Blog Directory CineVerse: The Soup to nuts breakdown of a Marx Brothers masterpiece

The Soup to nuts breakdown of a Marx Brothers masterpiece

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Duck Soup is deserving of high praise 90 years later because it’s pure Marx Brothers, start to finish, without any tacked-on song-and-dance numbers, boring romantic storylines, sentimentalism, or reliance on plot that often bogged down many of their later movies. It’s a wall-to-wall machine of comedic efficiency and absurdist perfection.

Crammed to the brim with verbal humor, slapstick, satire, and anarchic amusement over a mere 68 minutes, Duck Soup is the purest distillation of Marxist humor on film and is still regarded as one of the downright funniest flicks ever created. Declaring which Marx Brothers movie is the best is a very subjective exercise, but arguably this picture is more densely layered with jokes, gags, and witticisms than Horse Feathers, A Night at the Opera, Monkey Business, Animal Crackers, or any other contender for the crown. 

It contains probably the most well-remembered Marx bit ever in the mirror sequence, among the best running gags in Marxian cinema with the “his excellency’s car” routine, superbly delivered one-liners from Groucho, a wonderful two-part pantomime diversion involving skirmishes with a lemonade vendor, some of the very best malaprops from Chico and some of the finest props period from Harpo—who carries on his person at any given time a mousetrap, blow torch, phonograph record, scissors, multiple squeeze bulb horns, and various body tattoos—and a handful of the greatest songs in the brothers’ filmography, including the Just Wait til I get through with it number and The Country’s Goin’ to War song, which, according to USC film professor Drew Casper “uses every musical style that was known at this time…from Gilbert and Sullivan to operetta, you move into jazz, you move into negro spirituals, you move into square dancing, bebop—it is amazing.”

Click here to listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion on Duck Soup, conducted last week. To hear the latest Cineversary podcast episode spotlighting Duck Soup, click here.

Duck Soup is the product of meticulous craftsmanship, featuring fine-tuned humorous personalities at the heights of their powers, impeccable comedic timing, and undeniable multi-faceted talents embodied in each Groucho, Chico, and Harpo.

These characters are indelibly etched into our pop culture consciousness and remain timeless. This is possibly Groucho’s most memorable persona in Rufus T. Firefly, whose verbal jousting and brilliantly risqué and fourth-wall-breaking wisecracks linger long after the credits roll. And, as minimal as his part is—also his last film role ever—this is debatably Zeppo’s best turn in a Marx Brothers motion picture.

Actually, this was the final of the brothers’ pictures to include all four siblings and the only one in their filmography where the foursome performed together musically.

Turner Classic Movies wrote on its website: “Duck Soup is a crucial chapter in the Marx Brothers' oeuvre because it marked the best and last opportunity for them to be at their most outrageous. But more than them running amok in front of the camera (and they had plenty of experience being let loose in front of an audience in vaudeville and Broadway), the Marx Brothers made a comedy that was cinematic. Their comedy avoided the stagey aspects of their early pictures like Animal Crackers (1930). The Duck Soup plot was absurd, but it was not so ridiculous that you didn't care what was going to happen to the characters.”

Many credit the Marx Brothers, and partially this film, with helping to set a more modern relentless comedic pace and ushering in a new era of absurdist cinema, which is characterized by extremely silly and wildly irrational plots and characters who don’t necessarily follow logical reasoning. Its rapid-fire cut-and-paste style editing toward the end—best exemplified when stock footage shots depict fire engines, motorcyclists, runners, rowers, divers, monkeys, elephants, and dolphins rushing to aid Firefly—helps Duck Soup feel like a funny flick far ahead of its time.

According to Roger Ebert: “Although they were not taken as seriously, they were as surrealist as Dali, as shocking as Stravinsky, as verbally outrageous as Gertrude Stein, as alienated as Kafka. Because they worked the genres of slapstick and screwball, they did not get the same kind of attention, but their effect on the popular mind was probably more influential…(Duck Soup) has moments that seem startlingly modern, as when Groucho calls for help during the closing battle sequence, and the response is stock footage edited together out of newsreel shots of fire engines, elephants, motorcycles, you name it. There is an odd moment when Harpo shows Groucho a doghouse tattooed on his stomach, and in a special effect a real dog emerges and barks at him. The brothers broke the classical structure of movie comedy and glued it back again haphazardly, and nothing was ever the same.”

