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This Means War: A Look Back at 1933’s Duck Soup

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The Marx Brothers

“Take two turkeys, one goose, four cabbages, but no duck, and mix them together. After one taste, you’ll duck soup the rest of your life.” —Groucho Marx*

A characteristic of comedy that most people notice at a certain age is that many comedies and jokes become dated, and they simply no longer work on newer audiences.  (Think of the concept of “grandpa jokes” that crack up older people and fail miserably to younger audiences.  Or Jeff Foxworthy’s work.)  Shakespeare is usually one of the first arguments made against the idea that comedy becomes dated, but without the right context, Shakespeare—as funny as he is—does not present easily digested jokes for many people that haven’t dug deeply into the plays.

How something endures is generally not an easy question to answer; if it were, everyone would be doing it with whatever art they create.  The Marx Brothers were able to make comedy work for their audiences at the time, later with the audiences of the 1960s, and they are arguably still able to do so, specifically with 1933’s Duck Soup.

The Marx Brothers weren’t made for silent film.  When it came time for the talkie, the brothers had honed their comedic skills on vaudeville long enough that their wits were too quick to be captured by intertitles. These stories are dialogue-driven, at least when it comes to Groucho and Chico.  Puns and snappy come backs are delivered at such a speed that the intertitles of silent film could have never kept up:

“Rufus T. 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.”

Even if Harpo doesn’t make use of the talking part of the talkie, he communicates well with the sounds of a horn and a harp.  Even if the harp is conspicuously absent from Duck Soup, he can more than make up for its absence with a pair of scissors that he uses to terrorize people seemingly because they just happen to be in front of him at the time.  In a true anarchic spirit, he will ruin a cigar or a necktie… just for the hell of it.  (One could even take a Marxist reading of his actions—pardon the pun—that by cutting cigars and neckties, Harpo is making an attack of the bourgeois ornaments of the wealthy capitalist: cigars and neckties.  But I digress.)

This rebellious nature was also apparent in the rest of their work, using comedy to challenge the absurd, puritanical morality of the time.  For a long time, Hollywood (and television for much longer) didn’t approve of suggesting the all-too-natural phenomenon of a married couple sharing the same bed, even if much of the audience saw this happen during their own childhoods on a nightly basis.  Yet, Duck Soup features Harpo Marx sleeping in the same bed as a horse.  A juxtaposition highlighting that what is natural—a man and woman sharing a bed—which was declared to be distasteful, while something absurd and unnatural—a man and a horse—is acceptable.  (Including the detail of horseshoes by the house shoes at the foot of the bed.)  It may seem like a simple gag by today’s standards, but the same style of comedy is still used by today’s comedians.  The influence of the Marx Brothers has carried on with timeless characters like Bugs Bunny—who is undeniably a spiritual debtor to Groucho, Woody Allen’s comedies, and the less memorable Sasha Baron Cohen character, The Dictator.

Another interesting characteristic of the Marx Brothers is that they have the ability to attract fans without partisanship. In 1932’s Horse Feathers, Groucho sings a song called “I’m Against It”, where he—in classic Groucho fashion—explains how he is against most anything at all.  It’s not uncommon for the left to use this song against the right, when it comes to something like gay marriage or the legalization of marijuana; it’s also not uncommon to see the right criticize the so-called “social justice warriors” of the left by playing the same song to criticize the left’s policing of language and perhaps a celebrity-shaming, internet media-based outrage.

Duck Soup appeals to both the left and right because it shows the stupidity of leaders which can easily mean either side, since stupidity—as anyone knows—is not exclusive to one political belief or another.  Years after its release, Duck Soup showed the ability to appeal to beatniks and peaceniks , both as a mockery of political leadership and as a symbolic take of many leaders’ insistence on absurdly rushing into war, which helped Duck Soup gain a new audience in the rebellious and chaotic 1960s and—to a lesser extent—during the Bush administration, since Bush seemed like a far less witty Rufus T. Firefly, all-too-ready to declare war. (One can easily imagine George W. Bush with the 9/11 report repeating Firefly’s line, “A four-year-old child could understand this report. Run out and find me a four-year-old child. I can’t make head or tail out of it.”)  Interpretations such as this aren’t limited to those created to fit into a more modern context since, even at the time, Benito Mussolini ordered the film to be banned taking it as a personal insult.  It’s possible in these days to see in the film a send-up of Barack Obama or Vladimir Putin, since it seems that power and leadership itself are being ridiculed by Duck Soup.  Rebellion against authority will always be a common theme of art and literature as long as there is someone with power over another, and it is for that reason, the Marx Brothers endure.  That, and their films are actually funny.

*Also, “duck soup” used to be slang for something incredibly easy, like the expression, “a piece of cake.”  The title is intentionally ironic, since the protagonist, Grocho’s Rufus T. Firefly, was given the job of running a country, which doesn’t sound like “duck soup” for most people.

**Also, the title sticks with the animal themed slang terms of other Marx Brothers films. (e.g. Animal Crackers, Horse Feathers, Monkey Business, etc.)

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