Duck Soup

It’s Their World, We Just Live in It

Film essay by: Witney Seibold


            Often, when I write reviews of current comedies that I may not be too pleased with, I use the word “forced.” I mention that the jokes are forced, or situations are forced, or even the premise is forced. “Labored” comes up sometimes. “Obvious,” “strained,” “reaching.” They all get their turn. I realize that “forced” is a word that usually only appears, or at least in contemporary writing most often appears, in film reviews (what’s referred to as a “crit” word. “Flawed” is another one). But it, along with its cousins here, all communicate the idea clearly, I think, and that idea is this:

            Many comedies have a tendency to be about the telling of the joke, and not necessarily about the joke.

Sub-par comedies seem pleased to have set up a certain situation. The story will labor and strain to set up a comic moment in the hopes that it will produce laughs. The oeuvre of Adam Sandler is a good place to look for this. Or perhaps any of the films based on a character that originally appeared on “Saturday Night Live.” I only use these folks as an example, though. I won’t bore you with any specific details of any one film in particular, as this is an essay on some of the greater comedians. Suffice it to say, you know they’re out there, and they even have their followings. Some might even call him “kinda funny.” I am not one of those people.

            But there are those comedies – the forced ones – and then there are great comedies. The ones that actually manage to be… natural. Easy. Not contrived, not labored, not forced. But energetic, lively, organic, full of wit. That’s what separates a “kinda funny” from a “great.” Wit. It’s one thing to cynically laugh at the pains of the world, and it’s another to play on them. A “kinda funny” comedian will spit off a freeway overpass and laugh at the others’ misfortune. A great comedian will make a joke about the trials of traveling by freeway. One will mock, the other will put it in perspective. The line between the two “types” is a fine one, seeing as all comedy is, in a way, a play on hurt and tragedy and the foibles of life. But a great comedy will give us a bit of odd truth about the way humans operate, and we, being humans, will have no choice but to laugh at ourselves.

            Inorganic comedians (and note: some of these are actually funny, butnot for reasons explored in this essay): Charlie Chaplin, Jimmy Fallon, Will Ferrell, “Saturday Night Live,” Robin Williams, Fatty Arbuckle, Rodney Dangerfield. Organic comedians: Buster Keaton, W.C. Fields, Jacques Tati, Eddie Izzard, Billy Connelly, Monty Python, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Margaret Cho. And of course, The Marx Bros. The best buffoons of film or any other art form have got to be the Marx Bros. No one before or since has been able to match the manic energy, the riffs, the sheer chaotic joy of the Marx Bros.

            The Marx Bros. have always been a favorite of mine, and their best film is probably 1933’s “Duck Soup.” Although I am also partial to “Monkey Business,” and “Horse Feathers.” “Duck Soup” however is the most ambitious of the films, has some of the best physical comedy, and reaches an absurdist pitch in its satires of war and politics that would bring a tear to the eye of Ianesco.

            I would outline the plot of this film, but outlining the plot of a Marx Bros. film is kind of absurd in itself. The setup is always the same: Groucho Marx plays the wisecracking society man or hapless “leader” of some sort who falls in with higher-ups (most often represented by Marx Bros. regular Margaret Dumont, a very funny comedienne who, unfortunately, always had to play second-string) and ends up in charge of some sort of show (an opera, a college, and, in the case of “Duck Soup” and entire country, with the wonderfully obvious name of “Fredonia.”). Zeppo Marx (before he left the troupe) plays his son or secretary and has little to do other than be a familiar face.
Chico and Harpo play the lovable rogues who fall under Groucho’s wing and perform all manner of confusing stunts both to Groucho and his enemies.

            Groucho was the wordsmith. His approach to a conversation was never to actually communicate, but to find jokes littered in the words that spill out of these rather stuffy higher-ups and authority figures he found himself among. A question directed at Groucho would never get an answer, but would elicit a way to bend your words into a pun.

            “I can’t kiss you, madam, I’m a lawyer.” “Oh, are you being shy?” “Yes. I’m a shyster lawyer.”

            “Hold me closer.” “If I held you any closer, I’d be behind you.”

            “Gentlemen, you should be fighting for this woman’s honor! Which is more than she ever did.”

            “I have a good mind to join a club. And beat you over the head with it.”

            “I’ll hold your seat ‘til you get there. After that, you’re on your own.”

            I could go on all day.

            No comedian comes close to this. The immediacy of the vaudeville stage, the play on English, the sheer humor of it all. Groucho was a jazz musician, but instead of riffing on a sax, he riffed on the things said to him. Put this guy in charge of a country, and you have comic gold. I even like the names of his characters: In “Duck Soup” he was Rufus T. Firefly. Hugo Z. Hackenbush. Prof. Quincy
Adams Wagstaff, J. Cheever Loophole. Good stuff.

