Thursday, June 24, 2010

Review – Duck Soup

June 24, 2010

Duck Soup – U.S., 1933

There is no one in today’s cinema that even remotely resembles the Marx Brothers. Here are four individuals, three after their fifth film, who came into film after first establishing themselves on the Vaudeville circuit and on Broadway. By the time they made their first film, they had developed stage personas that audiences knew and expected to see. And their early films reflect their experiences on stage. Many of these films contain short comic montages, as well as musical interludes, that have very little to do with the overall plot. They seem to exist so that each of the brothers has an opportunity to showcase his particular shtick. In some cases, the plot seems inconsequential. In fact, I’ll be eternally grateful to the first person who can explain to me just what Horse Feathers is about.

Movies have changed a lot since the Marx Brothers first came on the scene, and one of the most significant changes can be seen in comedies. Nowadays, comedies are more about characters finding themselves in situations that either allow them to be funny or allow funny events to occur around them. Comedies rarely include musical numbers, and actors hardly ever play the same character in films unless the film is a sequel. It’s sad to say, but it’s unlikely that great comedy teams such as Abbott and Costello; Laurel and Hardy; and Lewis and Martin could have the same careers in today’s Hollywood that they did in their time. Think about it: How many true comedy pairs are there in Hollywood presently? Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson may do a lot of movies together, but they do not play established characters in each of their films.

I remember the first time I saw a scene from a Marx Brothers film. As I watched Harpo and Chico harass a completely innocent bystander, I thought, “Why is this funny?” My father tried explaining it to me, but nothing he said made sense to me. Did the scene have a point? Would the scene be important later? To both questions, the answer was no, which simply didn’t fit my general concept of film structure. If a scene had no point, why was it in the film? It would be many years before I was willing to give the Marx Brothers another chance. When I finally did, I was older and a little bit wiser (at least I’d like to think so). And yet I must admit that even on repeat viewings, I still find it difficult to see precisely what other critics see when they look at Duck Soup. This is a film that many critics and film organizations have ranked as one of the greatest American films of all time, and yet I suspect that many younger filmgoers prefer the much more linear A Night at the Opera to Duck Soup, just as many people prefer Daffy Duck’s later more narrative cartoons to those earlier, more manic ones drawn by Tex Avery.

Duck Soup takes place in a fictional country called Freedonia, a country which is in economic peril due to years of financial mismanagement. In their desperation, the government turns to Mrs. Gloria Teasdale (Margaret Dumont), presumably Freedonia’s wealthiest citizen, for a loan of twenty million dollars. Mrs. Teasdale agrees to lend them the money on the condition that Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) be made president (perhaps dictator is a better word). Exactly why she chooses this man is never made clear, but we get the impression that she likes him a bit. Firefly quickly demonstrates why voting for someone simply because of one’s personal feelings is a bad idea, for he soon announces his agenda in song: limits on freedom of speech, the absence of pleasure, higher taxes, and a ban on all bribery that he does not get a cut from. Meanwhile, Trentino (Louis Calhern) the Ambassador of Sylvania, a neighboring country, is plotting against Firefly, perhaps hoping to even enlarge his own country by taking over Freedonia. To aid him in this endeavor, he enlists a beautiful singer named Vera Marcal (Raquel Torres) and helps two spies, Pinky (Harpo Marx) and Chicolini (Chico Marx) enter Freedonia. They are given the task of spying on Firefly, which is actually exactly what Vera has been asked to do. Since the film focuses more on Pinky and Chicolini, one can only assume that Vera is not very successful in her attempts to get close to Firefly, making her one of the few gorgeous cinematic femme fatales not to be able to entice her intended target.

To say that much of Duck Soup has to do with a potential war between Freedonia and Sylvania would be slightly misleading, for like many of the Marx Brothers films, the plot is structured in such a way that each of the Marx Brothers has a chance to demonstrate his singing, dancing, and comic timing, and if one joke falls flat, just wait. The next one comes just a split second later. Not all of them work anymore, but that’s probably because they have been used in so many later films that they may seem predictable to present-day audiences. For example, many modern comedies have variations of the mirror scene, and the final battle scene in Duck Soup has been copied as well. The result of this is that it’s harder to see the film’s originality and genius now.

Duck Soup still works, however. I enjoyed the banter between Groucho and Chico, especially the way they exchange jokes that have nothing to do with the central plot of the film. Harpo’s Paul Revere-like ride is still hilarious, and the film’s final musical number remains impressive. I’m less crazy about the way the film uses Mrs. Dumont’s weight as comic fodder. It may have been funny in 1933, but present-day sensitivities have made weight jokes a bit of a taboo. In addition, I still don’t quite see the humor in Chico’s and Harpo’s treatment of the poor lemonade vendor (Edgar Kennedy), but I do get a chuckle out of Harpo’s bizarre habit of cutting everything. It’s a shame that Ms. Torres, who only made thirteen films, and Mr. Calhern, who in 1953 starred opposite Marlon Brando in Julius Caesar, are given so little to do in Duck Soup. That’s not entirely surprising, though. It is a Marx Brothers film after all. (on DVD)

3 and a half stars

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