As I grew up, my dad introduced me to three main comedy acts from the past: The Three Stooges, Benny Hill and The Marx Brothers. The Stooges had me nyuck-nyucking and blocking shots at my eyes in record time. Benny Hill became a natural stepping stone to Monty Python. Somehow, I didn’t warm up to The Marx Brothers right away, but seem to have grown into them.
Leo McCarey’s Duck Soup was the first encounter with The Marx Brothers that I remember; I couldn’t have been more than seven. I’m sure I had seen Groucho impressions, complete with fake mustaches and imaginary cigars many times before this, as there was an immediate recognition with the character. But there was another level of recognition missing unless high energy antics were on screen, this idea of Freedonia was lost on me.
In Duck Soup, Freedonia is a bankrupt country, so the lovely Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) appoints Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) as their new president. His entrance is perfectly silly, with a song and dance number about how he will run the country to match. Neighboring Sylvania sends spies Chicolinki (Chico Marx) and Pinky (Harpo Marx) follow Firefly. Between Fireflies antics attempting to win Teasdale’s love, and continually insulting Trentino (Louis Calhern) of Sylvania, he is far from an involved president. Soon war between Freedonia and Sylvania erupts, but hilarity still ensues.
With all the satire laced through Duck Soup, it grows on me more with each viewing. The fact that The Marx Brothers made a film filled with such silly cynicism toward government and war during the era of both the great depression and Hitler’s rise was very bold. There are scenes poking fun at smaller government leaders and how government and diplomacy can be handled so absurdly. Chico’s trial scene depicts a broken legal system. And the fact the war is started over an insult, Trentino calling Firefly an “upstart,” illustrates how petty and meaningless war can be.
If you’re worried about being bogged down in political satire, do not worry, it is all very light and there is plenty more simple fun with no hidden agenda. In fact, this is where some of my favorite scenes that keep me laughing the most come from. Harpo’s goofy fight with the man selling lemonade makes me lose control by the end. And the mirror scene, even though it is completely silent, always captivates and throws me into a fit of happy giggles.
I would recommend Duck Soup for all ages. Kids will get a kick out of Chico’s fast talking, Harpo’s silent mischief and the plethora of physical comedy. The older kids may even catch themselves catching onto some of Groucho’s quick and zany lines. And adults will find more hidden meaning in the history and themes of the film, while still cracking up at the same jokes kids will.
“I could dance with you until the cows come home. On second thought, I’d rather dance with the cows till you come home.”
Good choice. I like how you went into the different levels of comedy here.
Thanks Ian, I’ve always felt that The Marx Brothers had a wider dimension of comedy than many other acts of their time.
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The “mirror” scene is comic genius. It does not age – it’s as funny now as it was then. That’s how good comedy should be. Timeless.
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