Thursday, November 22, 2007

Film Review--Duck Soup (1933)

I’ve been familiar with the Marx Brothers, mostly through Warner Bros’ Looney Toons shorts and Alan Alda in MASH, for a long time. It took their personas for granted, but I’d never actually watched one of their films. In general, I’m not the biggest fan of old comedy, since the jokes are so often contextual and so quickly become outdated. For whatever reason though, I decided to pick up Duck Soup to watch. After watching it, not only did I find it was pretty damn funny, but it had a strong relevance to today and, overall, it’s complete insanity, pure chaos on film.

Duck Soup was one of the first Marx Brothers films not adapted from their stage show so, while it has a full story (sort of), it still comes off somewhat stagey, especially since the majority of the film takes place on two sets. Groucho plays the inexplicably named Rufus T. Firefly. While it’s never really explained whether he’s an ambassador or a businessman, he is installed as the leader of the small nation of Freedonia by a wealthy heiress (played by long-time foil Margaret Dumont) in exchange for her $20 million to rescue the country from debt. He is insulted by the ambassador of the neighboring nation of Sylvania and, as a result, war breaks out in the small, but proudly free, nation (how a supposedly free nation appoints its leaders is beyond me, but so is our predicament….). There are no subplots, and the situation is designed specifically as fodder for the quartet’s jokes and, although I understand that this has the most complete plot of any of their films, there aren’t a lot of twists and turns.

For what they do, simple as the story is, the Marx Brothers are a perfect comic team. Groucho is the slick, scheming Jew, always with an angle and a witty cut; Chico plays the grimy Italian immigrant, full of puns and the worst of the worst of jokes; Harpo plays the mute buffoon with an inexhaustible array of horns and props; Zeppo plays the erudite WASP-y straight man who, without a real character of his own, is in on all the jokes and adds and element that was gone after he left. They had all their bases covered.

The comedy comes fast and loose, with little regard for the story that’s happening around them. The jokes are there for the sake of the jokes, not to help the story and not to develop the characters. What makes it all seem so crazy is that, aside from the brothers themselves, everyone acts as though everything is normal and that the brothers should be acting normally as well, but are flabbergasted each time they find themselves in the same position over and over again. This is done to maximum effect by Margaret Dumont, but all the actors just go about their business as if they are not battling wits with the completely insane. While the whole production is truly insane, there’s not much more chaotic than when the brothers are together in scenes. In one, Harpo is showing Groucho his tattoos. On Harpo’s chest is a doghouse. When Groucho leans in for a closer look, a live dog jumps out of the house to bark at him. In what I think is the funniest scene, the war is almost lost and the brothers are with Dumont in a house, waiting to be destroyed. In a last ditch effort, Groucho gets on the horn to call out to all nations for aid (this, of course, takes only one phone call). He hangs up and yells that help is on the way and, all of a sudden, stock footage of armies racing to their aid. After the infantry units, tanks and battleships, here comes a bunch of marathon runners, then a rowing team, then a herd of elephants, then monkeys crossing a river and on and on and on. It’s bizarre, and Duck Soup is full of some of the most outrageous sequences I’ve ever seen.

Funny as it is though, it was a commercial and critical failure when it was released. In the end, the failure caused them to leave Paramount for MGM, where Zeppo was eliminated entirely and the studio forced romantic subplots and extraneous musical numbers to help with sales. Though these were some of their most commercially successful productions, they are also the most easily forgotten today. Since their comedy didn’t really change before Duck Soup or after, the lack of success can be almost wholly attributed to the content. With America still stinging from the First World War, in the throes of the great depression and watching the rise of fascism in Europe, the public simply wasn’t ready for the sharp-tongued satire of Duck Soup. Innocuous as the comedy might seem today, it is full of pointed, cynical observations of the reasons for and methods of going to war. Especially distasteful to some was the blatant spoofing of the incompetence of nations’ leaders. All of this depth and its current relevance are exactly why it is still so funny today and why it has been revered for so long. It may have nearly destroyed their film careers, but the film cemented the Marx Brothers’ place in film history.