Saturday, 5 April 2014

Duck Soup (1933)

Country: USA
Director: Leo McCarey
Screenplay: Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, Arthur Sheekman, Nat Perrin
Starring: Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, Zeppo Marx, Margaret Dumont
Music: Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby
Length: 68 minutes 

President Rufus T. Firefly fights to save the nation of Freedonia from a hostile takeover by the imperialistic ruler of Sylvania. 

Undisputed masters of Vaudeville stage comedy, the Marx Brothers' relentless puns and slapstick antics laid the groundwork for a thousand comedians and comedy acts to come. Following up on the success of Horse Feathers, Paramount’s highest grossing film of 1932, Duck Soup was initially a critical and box office disappointment. It has since become one of the most important and influential films in cinematic history.  

The same year my father rendered me catatonic with Frank Langella's Dracula (see our review of Nosferatu - 'nuff said), he yinned that yang by shuttling me to Vancouver’s now sadly defunct Ridge Theatre one Sunday afternoon and introducing me to a phenomenon that would brand my concept of funny for time and eternity. It was the Marx Brothers, starring in a whopping three-course meal of Monkey Business (1931), Horse Feathers (1932), and Duck Soup (1933). I was nine years-old but by the time the last reel finished, I couldn't wait to grow a grease-paint moustache and smoke my first cigar.

My first thought was, "Man, these guys are hilarious, but why do they keep copping gags from Bugs Bunny?" Of course, I couldn't have then known that it was actually the other way around: that Looney Tunes - like Monty Python, Robin Williams, Gabe Kaplan, Jerry Seinfeld, Jim Carrey, and countless others - drew inspiration from a quartet (originally a quintet) of comedy geniuses way, way ahead of their time.

It's safe to say that the Marx Brothers helped shape and distinguish one of two distinct, if subtle, streams of comedy in cinema's early history. On the one hand was the heartwarming comedy-with-a-message of Charlie Chaplin in films like The Kid (1921), City Lights (1931), and The Great Dictator (1940). On the other, was the silly, absurdist humour of the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges, where the laughs existed for their own sakes, rather than serving a larger narrative purpose. With Chaplin, laughs were important but story was number one. With the Marx Brothers and the Stooges, laughs were everything, story be damned.

I recognize Groucho and company aren't everyone's cup of tea. But call me sentimental, I just can't get enough of 'em. And on that note, hello, I must be going!   

Before I met the Donnett clan, I had never heard of The Marx Brothers. I came from a Three Stooges-lovin' family and, therefore (obviously), didn't need to look any further to get my fill o' slapstick hilarity.
So, needless to say, Duck Soup was my first Marx experience. And what a first it was! Not short on moments of outrageous sexism, I have to admit Groucho was an equal opportunity guy when it came to spreading the insults around. (I guess that's a good thing?)

All in all, I found the story exciting and the physical humour both clever and original. As a benchmark for physical comedy beyond the 30s, I can definitely see why it made it to the list. And given the political climate of the times, I can see why this film proved popular then and now. Still, I'll take the Three Stooges over The Marx Brothers any day. But don't tell "Him" that! 

"Nuk, nuk, nuk!!"

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