Every Sunday, Film School Rejects presents a movie that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:
Duck Soup (1933)
Duck Soup may be the funniest movie of all time. It deals with war, politics, fear, corruption – and it does so without taking any of it seriously. Not in the slightest.
But unfortunately, I really won’t be able to talk about it.
The reason for this is because the comedy is incredible experiential. Like a comic strip, the value of it can’t simply be read to a person and be expected to translate at all. I wish I could share with you each scene, but it’s something that stumbles off the screen and lands flat on its face right into a cream pie. Something you just have to see and laugh at yourself.
It is, in my humble opinion, the funniest offering from the Marx Brothers ever to be filmed. It’s also the last film they did for Paramount and the last film they did with all four of them being featured. Groucho takes top billing as usual as Rufus T. Firefly, the over-eager ruler of a failing nation called Freedonia (financed by the wealthy, easily romanced Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont). The neighboring ruler sends over the hapless spies Pinky (Harpo) and Chicolini (Chico) while Zeppo plays a dashing Lieutenant in the military.
None of this movie makes any sense at all. It pivots from scene to scene with little concern with how anything in the real world works. Ultimately, most set ups are built just to have a butt of the joke be hammered home by the outlandish absurdity of Groucho. These scenes are usually immediately followed by Harpo annoying Groucho by cutting his tie in half, answering his phone (despite never speaking) and generally running amok. It’s controlled chaos, and it works brilliantly. In the hands of lesser comedians, it would all seem random, but they infuse a preternatural likability into each character so that instead of ending up with your eyebrow raised, you end up rolling on the floor with laughter with your eyebrow raised.
First of all, Groucho gets away with saying the most offensive things to people because he’s slick, and they usually can’t understand half the words that are coming out of that rapid-fire mouth. Second of all, Harpo and Chico make a phenomenal comic duo and go through the ropes stealing a competing street vendor’s hat repeatedly (until the light it on fire) until they are tapped by the government to be top notch spies. Some would call this a satire on war and politics (especially since it’s huge fight at the end predates the great, missing pie fight scene that should have been in Dr. Strangelove) but I’m pretty sure it’s just anarchy that happens in the governmental halls. They really could have set this anywhere, but sending up the self-importance of politicians is too much a draw to refuse it.
Of course, Zeppo – the most talented of the group who could do everyone else’s parts at a moment’s notice – relegates himself to playing a dashing figure that never gets to make a joke.
Beyond the humor, Chico proves his incredible piano talent and Harpo displays some killer harp strumming. This sort of thing sounds completely foreign to a modern audience, but they work perfectly for a group that came straight out of Vaudeville. They wanted to display their comic chops, their slapstick, and their high art of music. If that doesn’t make sense to you, great. Because the whole damned film won’t make any anyway.
However, you will recognize at least one comic bit that made its way into a lot of other shows and movies – a bit where Chico pretends to be Groucho, using the doorway as a mirror and moving exactly how Groucho moves until the punch line of the site gag. It’s something that has been copied over and over again, and it all started here.
Beyond innovation, the “war” at the end of the film might be the funniest thing ever committed to celluloid. Groucho ends up in no fewer than 7 different costumes that seem to materialize at random (from the Civil War era to Boy Scout uniforms to Coonskin caps). In college, I watched this film maybe 100 times or so, and for some reason, my friends James and Aaron and I could never finish it because we would lose our minds during a portion of the fight where Groucho gets his head stuck in a large jar. He screams out, they try to pry it off of him, and the scene cuts away to more fighting. When the shot jumps back, someone’s drawn Groucho’s face on the outside of the jar as a quick, easy solution.
For some reason, this makes me lose it every time.
But like I said, I can’t explain it to you. It’s just something you have to see for yourself.