En Tosset Diktator
There is no denying the genius of the Marx Brothers. They did to the talking comedy what slapstick did for the silent. Their anarchistic and outrageous ways founded numerous styles in comedy, from stand-up to the crazy-comedy of Police Squad and there is hardly any comedian today who does not owe something to the Marx Brothers. They are that big.
I have not seen all of their work, but Duck Soup seems to be a particularly anarchistic example. In a period where the world were slowly warming up to war part two and nationalistic vibes were sounded again the Marx Brothers tear it all down and ridicule the entire statecraft business. In the film someone (Mrs. Teasdale, the always good Margaret Dumont) got the entirely idiotic idea to replace the president of the imaginary state of Freedonia with the moron Rufus T. Firefly, Groucho Marx himself.
The idea of letting the Marx Brothers sabotage something as lofty as the leadership of a state and a self-important one to boot is brilliant. A classic Marx Brothers theme. They did that to several esteemed institutions like the opera or the races. I cannot help to think of this as a reference to countries like Italy or Germany where nutcases had been installed in power due to the apparent failure of their predecessors. Though it is probably just me applying the unbearably bright clarity of hindsight.
In any case Rufus T. Firefly soon makes a mess of everything, insults everybody insight and throws the country into war, though he was likely duped by the rival country.
The plot however is not so important. This is really about how much sabotage the three of them (Zeppo, the pretty boy does not really count) can do and all the witty and absurd jokes they can fire off. And they pack it pretty dense. Chico and Harpo are supposed to be spies from the rival country, but that plotline sort of wash out and they generally just harass everybody, though it does lead to the highlight of the film where they are stealing the battle plans of Freedonia dressed up as Rufus in nightgown, glasses and moustache.
Now comes the big question: Was it funny?
I should immediately say yes, and assure the reader that this is definitely good stuff, but the truth is that I only laughed twice throughout the movie. This ought to be right down my lane. I absolutely love insane comedy. Black and anarchistic (and deadpan to really kick it into gear). Slapstick is also fine with me, even silly stuff. So what on Earth is going wrong here? I have been wrecking my brain over this question since I saw “Duck Soup” first time a year and a half ago and I think I touched upon that issue in my comments on “A Night at the Opera”. My conclusion so far is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with the Marx Brothers themselves. It is the reaction of their victims and the consequences of their actions or the lack of it that is the problem.
When Groucho Marx throws insults at his surroundings or behaves entirely inappropriate he does not just get away with it. It usually seems as if his victims or the onlookers in general hardly notice and that makes the jokes go dud. The moments that are funny are when we do get credible reactions. The insulted ambassador is a good example. His taking offence makes Groucho funny. Mrs. Teasdale’s stunned expressions is a good response too and the peanut stall scenes makes me laugh (laugh #1) exactly because the poor victim reacts exactly like you expect, with anger and exasperation and eventually futility. His look of defeat when Harpo finally jumps up and takes a foot bath in the lemonade tank is priceless and makes Harpo funny.
But there is way too little of this. For me the entire parliament and nobility should have been in an uproar and a state of chaos. I would have loved to see some results of their jabs. I had a hearty laugh over Laurel & Hardy’s “Sons of the Desert” because their actions trigger the right reactions from their wives. In “Duck Soup” I miss those reactions. Margaret Dumont could have done much more, which she also finally did in “A Night at the Opera”, instead she easily becomes just another sap.
The second laugh came in the nightshirt scenes. The three of them running circles on each other all dressed up as Groucho is just hilarious, culminating in the glorious mirror scene. That is excellent physical comedy. It cannot be described but has to be seen.
In a later age the group around Leslie Nielsen did a number of comedies (Airplane, Police Squad, Naked gun) along similar lines. While Leslie Nielsen was never as sharp as Groucho Marx the anarchistic style was harks right back to Duck Soup. And also their problems. It is not enough to be funny. You need to be funny against reality. Like a hammer needs a hard place to hit.