This film benefits greatly from ahead-of-their-time absurdity: Consider how zany, unpredictable, contextually rebellious and disrespectful, and visually inventive many of their films and individual scenes are. The Marx Brothers, best represented in Duck Soup, deserve credit for helping inspire several generations of comedians and filmmakers and new styles of comedy in their wake, including the classic Looney Tunes animation style showcasing absurd and sometimes surreal humor in cartoons featuring Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and others; Monty Python-esque humor that veers into surrealist/illogical territory; visual cut-and-paste-style comical montage: think of the stock footage-sourced rampaging elephants and animals intercut with the war scenes in Duck Soup; daring political satire, from Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator to Sasha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator; comedy that isn’t afraid to break the fourth wall and defy the traditional structure of film comedy—such as talking to the audience and a doghouse tattoo that reveals a live-action dog; Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, another war comedy and political farce that employs irony and verbal humor in similar ways; The Beatles’ brand of silly, cheeky comedy; they credited Duck Soup as an inspiration for their movie Help!; the films of Woody Allen, particularly Bananas and Hannah and Her Sisters – the latter of which features a scene in which a character abandons thoughts of suicide after watching Duck Soup; modern comedy sketches, TV shows, and films that dare to break the rules without the Marxes.

Contemporary comedy director Judd Apatow revealed: “The first movie that had an impact on me as a person interested in comedy was Duck Soup. I was a fanatical Marx Brothers fan as a 10-year-old. It might have been because I loved their rebellion - it seemed like they were flipping the bird to everyone.”

Ponder, too, how the famous mirror sequence has been copied and reimagined multiple times in cartoons featuring Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, the pink panther, Tom and Jerry, Garfield, and Family Guy, and in an episode of I Love Lucy costarring Harpo.

Per Deep Focus Review critic Brian Eggert, “Much about the Marx Brothers and Duck Soup in particular flies in the face of conventions, both in the 1930s and today. The sheer relentlessness of the humor leaves nothing to gloss over, no perfect moment to get a snack or use the restroom. There’s barely time enough to laugh and hear the next joke. It operates at three hundred miles an hour, and it does not slow down until the end credits. Most of their films have a few moments of greatness and a few scenes the viewer could do without, but most of the fat has been trimmed from Duck Soup… It respects the audience enough not to (slow down) and assumes we’re smart enough to keep up…Duck Soup might be the only Marx Brothers film that feels completely in tune with their brand of humor, which, then and now, is downright radical.”

The movie can also be seen as eerily prescient and predictive. Ponder how Firefly fashions himself as a fascist dictator in a film shot just months before Hitler came to power. Eggert noted that, “When Firefly kills his own men and then tries to cover it up, he does so two years before Humphrey Cobb wrote his book Paths of Glory, a real-life account of a French general who did the same thing during the First World War. When Firefly sings, The last man nearly ruined this place/He didn’t know what to do with it/If you think this country’s bad off now/Just wait ‘til I get through with it, try not to think of someone like Hitler or Donald Trump. Mussolini even banned Duck Soup in Italy after a twinge of recognition. To be sure, the film, either through intentional or coincidental circumstance, underlines a historical pattern of insane people taking over bankrupt nations.”

Duck Soup was likely controversial in 1933. It is, after all, bold, brash, insolent, cynical, irreverent, and unafraid of inciting controversy or offending audiences. Consider that Hitler and Mussolini had recently risen to power, yet the film skewers their fascist tendencies over the coals. It mocks warmongers and the absurdity of war. It ridicules jingoism and patriotism, even labeling soldier volunteers as suckers. The film parodies government bureaucracy, subtly poking fun at Roosevelt’s cabinet and initiatives during the Great Depression. It flips a middle finger to the Hays Code and expected film censorship standards of the time; you couldn’t show a man and woman in the same bed together, but Duck Soup has Harpo in bed with a horse. Duck Soup also pushed the envelope with risqué material, including double entendres, sexual put-downs, and a sinfully showcased Raquel Torres in her low-cut dresses.

Film critic Leonard Maltin wrote: “Many right-thinkers laugh themselves silly in 1933 – but a large number didn’t…The unrelieved assault of Marxian comedy was simply too much for some people.”

