Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Classic Tuesdays: Duck Soup (1933)

    Take two turkeys, one goose, four cabbages, but no duck, and mix them together. After one taste, you'll duck soup for the rest of your life (twitches eyebrows, wiggles cigar)…

    We open in the struggling nation of Freedonia, where wealthy widow Mrs. Teasdale threatens to withdraw her financial backing under the current administration. To keep their number one investor happy, the nation elects Ms. Teasdale’s first choice for leader, the fast-talking Rufus T. Firefly. Meanwhile, the rival nation of Sylvania has had their eye on Freedonia for a while, so a Sylvanian ambassador sends the two buffoons Chicolini and Pinky in order to dig up dirt on the new regime.

    And that’s about all the plot they could squeeze out of 1933’s Duck Soup, the last movie featuring all four original Marx Brothers, and the very last the quartet made for Paramount. Of course the plot is fairly unimportant when you have the Marx’s staging of their usual vaudeville gags, and Duck Soup has all their most famous bits: the showdowns between Harpo and the lemonade salesman, the legendary mirror scene, and the gloriously delirious final twenty minutes are all-timers in the comedy lexicon - still as funny today as they were nearly eighty years ago.

    All four brothers are in rare form, here at the peak of their powers. Groucho, the original insult comic, plays Firefly - we first see him in bed, asleep with a cigar in his mouth. He takes the cigar out so he put on his shirt, but its immediately back in his mouth when he’s done. Groucho gets some of his most memorable lines here, such as “Remember, you're fighting for this woman's honor, which is probably more than she ever did,” or “I could dance with you ‘til the cows came home. On second thought, I’d rather dance with the cows ‘til you came home.” Harpo also gets many laughs through his many physical routines. As the only Marx who didn’t speak(and therefore was able to breathe at the rate of a normal human being), Harpo generally got the best bits - such as the oft-imitated mirror scene, where he dresses up like Groucho and follows his movements exactly, fooling Groucho into thinking he’s looking into a mirror. Chico also gets many chances to shine, as the scene where he and Harpo fool the lemonade salesman and burn his hat in their peanut-roaster. This was also the last movie Zeppo did with his brothers, afterwards retiring and becoming a rather successful agent in Hollywood. The eternal straight-man, it’s easy to see why Zeppo opted out of future offerings, as here he gets a rather inconsequential role as Firefly’s assistant, Lt. Bob Roland. Audiences not as familiar with the Marx Brothers might be confused when this random character joins the other three Marx’s for the final song and dance number, so minor is Zeppo’s part. 

    The other players fare well against the Marx’s, particularly long-time collaborator Margaret Dumont as the widow Teasdale, who Firefly constantly woos to get at her dead husband’s fortune. Louis Calhern provides a suitable villain as the Sylvanian ambassador Trentino, and Raquel Torres vamps it up as his femme fatale Vera Marcal - both actors setting up jokes like bowling pins for Groucho to knock down.

    Much has been written about Duck Soup as political satire, but I didn’t find any of it to be particularly biting. It’s definitely nowhere near the league of movies it’s often compared with, like The Great Dictator or Dr. Strangelove. Which is for the better, at least where this movie is concerned. The Marx’s were anything but subtle, and any serious attempt at political satire would just slow the movie (and more importantly, the gags) down - the movie’s funnier without it. There is however an almost anarchic glee found within, particularly in the final battle sequence, where with each cut Groucho wears a different uniform (Confederate general, Boy Scout leader, Davy Crockett, etc.)  - there’s a nice, (not-so) subtle hint that all wars are essentially the same. For the final battle, all connection to anything remotely resembling a narrative is done away with: a curtain draws in on the screen, and back out again, completely severing the already loose ties the film had to reality - signaling the audience that the following would be absolute, madcap absurdity.

    In Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters, after Allen’s character Mickey unsuccessfully attempts to commit suicide, he stumbles upon the last musical number in Duck Soup. Watching the film, he figures out for himself that life is meant to be enjoyed, not understood, and decides that maybe it’s worth living after all. I can’t attest to the film as suicide prevention, but watching the Marx Brothers do their thing is certainly life-affirming enough.

    * There was talk of editing out some racially-insensitive material when the movie was released on DVD, but fortunately that never happened. I say fortunately because A. Art should never be tampered with and B. It’s a white-washing of history. We can’t go back and only remember what we want - we have to take the good with the bad. Furthermore, if we forget the mistakes of the past, we risk forgetting what they were in the first place and reliving them all over again.

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