DUCK SOUP (1933) revisited

 Greetings again from the darkness. This Marx Brothers classic was selected to kickoff the Comedy Series presented by The Dallas Morning News and Dallas Film Society.  To demonstrate to my buddy Robert just how far he has come in life, I invited him to join me.  He seemed pleased that we didn’t have to manually push the car to jump start it and that no Auto-Bomb exploded on ignition (two of his memories associated with previous Marx Bros events).  It’s been 20-25 years since I last watched this one, so catching it on the big screen was a real treat. I laughed at almost every scene, as this is the Marx Brothers best combination of quips, puns, political satire and physical sight gags. They are in prime form and for the first and only time, are directed by a real director … Leo McCarey (also known for An Affair to Remember, and Going My Way). The script is from Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, with additional dialogue by the great Arthur Sheekman.

 Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo star together for the last time, as Zeppo decided to join brother Gummo on the business side. Groucho plays Rufus T Firefly who is (somehow) named as the new leader of Freedonia, the bankrupt country backed by millionaire widow Mrs Teasdale (played by Margaret Dumont). A childish spat between Firefly and the ambassador of Sylvania lead the two countries to war. Of course, in between, there is a huge musical production sequence and too many funny gags to keep track of.

The film is recognized as the first political satire film and was released just 3 years after the death of silent films. Much of the film is spent as commentary on the absurdity of war and ego involved in most political conflicts. A couple of the iconic sight gags include the famous “mirror” scene with Groucho and Harpo, and the hilarious “hat scene” with Chico, Harpo and silent film star Edgar Kennedy (as a lemonade vendor). There is also one of the most bizarre early special effects (a tattoo on Harpo’s chest) and a Dallas, Texas joke that generated applause from the hometown audience. The film even pokes fun at the Hays Code (morality censorship) with a shot of a pair of men’s shoes, a pair of women’s shoes, and a set of horseshoes, and then a quick cut to twin beds and an odd sleeping arrangement.

The film came out at a time when much cynicism existed toward the Great War and the Depression was still a fact of life in the U.S.  Because of that, the film may be easier for us to watch now than it was at the time of its release. Even the Freedonia anthem, which is played several times throughout, is a spoof on the Star Spangled banner with it’s only line being “Hail Hail Freedonia, land of the brave and free“.  So that it was clear they were not choosing sides in their political shots, Groucho is seen in at least five different uniforms during the battle scenes … each a bit more outlandish than the last.

 Support work is also provided by Louis Calhern, but it’s Margaret Dumont who never ceases to amaze. A consistent presence in Marx Brother films, she is the epitome of the “comedy straight man”. How she ever played her role seriously given the Marx Brothers hijinks is beyond belief. She even gets to flash her classically trained singing voice, though it provides a flying fruit ending.

The Marx Brothers made 13 movies and this was their fifth, and probably best. The five brothers (including Gummo) only appeared together on screen one time … on a TV talk show in 1957. Their vaudeville and stage act continued to be the basis for their films, and was undoubtedly a factor in their incredible comedic timing. While it is understandable that the Marx Brothers humor may not be to every person’s taste, it is impossible to ignore their impact on film comedy (Lucy, Daffy Duck/Bugs Bunny, The Monkees). Hail Hail Freedonia!!

the classic mirror scene:


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