What is it about the Marx Brothers individually and as a collective that works so well? Groucho’s talent toolbox included a razor-sharp verbal wit, a curmudgeonly demeanor, expressive eyes and eyebrows, a ludicrous greasepaint mustache, a stooped gait and rubbery body language, a short stature, surprising guitar-playing savvy, and a self-deprecating off-key singing voice. Chico’s gifts consisted of a deliberately over-the-top Italian accent, pun-dominated exchanges, a quirky pistol-fingered piano performing style, playing the straight man when paired with Harpo, and unfailing ability to exasperate Groucho. Harpo’s forte included mastery of clownish physical and nonverbal comedy, pantomime primacy, the use of humorous props, a crowd-pleasing childlike charm and innocence, sublime harp-playing that instantly transformed him into a sensitive and loveable character, and a now terribly dated hankering for chasing and taking physical liberties with women.

Their blend of comedy, which synthesizes the finest funny elements from vaudeville, silent movies, and radio, was anarchistic, silly, satirical, absurd, irreverent, and improvisational. Duck Soup, like all Marx Brothers films, incorporates a variety of styles, such as slapstick—a boisterous form of comedy marked by chases, collisions, and crude practical jokes; sight gags—a comic bit or effect that depends on sight rather than words; verbal jousting that includes puns, insults, nonsensical arguments, quips, epigrams, and double entendres; running gags that we return to throughout the course of a Marx film; satire in the form of irony, sarcasm, or caustic wit used to attack or expose folly, vice, self-importance, and stupidity; consider how their comedy lampoons institutions like the government and military, authority figures, upper-crust snobs, dictators, and film censorship itself; and comedic songs.

Theirs is a team-based comedy in which each brother has a unique comedic styling and talent set that works well together or separately; unlike Abbott and Costello, the Three Stooges, or Laurel and Hardy, Groucho, Chico, and Harpo don’t always have to be in the same scene together; each can work solo scenes to outstanding results.

Director Leo McCarey was an essential element responsible for making this picture a cut above. His filmography includes an impressive variety of comedies and melodramas, including The Awful Truth, Make Way For Tomorrow, Love Affair, Going My Way, The Bells of St. Mary’s, and An Affair to Remember. While McCarey’s biggest job may have been to simply get out of the brothers’ way and let them shine, he did make key contributions to Duck Soup, including inserting the famous mirror sequence and largely improvisational lemonade stand scenes into the picture and coming up with the title, which was a colloquialism at the time that meant anything easy, simple, or easily duped, including a country that would put Firefly in charge. This filmmaker also helps transform Duck Soup into a lean, mean movie machine pace-wise by trimming out excess musical numbers and employing quicker cutting, especially during the combat sequences near the end.

As with any old film, some aspects of Duck Soup hold up better than anticipated nine decades onward, while other elements are more problematic. As an absurdist film with timeless comedy bits and an anti-war message at heart, Duck Soup transcends any era. However, there are some wince-worthy archaic artifacts, including Harpo’s sexually aggressive physicality toward women, Chico’s ethnic stereotyping, and the line “that’s why darkies were born” (which, in all fairness, was the title of a popular song at the time that Groucho was referencing).

As passe as it can sometimes be for a picture of 90-year vintage, Duck Soup remains refreshingly contemporary in its irreverent attitude and radical style—one in which structure is created from, ironically, chaos, anarchy, and nonconformity. It’s a work that dares you not to laugh or at least crack a smile, even if you’re a sourpuss scoffer or strict adherent of current-day pop culture. Groucho’s merciless putdowns still land, Chico’s preposterous word salad squabbles continue to delight, and Harpo’s impish demeanor and mimetic slapstick don’t date—for the most part, anyway—if you surrender yourself to the mirthful magic of the Marxes and appreciate how influential they’ve been to comedy across all media in the 20th and 21st century. The best present Duck Soup can give is to remind us how classic comedy can transcend time, endlessly entertain, and motivate new generations of comedians and filmmakers to look to the past for future funnybone inspirations.

Duck Soup’s second greatest gift is its mirror scene, an all-time tour de force of film clownery that spans a mere 167 seconds but which has been continually mirrored in its own way by imitators and admirers for nearly a century. This bit taught me long ago that some comedic moments are on a higher plane than others: certain scenes, jokes, or images are so powerful that they can make your stomach sore from over-laughing, cause you to literally lose your breath, and moisten the corners of your eyes by being the complete opposite of sad. And it’s all the more impressive to learn that the mirror scene – which relies on perfect comedic timing – only took two hours to shoot.

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