Friday, May 24, 2013

CANON OF FILM: "DUCK SOUP"

DUCK SOUP (1933)

Director: Leo McCarey
Screenplay: Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby (Story) with additional dialogue by Nat Perrin and Arthur Sheekman



To paraphrase, George Carlin once said that the Marx Brothers were the first time he saw pure anarchy on film. Never have they been more anarchistic than in "Duck Soup". There's several of their movies that you can easily pick from them, especially their early ones, but "Duck Soup", is pretty much the one that you have to watch to get a good basic sense of everything the Marx Brothers represented, although to see all of their work is to see the roots of American comedy as we know it. They were the first true comedy film superstars of the talky era, and they took full advantage of it. Old vaudevillians whose Jewish humor, included practically every form of comedy, you can imagine. Groucho's quick-wit sarcastic comments, always looking for loops in conversation and innuendo-filled puns, while breaking the fourth wall (and every other wall at that), Chico's character work, playing the schemer, the Italian persona, playing with stereotype and character, even mime, with Harpo, who refused to speak back on the vaudeville stage, and became a master of props and music, sight gags,-, there is almost literally nothing in comedy that doesn't have a link to the Marx Brothers. The Rat Pack, "Saturday Night Live", Mel Brooks, the Farrelly Brothers, Richard Pryor, Andy Kaufman, "Monty Python", "South Park",...- you name it, you can trace it back to the Marx Brothers. I can spend days just looking up Groucho's greatest lines. My favorite's "Hello, room service, send up a larger room," which is from "A Night at the Opera". "Duck Soup" is considered their best and more important work, for a number of reasons. It's the last film to have four Marx Brothers, with Brother Zeppo retiring from performing to become their agent, and also work as an engineer. (Gummo Marx, left the act years earlier to fight in WWI) Also, this was their last film for Paramount Studios, who dumped them after "Duck Soup" wasn't as big a hit, as their previous film "Horse Feathers", and MGM decided to make sure their movies had more straightforward and defined plots, as well as legitimate musical numbers and even minor romantic interludes in them fearing that audiences couldn't take too much of the Marx Brothers. So some of the other films are entertaining, like "A Night at the Opera" which was beloved enough, despite those breaks between the comedy sketches to make AFI's latest 100 Greatest Movies, they're better if you have a fast-forward button so you can skip to the good parts. What a waste of film to have to sit through an unromantic-romantic material with people like Kitty Karlisle when you could have an extra half-hour of excellent comedy.

“Duck Soup,” is also their most ambitious film. This movie, on top of being a bunch of ridiculous scenes based around getting laughs, is also a great early example of political satire. The story, which like all Marx Brothers movies really doesn’t matter, but anyway, Groucho, playing Rufus T. Firefly, gets appointed Dictator of Fredonia after Mrs. Gloria Teasdale (Margaret Rutherford), the rich widow, who basically buys out the country from bankruptcy. Harpo and Chico play spies for the neighboring country of “Sylvania,” spying on Groucho, kind of. One of the best scenes is one where Harpo and Chico torture a lemonade salesman by continually switching each others hats with the poor guy. Eventually, Fredonia and Sylvania go to war over something, whatever, and the war scenes are hilarious, notice how Groucho’s outfit changes continually during the war scenes to represent the insanity of war. Like I said, the satire might be sharp, but nobody care if it wasn't funny, and the real treat of "Duck Soup", is wonderful joyous, continuous laughter from beginning to end.

Well, I’ve purposely backed myself into a corner here, so I can finish this paper with one of my favorite pastimes, quoting Groucho Marx lines: 

“Married. I can see you right now in the kitchen, bending over a hot stove. But I can’t see the stove.”

“Remember, you’re fighting for this woman’s honor, which is probably more that she ever did.”

“…Clear? Huh. Why a four-year old child could understand this report…. Run out and find me a four-year-old child, I can’t make head or tail or it.”


“Well, that covers a lot ground. Say, you cover a lot of ground yourself. You better beat it – I hear they’re going to tear you down and put up an office building where you’re standing…”

"You're a brave man. Go and break through the lines. And remember, while you're out there, risking life and limb through shot and shell, we'll be in here, thinking what a sucker you are."

"I could dance with you 'til the cows come home. On second, I'd rather dance with the cows 'til you come home." 

"Three men and one woman trapped in a building! Send help at once! If you can't send help, send two more women!" 



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