Tuesday, January 24, 2012

I'd Love To Turn You On - At the Movies #31 - Duck Soup (1933, dir. Leo McCarey)

A lot of people dismiss the Marx Brothers as silly, dated slapstick along the lines of the Three Stooges, and that’s sad because they’re really a lot more sophisticated than that. It’s doubly sad because they’ve also been known to save lives. Most famously, Norman Cousins turned to old Marx Brothers’ films when he was diagnosed with an incurable a fatal spine disease and it helped him beat it. And Mickey Sachs, Woody Allen’s character in Hannah and Her Sisters, tried to kill himself but failed and stumbled into a movie theater where Duck Soup playing and realized that life isn’t so bad after all. That’s what got me into them. After seeing Allen’s film, I decided to set aside my prejudice and give them a try. They became not only instant favorites but my main go-to comedy when I was feeling stressed out and down. All through college and the early years of my career I could pop in a selection from my Marx Brothers collection and know that I would soon be transported to a better mood.
Sachs’s savior, Duck Soup, is as good a place as any to start exploring the Marx Brothers. Filled with still-poignant zingers about corruption and ineptitude in government, it’s especially well suited for these trying political times. In fact, it’s been hailed as a masterpiece because of the way it lampoons power through the ages and culminates with a deft comparison of war posturing to a minstrel show. It’s set in Freedonia, an English-speaking nation that’s beset with financial woes and is under siege from its neighboring nation, Sylvania. Freedonia’s wealthiest citizen, Mrs. Teasdale, agrees to bail the country out only if the sitting president steps down to be replaced by Rufus T. Firefly, who is played by Groucho. Sylvania’s conniving leader sends in two spies, played by Chico and Harpo, to undermine Firefly. And that’s pretty much all the premise necessary to set up the main plot; the whole point of this and all their other films is to get the three of them into a series of situations where they can riff on each other, perform brilliant sight gags and play surprisingly beautiful music.
Groucho and Chico are all about wordplay; their scenes with one another and with straight-faced supporting actors are machine-gun-fast pun-fests. I’d cut and paste some lines of dialogue here if it would do any justice to the real thing, but it just doesn’t. You have to see and hear it. It’s like music, and it’s often surreal, with logic and meaning continually unraveling and twisting back on itself and then coming back together again in rapid succession. This witty banter is balanced by peerless physical humor, much of it delivered by Harpo, who never talks. He has curly blonde hair and wears a big overcoat that he’s always reaching into and pulling out props that serve as punchlines to Groucho and Chico’s chatter. Duck Soup has perhaps the best sight gag in the entire Marx Brothers’ oeuvre: Harpo dresses up as Groucho and stands opposite him behind an empty mirror frame, matching his every movement so perfectly that you wouldn’t know it’s not a reflection were it not for a his breaking sync in a couple of instances, the most genius and weird being when they actually switch places.
And then there’s the music, which is for me where the ultimate healing power of the Marx Brothers shines through. Groucho usually sings a silly song that’s a melodic version of his monologues. In Duck Soup it’s “Just Wait Till I Get Through With It,” as in, “If you think this country’s bad off now...” Chico plays piano and Harpo the harp, both with an innocent beauty that gets me every time. When Chico plays, the camera focuses in on his fingers, which take on a life of their own, dancing and hopping around the keyboard like dancers. And Harpo’s harp playing is always angelic -- a delightful irony coming from the trio’s most slapstick prankster. And sure, just like everything else in these films, the music is dated. It’s the kind of stuff you’re likely to find on a scratchy old 78. But that’s a big part of what makes it work as a remedy for unhappiness: they transport you to a time and place that, true or not, seems more innocent and simple. And for me, that never fails to put my problems into perspective and allow them to dwindle away.
- Joe Miller

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