Skip to main content

Remember, you're fighting for this woman's honour – which is probably more than she ever did.

Duck Soup
(1933)

(SPOILERS) Not for nothing is Duck Soup acclaimed as one of the greatest comedies ever, and while you’d never hold it against Marx Brothers movies for having little in the way of coherent plotting in – indeed, it’s pretty much essential to their approach – the presence of actual thematic content this time helps sharpen the edges of both their slapstick and their satire.

Trentino: There is a machine gun nest near Hill 28. I want it cleaned out.
Chicolini: All right, I’ll tell the janitor.

It is stretching things a bit to characterise Duck Soup as one of the great war satires, though, as if that were its consistent objective. Aside from a very clever sequence in which Groucho convinces himself that Ambassador Trentino’s apology is actually an insult – leading to an all-out declaration of war, highlighting that when it isn’t for reasons of acquisitiveness, conflict is invariably down to personal grievance and ego (“This means war!”) – and the knock-about succession of spins on warfare tropes during the last ten minutes, there’s little that consistently focusses on that target.

Mrs Teasdale: Oh, your Excellency!
Firefly: You’re not so bad yourself.

That said, one might argue even a scene such as Harpo’s feuding with Edgar Kennedy’s lemonade vendor is a metaphor for the escalation of hostilities until all-out destruction on property is waged. More convincingly deployed throughout is the brothers’ flying the flag of all-purpose general anarchy, once again, on display with Groucho as Rufus T Firefly, leader of Freedonia, installed because Mrs Teasdale (Margaret Dumont, of course) fancies him. She even refers to him as “a progressive, fearless leader”, when in fact, as ever, he’s only out to make a quick buck and has no qualms about sending the country into conflict based on a personal slight. It includes possibly the zenith of Groucho’s rudeness to his most estimable co-star:

Firefly: Where is your husband?
Mrs Teasdale: Why, he’s dead.
Firefly: I bet he’s just using that as an excuse.
Mrs Teasdale: I was with him until the very end.
Firefly: No wonder he passed away.
Mrs Teasdale: I held him in my arms and kissed him.
Firefly: Oh, I see. Then it was murder!

Either that or the later “Remember, you’re fighting for this woman’s honour – which is probably more than she ever did” (“Married. I can see you right now in the kitchen, bending over a hot stove. But I can’t see the stove” is also a contender). Chico and Harpo are positioned as a couple of spies, Chicolini and Pinky, for Ambassador Trentino of Sylvania (Louis Calhern). One wonders how he came to the conclusion they were suitable for the job, although their disguises on first meeting him are certainly something. Apparently, Leo McCarey (who went on to direct Charles Laughton in Ruggles of Red Gap, Cary Grant in The Awful Truth and Bob Hope in My Favourite Wife) came up with many of the most celebrated elements, including Harpo cutting Trentino’s tails off and pretty much everything else of celebrated note: the mirror scene and the war satire.

Lemonade Vendor: I’ll teach you to kick me!
Chicolini: You don’t have to teach me, I know how!

Part of the reason Duck Soup stands out is that, in contrast to most of their films, where there are extraneous straight subplots or musical interludes, there’s no fat in Duck Soup; the filler, if you could call it that, simply consists of first-rate comedy bits that have nothing to do with the main narrative, such as it is. (Chico and) Harpo’s fight with the lemonade vendor is a piece of sustained genius, all the better for Kennedy acting the perfect foil as his bewilderment grows and grows in response to a piece of delirious hat-exchange business. There’s a recurring sight gag of Harpo ferrying Groucho by motorcycle and sidecar, but always leaving him stationary in the sidecar. Until finally, Groucho gets on the bike and the sidecar containing Harpo speeds off instead. At one point, a live-action dog emerges from Harpo’s kennel tattoo.

Trentino: I didn’t come here to be insulted!
Firefly: That’s what you think!

