by Allan Fish
(USA 1933 68m) DVD1/2
Hail Freedonia, Hail Groucho!
p Herman J.Mankiewicz d Leo McCarey w Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, Arthur Sheekman, Nat Perrin ph Henry Sharp ed LeRoy Stone m/ly Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby art Hans Dreier, Wiard B.Ihnen
Groucho Marx (Rufus T.Firefly), Harpo Marx (Brownie), Chico Marx (Chicolini), Zeppo Marx (Bob Rolland), Margaret Dumont (Mrs Teasdale), Louis Calhern (Ambassador Trentino), Raquel Torres (Vera Marcal), Edgar Kennedy (Lemonade stall man), Leonid Kinskey (Agitator),
Just like the contemporary W.C.Fields, the Marx Brothers have been the subjects of a modern day cult, in no small way down to the championing and homages of Woody Allen in the seventies, and Duck Soup is their greatest film. However, the film was originally a failure and caused them to leave Paramount, where they had done much of their best work, and go elsewhere.
The Marxes had first come to the screen in two adaptations of their stage shows, The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers. Their next original features, Monkey Business and Horse Feathers, dropped the long suffering Dumont in favour of the sexy Thelma Todd, who added real glamour but then left to partner Laurel and Hardy. These were all popular, but Duck Soup was not just the typical mix of Marxian insanity for insanity’s sake. Marx Brothers comedies of this age are almost surreal in their gags, not just funny, and Duck Soup is no different. Its reasons for failure have been well documented in divers books, but it must also be borne in mind that it wasn’t just a comedy as, whether deliberately or not (probably not), it was also a razor sharp satire of not only war but of financial deficits and borrowing. Satire is generally not received well by your average audience. Most modern audiences, for example, would rather have American Pie than a dozen Elections. Or maybe it might have simply been because Harpo never played his harp. Who knows?
Duck Soup follows the fortunes of two neighbouring postage stamp countries, Freedonia (“land of the free and brave” goes its national anthem) and Sylvania. The rich widow whose fortunes finance Freedonia is sick of financing the government’s schemes to stay afloat and insists that the radical Rufus T.Firelfy is put in charge, whose insane policies and attitudes bring them to war with their neighbour.
The gags come so fast, you find yourself laughing so hard at one you miss the next two. This was the last film that Zeppo appeared in and, though he is better here that he was in their earlier efforts, he still seems out of place (though not as much as Allan Jones and Tony Martin at MGM). Chico and Harpo, who are sometimes now accused of being unfunny, are at the peak of their powers, be it in the legendary infuriation of the lemonade stall scene with poor Edgar Kennedy or lighting a cigar with a blowtorch or trying to turn off a radio with a cocktail maker. But the real star of the show is Groucho, who is at his wisecracking best. For anyone wishing to understand his genius of timing, just watch the scene where he is greeted by Dumont on arrival. The banter has become legendary; “not that I care, but where is your husband? – why, he’s dead. – I’ll bet he’s just using that as an excuse. – I was with him to the very end. – no wonder he passed away. – I held him in my arms and kissed him. – I see, then it was murder.” Or when told by Zeppo that Louis Calhern “is trying to undermine you, what are you going to do? – I’ve a good mind to ring his doorbell and run.” Or proclaiming “I’ll see my lawyer about this as soon as he graduates from law school.” But his finest hour is one of the few that involved all the brothers equally, the genius of the mirror sequence. (If it was stolen partly from Max Linder’s silent short, Seven Years Bad Luck, it was refined to perfection here.) It is truly one of the greatest pieces of physical comedy and it was actually paid homage to recently in The Cat’s Meow in which Eddie Izzard as Chaplin and the delightful Kirsten Dunst as Marion Davies acted out a sketch of a man noticing his own reflection. It was beautifully done, but the Marxes original, like the film, is timeless.