to be a hilarious madcap political satire. The timing must have been fortuitous, as well, coming about fifteen years after the end of the First World War – long enough for people to have moved on emotionally – but long before the outbreak of WWII, after which a comedy on this subject matter might have been impossible.

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