There’s little time for Harpo’s more lusty proclivities. That is, until an extended scene where he’s sent to take a message through enemy lines (“And remember, while you’re out there risking life and limb through shot and shell, we’ll be in here thinking what a sucker you are”). He stops off to get all sex-pesty towards a woman who turns out to be the lemonade vendor’s wife. Who arrives home to take a bath and finds his ablutions disturbed by a honking sound, repeating until the moment where Harpo rises from the depths playing a trumpet. Harpo also goes to bed with his horse in a bit spoofing the Hayes Code (and surely the inspiration for Norman Wisdom’s The Early Bird). And keeping up tradition, the otherwise redundant Zeppo (who gets to show off how buff he is here, if nothing else) is Firefly’s secretary Bob Roland and has one really good, well delivered line (“Oh, how we’d cry for Firefly, if Firefly should die”).

Firefly: Now, what is it that has four pairs of pants, lives in Philadelphia, and it never rains but it pours?
Chicolini: Atsa good one. I give you three guesses.

Ostensibly, it’s Groucho versus Chico and Harpo in the set-up, an arrangement The Goodies would later make their bread and butter (Graeme versus Tim and Bill), although this quickly falls apart as Chico is made War Minister (he’s tried for treason at one point, but is soon back on side when war breaks out, announcing he defected but has come back again). Groucho takes up arms, strafing the enemy, only to be told “You’re shooting your own men!” Later in the onslaught, he gets his head stuck in a chamber pot (“The last time this happened to me, I was crawling under a bed”), which Harpo proceeds to draw his face on.

Roland: General Swift reports a gas attack. He wants to know what to do.
Firefly: Tell him to take a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda in half a glass of water.

Apparently, “All God’s chillun got guns” was considered for deletion from the DVD for its potential to offend, which I can certainly see, but it remains striking for taking an upbeat song style template and lacing it with utterly sinister lyrics. Also of note is the final bun attack on Sylvania (“I surrender”) and then on Dumont. One wonders how far it was from Kubrick’s mind when devising the original custard pie fight conclusion to Dr Strangelove; which fits, as while Duck Soup very much isn’t Dr Strangelove, there’s a similar sense of absurdist glee to the depiction of war.

Mrs Teasdale: Your Excellency! I thought you’d left.
Chicolini (as Firefly): Oh, no, I no leave.
Mrs Teasdale: But I saw you with my own eyes!
Chicolini: Well, who you gonna believe? Me or your own eyes?

The mirror scene, though, has next to nothing to do with the war and politics business, yet it’s such an extended piece of genius – Chico and Harpo dress up as Groucho, although most of the business finds Harpo copying Groucho’s every move in the mirror – that Duck Soup deserves five stars for that alone. Dumont’s also involved in the impersonating prior to this (“Your excellency, you sound so strange” she tells Chico, while Harpo delivers a fantastically freakish grinning Groucho).

Trentino: I am willing to do anything to prevent this war.
Groucho: It’s too late. I’ve already paid a month’s rent on the battlefield.

Echoing the situation with Ireland and Animal Crackers, Mussolini banned Duck Soup in Italy, apparently much to the brothers’ glee. And while commonly reported as a failure, the picture was still the sixth-highest grossing of 1933; somehow, Paramount still saw this as a disappointment after Horse Feathers’ success, but it was the brothers who opted not to renew their contract (owing to Paramount owing them royalties they never received).

Freedonians: Hail! Hail Freedonia! Land of the Brave and Free!

Thus, the Paramount era ended and the MGM one was ushered in, one of initial bullseyes but increasingly off-target exercises in diminishing anarchy. At the time, that was exactly Irving Thalberg’s pitch to the brothers, that Duck Soup hadn’t gone down as well as their prior movies because there was nothing for the audience to sympathise with, and it was all too dark (Groucho admitted Duck Soup was the peak of their Paramounts but believed their two best were their first two at MGM). Criticisms that may have had a bearing on their commerciality, but then, it isn’t uncommon for classics, comedy or otherwise, to get a poor reception first time out (It’s a Wonderful Life). For their immediate careers’ sake, they may well have made the right move, but it also gradually brought the Marx Brothers off the boil.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke (the answer is: Mad Max: Fury Road )? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012) The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.

