“At any street corner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face.” – Albert Camus
There are very rare moments in time in which a constant stream of fits and giggles gives way to an overwhelming wave of dizzying euphoria, transporting you to a plain of hilarity and happiness that, while brief, wraps itself around you like a warm, comfortable blanket. Such is my experience watching the zany and nonsensical antics of the Marx Brothers in what is perhaps their greatest singular triumph, DUCK SOUP. There are very few individuals in the history of comedic cinema who have been able to successfully pull off feats of humor so riotously funny that they overshadow a lack of narrative cohesion or even comprehension, but they cannot compare to the true masters. The Marx Brothers succeeded not in spite of their incoherent and disjointed meanderings, but because they wholeheartedly embraced the absurdity of them. The joy of watching their work is that there’s no particular rhyme or reason to any of it, no foreseeable goal or destination other than the next joke which might be directly connected or completely out of left field. The film is quite simply a rollercoaster of laughter, but one where the thrill is the fact that they’re laying the tracks right in front of you at the last second, no particular end in sight, but always willing to whirl you on some wild turns whenever possible. Yet that’s not to say it’s empty or has nothing to say, because it may also be one of the most scathing criticisms of the politics of the world, timely at the moment of its release, and even more frighteningly relevant amidst the baffling chaos we currently find ourselves in today. It’s a circus: a crazy, wacky, messy, jumbled circus that dishes out guffaws and harsh truths in rapid fire succession, and that cements its place year after year as one of pinnacles of the genre.
Freedonia is a small country that has become bankrupt due to the actions of its failing leader. The nation’s establishment begs the wealthy Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) to provide them with the necessary financial aid they desperately need, but she refuses unless they supplant the current leader with the eccentric Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx). There’s trouble brewing, however, with neighboring country Sylvania, and their ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern) has plans of his own, hoping to woo Mrs. Teasdale for her money, start a revolution, and annex the country. But Mrs. Teasdale is too taken with Firefly, despite his frequent rejections, so Trentino enlists the help of two spies, Chicolini (Chico Marx) and Pinky (Harpo Marx) to find something he can use against him. Unfortunately, Chicolini and Pinky are quite inept at their work, succumbing more to minor hijinks and inexplicable pranks literally right outside Firefly’s own window. That’s about as close to a setup as the Brothers get before diving headlong into whatever quip, gag, or bit they so please, some of them among the greatest and simplest conceptual jokes ever. Eventually, hostility and anger between Freedonia and Sylvania escalate, insults are shouted, slaps are traded, and all-out war inevitably breaks out, preceded by one of the most amusing, and wonderfully confusing, musical numbers of all time.
All would be for naught, however, if it weren’t for the absolute dedication from the famous siblings to every single piece of vaudeville, slapstick, word play, or musical comedy. Some jokes register far better than others, but their commitment is unquestionable. To be fair, there isn’t really any effort made to separate the characters from the Brothers’ stage personas, but that’s admittedly part of the overall charm. The meatiest, chewiest, zippiest role falls to Groucho, and his trademark energetic, expeditious delivery makes Firefly an eccentric dictator, one who is frequently ahead of others in witticisms but a tad behind on most other things. Groucho moves snappily through scenes with immense drive and verve, yet with no direct purpose or intent, a performance as free roaming and uncompromising as the film itself. His endless stream of puns and innuendos is so expertly executed, it’s hard to imagine anyone else matching him in his blistering and riotous precision. The primary victim of almost all of his barbs is the great Margaret Dumont as the good-natured yet occasionally dim Mrs. Teasdale, a variation on her archetypical staple in the Brothers’ filmography. Always hapless and hopeless, but usually quite wealthy, Dumont’s characters were frequently the butt of numerous jokes, made all the more memorable by her portrayal of their graceful obliviousness. She’s as essential a piece of the act as all the rest. And Chico and Harpo’s spies are mischievous and delightful, yet bumbling and quite ineffective in their actual employment. Their comedy springs primarily from the hijinks they get up to when they should actually be following orders instead. Less of a wordsmith than Firefly, Chico’s Chicolini is a lovable lower class fool who still has a few wisecracks up his own sleeves, and Harpo’s Pinky is equally as funny without any dialogue at all, providing a true masterclass in silent comedy.
Director Leo McCarey told Cashiers du cinema back in 1967 he really wanted nothing to do with the project, though the Brothers were adamant he direct. McCarey joined the film once more when the Brothers decided to break ties with Paramount, only to be stuck with them once the studio made peace with the comedians. But for all the supposed strife, Groucho credits the film’s strong satirical commentary on war to the director. In fact, many of the film’s most famous comedic moments, particularly the vaudevillian “mirror scene”, as well as the film’s own title, can be attributed to McCarey. The aforementioned sequence is so wonderfully simple, perfectly timed, and impeccably performed, it’s a hallmark of cinema on its own. Featuring Groucho attempting to catch a disguised Harpo off-guard, it quickly reaches absurd heights of hilarity that make you almost question the reality of what you’re watching with each movement. There’s many more well-crafted pieces, including a hat exchange that supposedly influenced a bit in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, a send up of the Hays Code featuring a man and a horse sharing the same bed, and one of the most amusing battle scenes of all time complete with constant inexplicably changing elements, but there’s one that stands above the rest. Once Firefly finally declares war against neighboring Sylvania, the entire room breaks out into perhaps one the wildest and most bizarrely choreographed pieces of musical comedy I’ve ever seen. Like a wacky version of follow-the-leader, all four of the Marx Brothers pull the strings to make hundreds of extras flail about nonsensically to a warped mashup of minstrel show and spiritual, creating the strangest joyful celebration over the prospect of imminent violence and destruction.
As pioneers of the art form in the days of film’s transition from silent to “talky”, the Marx Brothers laid the groundwork for generations of comedians to come with their anarchic, irreverent, unapologetic pure ridiculousness. DUCK SOUP‘s send up of politicians, national conflict, and the absurdity of war is debatably their finest hour, and the best showcase of the length and breadth of their talent and undeniable influence. It’s easy to view as string of multiple singular bits threaded together to somewhat resemble a narrative, but its through-line is never meandering, always whimsical, and its almost impossible to resist the silly, side-splitting, and ludicrous charms it contains. Even more remarkable is the timelessness it achieves, and while some elements certainly date it, the ideas and commentary within still echo loud and clear in our current cultural climate. Thus, the Marx Brothers fall in suit with the greats that came before and those that followed in their wake. They were artists seeking to disrupt and challenge the society and world around them by not only providing us an outlet to laugh, but also one through which we could be shown a reflection of our own absurdity and preposterousness. When dictator Benito Mussolini took the film as a personal insult and banned it in Italy, the Marx Brothers were overjoyed to have made such an impact, though they were frequently dismissive of the film’s significance as a statement. Perhaps that was one of their finest attributes, a lack of self-seriousness that gave them the freedom to poke-fun at whatever, or whomever, they desired. It was always ultimately about getting the laugh, but in their pursuit, they gifted us with so much more.
Re-watch rating: A
(The Re-watch is a series of posts dedicated to revisiting previously viewed films and analyzing the ways they change, alter and sometimes grow upon repeated viewings and further reflection)
(They Shoot Pictures is a series of posts dedicated to viewing films from the yearly updated 1,000 greatest films list “They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?”, compiled from rankings by critics and filmmakers alike at theyshootpictures.com)