August 4, 2010

#60: Duck Soup

Duck Soup is the second of two films on this list by the great comedy team of The Marx Brothers (the other being A Night at the Opera, which premiered two years after this), and the last one that featured all four brothers including Zeppo. I have very fond memories of this film: my dad was a big Marx Brothers fan and I remember watching this and Horse Feathers on VHS long before I was old enough to understand the jokes or appreciate the physical comedy. I barely remembered any of this, but the cadence of the dialogue seemed familiar to me in a way that could only have resulted from having watched it long ago, the way you remember a particular lick of a song you haven't heard in years. It was fascinating.

Company: alone again. I told myself I would try to get company for this second Marx film, but I failed. Woops. Luckily it's only 68 minutes so it wouldn't be hard to entice even an antsy movie lover.

Cuisine: Diet Cherry Coke. Thanks, roomie, for introducing me to this wonder drink.

The clock on the wall has struck ten.

Freedonia is on the brink of war and bankruptcy, and the only person suitable for the presidency, according to the wealthy socialite widow Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont, a dead ringer for my mom) is Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx). When he shows up looking like this ...

... we know ... well, we just know. Dumont is in top form here, rolling every 'r' with maximum haughtiness and delighting in the role she's played in six other Marx films: the comic foil to Groucho.

Mrs. Teasdale: Oh, your excellency.
Rufus T. Firefly: You're not so bad yourself.

I'm sorry, but that is just genius. ("Oh, you're excellent, see...")

Teasdale, whose position as "chairwoman of the reception committee" hardly seems important enough for how much power she really has in Freedonia, instates Firefly as president, but he admits, in song: "If you think the country's bad off now, just wait til I get through with it!"

Meanwhile, this is happening.

Chico and Harpo play Chicolini and Pinky, two spies hired by the enemy to spy on Firefly and collect information, but mostly they goof on this portly street merchant with poor hygiene. Whoever thought of putting your leg in someone's hand? I can't stop laughing at that. This is amazingly orchestrated physical comedy that you just don't see anymore. Over seventy-five years later and it's still funny; can the same be said for anything being made now?

As in A Night at the Opera, Duck Soup's plot serves as a simple outline from which the Brothers Marx hop from sketch to sketch. The victim in that film was the world of opera; similarly, the Marxes take on the politics of war, comparing nationalism to minstrelsy and mocking the ease with which huge decisions are made.

The famous mirror sketch.

What was most striking to me in this endlessly copied bit where two guys mirror movements was the moment where the one testing the mirror (Groucho) realizes that it's another person and not a mirror. Not only does this not alarm him in the slightest, but he continues with the game as though it's real. Stepping outside their brand of humor and creating a metanarrative, the Marxes acknowledge fully the the silliness and arbitrariness of what they're bringing to the screen and placing it in the same context as an international war.

"He may talk like an idiot and look like an idiot, but don't let that fool you. He really is an idiot."

The Marx Brothers aren't the only idiots in the film. Or maybe they are and it's just that their idiocy has infected the population by the time war strikes (or is entered into because of an elaborate misunderstanding). The musical number pictured above is just ridiculous, but perfectly illustrates the unflailingly nationalistic mentality the comedians were attempting to lampoon. The more over the top they go, the more spot on they seem to be. That's where this film succeeds above all of their other films, and what makes it their most enduring masterpiece.

Right to the very last second of this joyfully short 68-minute dumbshow, they don't miss a beat and they never let a joke slide by. They practically invite you to forget revenge on the foreign leader with them and hurl fruit at the warbling Mrs. Teasdale.

Ha HA!

Next up: summertime nostalgia from the 70's (anything more romantic?) in Robert Altman's ode to country, Nashville.

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