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Duck Soup (1933)
When you’re running a country, you’re obviously
The big man in charge, so how hard can it be?
You need not read up on its customs and laws;
Your gaffes you can write off as national flaws.
You don’t need experience, not anymore;
You’ll hire advisors and aides to ignore.
The perks are sublime; you can’t be extradited.
You’ll crash every party where you weren’t invited,
And when you find someone you’re eager to hit,
You can and then argue that he started it.
Just get rid of guillotines, rifles, and pikes,
And one can stay king for as long as one likes.
MPAA rating: Not Rated (as good as G)
I’ve had little exposure to the short but widely loved films of classic comedians, people like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and the Marx Brothers. (I’m mainly familiar with Groucho’s mannerisms thanks to Alan Alda’s impressions on M*A*S*H.) In trying to rectify that, I caught, held, watched, and released Duck Soup, one of the Marxes’ most esteemed farces, the comedy of which holds up remarkably well even 83 years later.
All four of the Marx Brothers are present. Groucho is Rufus T. Firefly, the newly appointed ruler of Freedonia. Chico and the silent clown Harpo are two spies sent by a foreign ambassador to dig up dirt on Firefly, while Zeppo plays Firefly’s secretary, the closest one to acting sane. In the political world of diplomacy and governance, the brothers seem distinctly out of place, as if they’re in an entirely different movie world from their more serious co-stars. For instance, there’s no explanation for why the wealthy widow Teasdale insisted on Firefly becoming the nation’s leader, and she seems blithely oblivious every time he teases or insults her.
The plot is all over the place, mainly concerned with the rivalry of Firefly and the Sylvanian ambassador escalating toward war. Though interpreted as a send-up of fascist dictators (the film was banned by Mussolini, much to the Marx Brothers’ delight), it’s much easier to just enjoy the rapid-fire jokes than read a political message into it.
There are lulls in the laughter, but the brothers seem to have an endless supply of wry one-liners, non sequiturs, twisty wordplay, unorthodox conversation, and seamless slapstick. From Harpo’s obsession with snipping to the Stooge-like confrontations with a lemonade vendor, many of the gags get funnier with repetition. There are also a fair number of scenes that, while not all original themselves, seem to have influenced comedy to come: the mirror scene where Harpo dressed as Groucho pretends he’s a reflection as he mimics his every move, lighting a cigar in a room full of explosives, Harpo desperately destroying a radio to shut it up, a musical number where the Marxes perform ever sillier dance moves which their entourage imitate. Even a shot of a horse in someone’s bed brought to mind that Godfather scene, though that may be a stretch on my part.
As one of my first forays into old, old comedy, the 68-minute Duck Soup is a delightfully silly trifle that manages to be far funnier than most modern-day comedies. While some humor loses its charm over time (I’m looking at you, Shakespeare), Duck Soup is still timeless fun.
Best lines (I can’t pick just one):
(Firefly, into the radio) “Rush to Freedonia. Three men and one woman are trapped in a building. Send help at once. If you can’t send help, send two more women…. [after a gesture from Harpo] Make it three more women.”
(one of Firefly’s ministers) “Sir, you try my patience.” (Firefly) “I don’t mind if I do. You must come over and try mine sometime.”
(Firefly) “Gentlemen, Chicolini here may talk like an idiot and look like an idiot, but don’t let that fool you. He really is an idiot.”
© 2016 S. G. Liput
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