Redefining The Finally Screenings with Duck Soup
During a two-week hiatus from The Finally Screenings, I’ve had a little time to reflect on what this column has accomplished, and where it’s headed. To be honest, I’ve gotten a ton out of writing this every week in addition to the simple pleasure of finally having watched these films. And I’m glad to say it’s what I was expecting to get out of it, and more. As a comedy performer and writer, there’s only so much you can create without knowing whose shoulders you’re standing on — and although I haven’t been operating in a total vacuum, providing context for classic bits and quotes I’ve heard all my life and filling in the gaps in the careers of comedians I admire is satisfying on a number of levels, both personal and professional.
But for better or worse, it would seem that in the last few months I’ve actually tackled most of the looming giants of movies I’ve somehow never seen, and am left with a smaller, less threatening list of films which I’d love to have seen, but don’t demand my immediate attention as movies that only a sheltered, naive comedy hypocrite could have avoided this long. Sure, I probably should have seen Swingers by now, but has anyone shoved me, Elaine-Benes-style, in disbelief about my ignorance of Jon Favreau’s wacky shenanigans? Not really.
That isn’t to say I’ve watched everything, of course — there are still a lot of films on my list, and between you and me I really enjoy writing this column. But rather than making a slow, steady decline into films which are just sort-of classic, I had a thought — what if, in this brave new decade, I shifted the focus of The Finally Screenings to include not just my own comedy blind spots but, dare I say it, those of some readers? To watch movies that, while no one is beating down my door to make me watch them, have some niche in the history of comedic film and deserve a viewing with modern comic and cinematic sensibilities? Old classics, new classics, cult classics. Movies you may not have seen either. To give the “Finally” in the title of this column a new meaning, in a way: finally, I’ve seen the comedies I should have grown up with. Now, finally, I can watch the comedies that will give me more than just a basic foundation to draw from. And maybe it will give some insight into whether you should finally see these films yourself.
So to usher in this idea, I chose a movie that, to me, embodies that philosophy. Very few people I know have insisted I see it — many haven’t seen it either — but it’s considered a classic by any definition: The Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup.
First, an admission — I don’t know too much about the political or historical context in which Duck Soup was released. I understand, of course, that it was the middle of the Great Depression in the US, which doesn’t explain much, but my European-dictatorships-between-WWI-and-WWII history is a little rusty, and I imagine that a lot of what critics today consider biting sociopolitical commentary is lost on me. Even the title (and accompanying opening image) is a complete mystery.
But whether the window of political relevance has passed or I’m just ignorant, I don’t mind that the satirical storyline — or any shred of the plot, for that matter — doesn’t make a lick of sense. The only thing that lasts about Duck Soup — and probably the only thing that mattered at the time — are the jokes.
The clown/straight man bit has been in place since the dawn of yuks, but the brand the Marx Brothers perfected — fast talking wise guys interacting with utterly oblivious, entitled aristocrats — was a staple of Vaudeville and a fitting subversion of the grandiose, presentational quality of Depression-era American film (and, in some sense, Depression-era America). And I don’t think I’ve ever seen that relationship stretched so close to the breaking point than in Duck Soup. The straight men look so confused, so lost, so unprepared for the unrelenting barrage of insults and accents and slapstick, the film takes on a sort of metatheatrical self-awareness. The joke isn’t just on the government officials of Freedonia and Sylvania, it seems to be on the actors playing them. Maybe on the audience, too.
But it’s really funny. Chico and Harpo get the best laughs, I think — partly because they’re less entwined in the thin plot, but mostly because their bits keep changing. Groucho’s bits are largely insult- and innuendo-based, some of which are solid (“Will you marry me? Did he leave you any money? Answer the second question first.”), but the threshold for what’s inappropriate to say in polite company has, to put it mildly, shifted. Chico and Harpo’s brand of comedy, however, isn’t based on ’30s notions of propriety, it’s based on utter pandemonium. Chico gets some great one-liners, from the ones you see coming a mile away (“How would you like a job in the mint?” “Mint? No, no, I no like-a mint. What other flavor you got?”) to the more left-field (“I’ve changed to the other side!” “So you’re on the other side, eh? Well, what are you doing over here?” “Well, the food is better over here.”). Harpo’s bits are hilarious, too, none moreso than his running gag of cutting everything in half with a pair of scissors (funnier in context), adding a small but gleefully destructive streak to his presence in the film.
The three of them lay waste, in a very good way, to a film that wasn’t much to begin with, but, like seeing Harpo frenetically cut Louis Calhern’s hair as soon as he bends over, it’s the madness that justifies the ticket price, not the conceit of storyline or common sense. As Groucho sings about Freedonia, but just as easily applied to the movie itself, “If you think this country’s messed up now, just wait ’til I get through with it.” Normally I’d have a problem with eschewing the other characters or plot in favor of inanity, but 80 years later, when the plot may not have resonated anyway, it seems even more clear now that the Marx Brothers knew exactly what they were getting away with.