It’ll be like living in the top drawer of a glass box.

Someone’s Watching Me! (1978) (SPOILERS) The first of a pair of TV movies John Carpenter directed in the 1970s, but Someone’s Watching Me! is more affiliated, in genre terms, to his breakout hit ( Halloween ) and reasonably successful writing job ( The Eyes of Laura Mars ) of the same year than the also-small-screen Elvis . Carpenter wrote a slew of gun-for-hire scripts during this period – some of which went on to see the twilight of day during the 1990s – so directing Someone’s Watching Me! was not a given. It’s well-enough made and has its moments of suspense, but you sorely miss a signature Carpenter theme – it was by Harry Sukman, his penultimate work, the final being Salem’s Lot – and it really does feel very TV movie-ish.

As in the hokey kids’ show guy?

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t think Mr Rogers could have been any creepier had Kevin Spacey played him. It isn’t just the baggage Tom Hanks brings, and whether or not he’s the adrenochrome lord to the stars and/or in Guantanamo and/or dead and/or going to make a perfectly dreadful Colonel Tom Parker and an equally awful Geppetto; it’s that his performance is so constipated and mannered an imitation of Mr Rogers’ genuineness that this “biopic” takes on a fundamentally sinister turn. His every scene with a youngster isn’t so much exuding benevolent empathy as suggestive of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ’s Child Catcher let loose in a TV studio (and again, this bodes well for Geppetto). Extend that to A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood ’s conceit, that Mr Rogers’ life is one of a sociopathic shrink milking angst from his victims/patients in order to get some kind of satiating high – a bit like a rejuvenating drug, on that score – and you have a deeply unsettli

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

Somewhere out there is a lady who I think will never be a nun.

The Sound of Music (1965) (SPOILERS) One of the most successful movies ever made – and the most successful musical – The Sound of Music has earned probably quite enough unfiltered adulation over the years to drown out the dissenting voices, those that denounce it as an inveterately saccharine, hollow confection warranting no truck. It’s certainly true that there are impossibly nice and wholesome elements here, from Julie Andrews’ career-dooming stereotype governess to the seven sonorous children more than willing to dress up in old curtains and join her gallivanting troupe. Whether the consequence is something insidious in its infectious spirit is debatable, but I’ll admit that it manages to ensnare me. I don’t think I’d seen the movie in its entirety since I was a kid, and maybe that formativeness is a key brainwashing facet of its appeal, but it retains its essential lustre just the same.

I’m just glad Will Smith isn’t alive to see this.

The Tomorrow War (2021) (SPOILERS). Not so much tomorrow as yesterday. There’s a strong sense of déjà vu watching The Tomorrow War , so doggedly derivative is it of every time-travel/alien war/apocalyptic sci-fi movie of the past forty years. Not helping it stand out from the pack are doughy lead Chris Pratt, damned to look forever on the beefy side no matter how ripped he is and lacking the chops or gravitas for straight roles, and debut live-action director Chris McKay, who manages to deliver the goods in a serviceably anonymous fashion.

Damn prairie dog burrow!

Tremors (1990) (SPOILERS) I suspect the reason the horror comedy – or the sci-fi comedy, come to that – doesn’t tend to be the slam-dunk goldmine many assume it must be, is because it takes a certain sensibility to do it right. Everyone isn’t a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi, or a John Landis, John Carpenter, Edgar Wright, Christopher Landon or even a Peter Jackson or Tim Burton, and the genre is littered with financial failures, some of them very good failures (and a good number of them from the names mentioned). Tremors was one, only proving a hit on video (hence six sequels at last count). It also failed to make Ron Underwood a directing legend.