not in our stars, but in ourselves
Ah, finally. I’ve been doing this for, what? Five months? And it’s taken me until now to get to the Marx Brothers? I do apologize, dear readers. It isn’t for lack of affection, believe you me. Oh, and since you asked, darling beloved readers, I am most affectionate about Duck Soup (1933). It’s sheer anarchy, of the most enjoyable kind. I often say that if my life were a movie directed by any one director, it would be Lubitsch – but if I were to live in any movie, it would probably be Duck Soup.
Plot? Ha! But such as it is: Mrs. Gloria Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) is an extremely wealthy widow who declares that she will only continue to bankroll the nation of Freedonia if its current leader steps down in favor of her crush, Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx). Firefly is great at making witty remarks, not so great at governing. But who cares. The Sylvanian ambassador, Trentino (Louis Calhern), is anxious to start a revolution in Freedonia so Sylvania can take over. He hires two spies to try to take down Firefly: Chicolini (Chico Marx) and Pinky (Harpo Marx). Things spiral out of control, as they are prone to do, and the two countries go to war. Zeppo Marx is in there too, as eye candy? I think? Whatever, no one cares about Zeppo. Sorry, Zeppo.
The great thing about the Marx Brothers is that the Production Code did virtually nothing to check their hilarity. Groucho could never have gotten away with making a joke to Dumont about “a Rufus over your head” after 1934, but they got away with plenty of other things. In fact, I see the Production Code as a sort of Dumont character (she was frequently their straight woman): able to wrangle with plenty of others, but powerless to resist or understand the torrent of madness unleashed on her by the brothers Marx.
All that aside, this is a funny freaking movie. I’ve seen it I-don’t-know-how-many times, and I was in hysterics re-watching it today. Half the fun is sight gags wrought by Harpo, which I won’t attempt to describe, but I will recommend that you watch in case you’re uninitiated; the other half is the peerless wordplay employed by both Groucho and Chico to befuddle themselves and whoever else happens to be around. Examples:
Mrs. Teasdale: As chairwoman of the reception committee, I welcome you with open arms.
Firefly: Is that so? How late do you stay open?
Mrs. Teasdale: I’ve sponsored your appointment because I feel you are the most able statesman in all Freedonia.
Firefly: Well, that covers a lot of ground. Say, you cover a lot of ground yourself. You’d better beat it; I hear they’re gonna tear you down and put up an office building where you’re standing. You can leave in a taxi. If you can’t get a taxi, you can leave in a huff. If that’s too soon, you can leave in a minute and a huff. You know, you haven’t stopped talking since I came here. You must have been vaccinated with a phonograph needle.
Firefly: I got a good mind to join a club and beat you over the head with it.
Firefly: How would you like a job in the mint?
Chicolini: Mint? No, no, I no like-a mint. Uh, what other flavor you got?
Firefly: Gentlemen, Chicolini here may talk like an idiot, and look like an idiot, but don’t let that fool you: he really is an idiot. I implore you, send him back to his father and brothers, who are waiting for him with open arms in the penitentiary. I suggest that we give him ten years in Leavenworth, or eleven years in Twelveworth.
Chicolini: I’ll tell you what I’ll do: I’ll take five and ten in Woolworth.
You get the idea. Madness reigns, but it’s awfully funny madness.
And really, there’s not much else to say about a Marx Brothers movie. There are some musical numbers, performed just as enthusiastically and gauchely as if by an amateur theatre group. There’s some attempt at a story, but who really cares about that. At the time of its release, Irving Thalberg reportedly complained – according to Groucho’s son, Arthur – that “the trouble with Duck Soup is you’ve got funny gags in it, but there’s no story and there’s nothing to root for. You can’t root for the Marx Brothers because they’re a bunch of zany kooks. [Thalberg] says, ‘You gotta put a love story in your movie so there’ll be something to root for, and you have to help the lovers get together.'” Ugh! Can you even imagine. That was one of the faults with post-Code Marx Brothers films: there usually was some sort of love story, with some sort of attractive contract players, and who gave a rat’s. In some very real way, Monty Python was the natural successor of the Marx Brothers: mayhem for the sake of hilarity, hilarity for the sake of mayhem, and very little else. What else do you need?