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Duck Soup (1933)

by on 2011/04/02

“Run out and find me a four year old child.
I can’t make head or tail of it.”

* * *

I’m a fervent worshipper of Monty Python, a moderate fan of Mike Myers and the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker team, and a fledgling investigator of Woody Allen. All of them are noted enthusiasts influenced by the Marx Brothers’ work. In fact, you can hardly survey history’s greatest comedies and not find their movies vying for attention. The most common example cited seems to be Duck Soup.

I remember fondly the Brothers’ later feature, A Night at the Opera, but this one occupies another tier entirely, both popular and critically acclaimed. Why the universal high regard? Is it the exemplar of a form, or a placeholder for nostalgia? Is it a comedy, sociopolitical satire, or the benefactor of cinematic attrition?

These questions made their way to my notes as I sat through a recent screening. I caught myself watching with a mind to placing the effort in context, never really entertained, and searching for a reason as to why not.

Groucho Marx plays Rufus T. Firefly, the leader of a country called Freedonia. He and the representative of Sylvania, Trentino (Asphalt Jungle’s Leo Calhern), become rivals, politically, and romantically. The object of their affection is wealthy widow Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont). To gather information, and thwart Firefly, Trentino employs two ineffectual spies (Chico Marx and Harpo Marx).

The story, such as it is, serves as a loose framework from which to hang a clutch of vignettes, slightly connected bits, with an occasional musical number. Although I didn’t care for most of what I experienced, I’d like to point out what I most enjoyed:

  • the doghouse tattoo gag,
  • the trial scene,
  • the bombs passing through headquarters.

Many write-ups praise the mirror scene, where two characters on opposite sides of a frame mimic each other’s movements. My pick would instead be the courtroom, when Chicolini was put on trial. While the mirror bit is fun, to be sure, it’s definitely not my favourite. Duck Soup wasn’t the first to do that trick and neither is it the best. (Perhaps unsurprisingly it made me long to see Terminator 2: Judgment Day.)

Elsewhere, Chico’s silly voices were off-putting, but it was Harpo who tipped me into intolerance. His relentless scissoring of any prop in his grasp was laborious from the start. Add in his mute clowning, face-pulling, gluing, honking, painting, spraying, and pyromania. Let’s just call his entire schtick my recipe for fail.

I suppose it’s down to one’s preferences. I’m simply not the audience for humour fitting the following adjectives: absurd, anarchic, goofy, screwball, slapstick, wacky, or zany. By the end of its running time, the devolution into stock footage and manic chaotics had me flashing back — or forward, rather — to 1966’s Casino Royale, a circus gone terribly wrong.

I wrote in my notes how Duck Soup appeared to be a playground game, theatrically produced. What had happened to the “me” raised on Looney Tunes and Gilligan’s Island . . . age, evolution, or exposure to other films? However deep inside that child is buried, the Marx Brothers couldn’t dig him out for trying.

I shouldn’t have had to think about the comedy, and I certainly didn’t feel it. More than barbed, I observed the humour often felt mean-spirited. It was like the product of those people who, as children, might have shouted “Scrambles!” or “Fight!” or clapped when something was dropped on the floor.

The occasional wordplay was more up my alley and yet, even here, it’s often shoehorned in for its own sake, not used as a clever sidebar to the main line. I imagined I was experiencing the Vaudeville equivalent of a Seussian verse. (And let’s not get me started on Dr. Seuss.) Groucho’s delivery worked best for me, with his spontaneity and fourth-wall-breaking. Setting his sniping against Chico’s scattershooting in the courtroom succeeded best.

Otherwise, despite a duration of mere minutes over an hour, it all dragged on too long. I thought of George Martin’s criticism of The Beatles’ White Album, how he believes it needed further distillation. I felt the same about this attempt. One may argue all of the existing scenes are necessary, functioning as satire. Still, that rationale is hardly a comfort to me.

If entertainment doesn’t entertain because it’s too busy Being Artistic, or satirizing a now-bygone era, then I’d consider it a failure of sorts. The Marx Brothers’ humour didn’t reach me here. “Madcap mayhem” only sounds good in theory. In practice it’s just overwrought and tiresome. Duck Soup demanded both too much and too little, and thus never satisfied me.

* * *

Rated G

69 minutes

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