The Classic: Duck Soup (1933)
Director: Leo McCary
Starring: Groucho, Harpo, Chico, & Zeppo Marx
The Excuse: I didn’t pay any attention to black & white comedies until I took a Silent Film Comedies class at UCSB. The focus was, of course, the silent clowns. For some reason, after watching a great deal of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd, I didn’t graduate on to Laurel & Hardy and the Marx Brothers. Well, now I’m making those first steps into the world of 1930s comedy.
Did I miss something? Perhaps my expectations screwed me over. I had always imagined the Marx Brothers would be somewhere between Chaplin and Keaton’s balletic and stylised physical comedy, and Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor’s chemistry and facial expressions. After watching Duck Soup, I can’t help but conclude the same thing that many film historians have deduced over the years. Physical comedy died with the silent era. Expecting balletic comedy and ending up with prop humour, Duck Soup was a disappointment.
While I feel like I must be alone in this admission, upon reading the Wikipedia page, I found that Duck Soup was “a box office disappointment, although it was not a ‘flop’ as is sometimes reported.” While this is no measure of quality, perhaps Duck Soup wasn’t the best place to start. It seems that criticism about this film evolved, and as opinion became increasingly positive, culminated into the definitions of “classic” and “Marx Brothers masterpiece” that are ubiquitous today.
For those of you who haven’t seen it or need a refresher, Duck Soup is about the fictional nation of Freedonia. Before agreeing to donate more money to the bankrupt nation, the wealthy Mrs Teasdale insists upon the appointment of Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx). Meanwhile, Trentino, ambassador of rival nation Sylvania, hatches a plan to woo Mrs Teasdale and invade Freedonia. Chicolini and Pinky (Chico & Harpo Marx) attempt to infiltrate the government and generally cause a lot of mayhem. In a nutshell, all of the double-crossing and general confusion result in a war between Freedonia and Sylvania.
My negativity does not go to say that this is a bad film in its entirety. It had some redeeming moments, like the rivalry between Pinky and the lemonade merchant, and the timeless mirror scene. Overall, though… I just Don’t Get It.
Bob: Your Excellency, you’re shooting your own men!
Rufus T. Firefly: Here’s five dollars. Keep it under your hat. Wait, never mind. I’ll keep it under my hat.
The Verdict: “Well, what can I say? Everybody is different. It doesn’t make you a bad person.” — My Dad. I fear that what this really means is, “Nicola, you’re crazy, and entirely alone in this whacky opinion. But you’re my daughter, so I won’t hold it against you.” Thanks, Dad.
Further Viewing for Experts:
The mirror scene. What else?
[Image from LoveFilm website.]