            While Groucho was busy riffing on words, Harpo was riffing on objects and props. He never spoke in any of the Marx Bros. films. Not once. His frumpy hat and moppy hair always drew odd looks. He was peculiar, and seemed to be outside of most proceedings. In fact, Harpo was alone in all of the films. He would be the one stepping aside to crank a telephone, or using scissors to cut off someone’s tie. He was perpetually not paying attention. His quiet peculiarities set him apart, made him the innocent sidekick. The pattern set up by Harpo would come to be adopted by Bug Bunny a decade later: An innocent boob playing pranks and stumbling through the landscape, picking up items and pulling any manner of things from his pockets would come to harm at the hands of some larger, less tolerant human being. Once Harpo was harmed (even a smack on the pate would be enough), it was then free comic license to do whatever he could to said offender, often to comic glee. In “Duck Soup” he plays a nut vendor named Pinky who is constantly being roughed up by a lemonade salesman who can’t take a joke. The salesman hits Harpo. Harpo sets more than one of his hats on fire in the roasting machine, and, my favorite bit, pulls up his pants and sits in the lemonade.

Chico is my favorite Marx brother. If Groucho is riffing on words, then
Chico is riffing on Groucho. His fake-o Italian accent and misunderstanding of English (“What weighs 2000 pounds and lives at the circus?” “That’s irrelevant!” “There’s lot’s of ir-elephats at the circus.”) were a perfect immigrant ruffian to Groucho’s wiseacre man-bout-town.
Chico was the only one who could really upstage Groucho; the only one who could make his a straight man. They traded insults. They bantered. The bickered. When
Chico and Groucho were on the screen together, one could really see that these men were indeed brothers.

            In the Marx household
Chico (a.k.a. Leonard) was the oldest. He was also a compulsive gambler and often stole from his brothers. The next two youngest Adolph and Julian (Harpo and Groucho respectively) had to develop senses of humor and new defense techniques to protect themselves from Leonard (as they all did, growing up Jewish in a tough neighborhood). Leonard returned with even more conniving ways of swindling and grifting and the cycle continued. Adolph would sneak out of the house and see the town, observing people through shop windows (his famous face, the one with the cross eyes, puffed cheeks, and lolling tongue was lifted from a local cigar merchant named Gookie. Even today, making this face is known as “making a Gookie.”) Julian (who gave himself the nickname of Goucho early on) would avoid being pummeled by the local bullies by being funny.

            The fourth Marx brother Gummo (née Milton) decided to produce his brothers’ budding comedy work, and he was the one who pretty much got them all started. He only appeared on stage with them (as the straightman) when they started touring a few times, and did not appear in any of the films. When he left the act, Zeppo filled most of his roles. But he made sure that the traveling Vaudeville circuit saw a lot of The Marx Bros. The Yiddish theater traditions of the put-upon immigrant, and the wiseass jokes and physical humor of the Vaudeville stage blended with the Marx Bros. who took it as far as it could go, even relaying that humor onto the big screen, where it is now immortalized for upstart reviewers and intellectuals like to me to look at, analyze, and laugh.

            The youngest, Zeppo (née Herbert), did not have an incredible amount to do on stage or in the films. He was always the straightman in the films and even played the romantic interest in a few of them. On the stage, he was the understudy for all of the brothers, and it’s been said by a few critics of the time that he was a better Groucho than Groucho. We’ll never know for sure. He had a few funny moments, but was mostly included in the films, I think, because the borthers wanted the last member of the troupe to show up; give us a familiar face, another buddy, to hang out with and laugh with. “Duck Soup” was actually his last film before leaving show biz, and getting into inventing. He invented a wristwatch which provided an early warning for cardiac arrests. He appeared in five of the Marx Bros. films.


            “Duck Soup” is a satire to be sure, which raises some odd point about going to war and fighting for freedom. As a satire, it has no teeth. It’s a harmless larf that could not upset anyone, even if real country’s names had been used. In a way, its lack of bite is where a lot if its satirical genius lies. Had they been trying to say something heavy and penetrating about the state of world politics (something the Marxes were never interested in), the brothers would have been at the short end of some rather angry politicos. Instead, by pushing the absurdity to the extreme, by making the film about the brothers and their jokes, rather than a series of commentaries, they can say what they wanted, still be funny, and make everyone happy. They, with their riffing, made the worlds they inhabited belong to them. It was their world, we were just living in it. It’s an absurdist farce. Ianesco, as I said, might write something like this. Pirandello could do a dry rendition of it. I even sense a little of Beckett in there.

             The best of comedy though, despite all of the intellectual ramblings I put forth, is still the kind that makes you laugh. Whatever “type” of comedy you’re watching, it can be forgiven a lot if you’re having a mighty good chuckle at it all. The Marx Brothers, with their ingenious riffing on human existence and slapstick that is as yet unrivaled, always were able to make me laugh. Laugh a lot. The laughter is comfort and energy. They make me happy. Watch “Duck Soup” and laugh as well.           

Published in: on May 23, 2007 at 4:11 pm  Leave a Comment  

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