by MP Bartley
For me, the Marx brothers are the funniest people that have ever graced this planet. For amiable banter and buddy movies, you probably can't top Abbott and Costello. For the pathos and the pain in laughter, it's Chaplin every time. And for the the pinnacle of slapsick you really can't get any better than Laurel and Hardy. But for insane, eye-popping, head-spinning genius of the highest order just take a look at the Marx brothers.'A Night at the Opera' is probably their funniest film, joke for joke, minute for minute. But for the film that has lasted the longest, that still has the edge today, that still seems spookily relevant, it's 'Duck Soup'.
"I should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers!!"
Groucho is Rufus T. Firefly, the newly appointed president of Freedonia who is making his lecherous advances towards Margaret Dumont, who as ever, gamely holds her won with Groucho. Part of his plan to cover up the fact that Freedonia is bankrupt, is to declare war on its neighbour Sylvania, and unite the nation through the act of war (see what I mean about being relevant?). This is complicated by the fact Freedonia has been infiltrated by two spies, Chicolini and Pinky (Chico and Harpo) who then decide to swap sides. And, this being a Marx brothers film, chaos reigns.
By the way, do you care what the fourth brother does in this film?
'Duck Soup' still has an edge today, because it's the best film to remind us just how dangerous the Marx brothers were. Groucho is hilarious, but no-one is safe form his cruel verbal putdowns. Chico may have a charming silver tongue, but he'd have your valuables as soon as your back was turned. And while Harpo may have the innocent look of a boisterous child, that's to hide a bullying streak a mile wide, where he seems only a moment away from exploding into physical violence. It's an indication of how good their performances were and how fast Leo McCarey's direction is, that we rarely dwell on these facts and just focus on the madcap antics instead.
Consider for example, that when 'Duck Soup' was made, World War One was still a raw and painful memory. So it might make you appreciate just how shocking the jokes are when Groucho guns down his own men on the battlefield before bribing people to keep it secret. And yet, amazingly, it's still hilarious. And that was the true genius of the Marx brothers, to take taboo subjects and make them funny.
But 'Duck Soup' isn't just a satire on war, it contains some of their most inspired sequences. There's Groucho bamboozling his cabinet with his neverending wordplay, some terrific scenes running in and out of his bedroom with a gramaphone, but I'll just say the word 'mirrors' to you and let you find one of the funniest, choreograped to perfection, scenes ever put onto film."And remember, while you're out there risking you're life and limb through shot and shell, we'll be in be in here thinking what a sucker you are.". Funny or a scathing criticism of government hawks, still relevant 80 years on? You go watch 'Duck Soup' and then decide.
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originally posted: 02/23/05 11:41:15