Monday, March 26, 2018

The Marx Brothers Are Delivering Constant Quack-Up's In The Excellent Comedy Duck Soup

One interesting thing about watching all of these classic movies for the first time is getting to go do research and see how these films were received in their original release compared to their modern-day reputation. Duck Soup, like fellow 1930's comedy classic Bringing Up Baby, is one of those motion pictures that received mixed reception in its initial release before later gaining higher marks. But back when it came out in 1933, Duck Soup was seen as a lesser effort from the Marx brothers and also failed to make all that much money at the box office. Of course, today Duck Soup is regarded as one of the best pieces of cinematic comedy ever made and for good reason, the film is absolutely hysterical.

Duck Soup revolves around the fictional country of Freedonia and the antics its leader, Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx), and rival spies, Chicolini (Chico Marx) and Pinky (Harpo Marx) get into while trying to navigate a turbulent time in the countries history stemming from conflict generated between Freedonia and their neighboring country Sylvania. The leader of Sylvania sends in Chicolini and Pinky to dig up dirt on Rufus T. Firefly that they can use as possible leverage in future bouts of turmoil, but this is the Marx Brothers, such an assignment will end up going anywhere but where it is expected to go. Instead, extensive physical comedy and pun-centric dialogue exchanges abound as the three lead characters constantly butt heads.

Duck Soup, like many comedic subgenres (like silent comedies or screwball comedies) of the pre-1940 era, is a fast-paced gag creating machine. In the span of a single shot that may last for only half a minute, characters will prance around the screen, exchange pieces of clothing and trade pun-punctuated barbs, frequently without even realizing they're engaging in such actions. Director Leo McCarey is just going a mile-a-minute with jokes here, a process that could have been a recipe for a movie that's more overwhelming rather than humorous, but that's certainly been avoided here with Duck Soup. The jokes may be coming at a speedy clip, but our lead actors don't sacrifice craftsmanship in the process of ensuring a steady stream of comedy.

And when I say there's craftsmanship going on here with the assorted jokes, I mean that. For instance, like silent movie legends Charlie Chaplin or Harold Lloyd, The Marx Brothers have a remarkable ability to do expertly executed physical comedy. This is especially true of someone like Harpo Marx, who plays a character who eschews verbal communication entirely in favor of physical-based communication. This means we get numerous scenes of Harpo masterfully executing hand gestures and body movements that are hilarious to watch while making these kinds of physical comedy moments look effortless in execution. Just watch any of Harpo's scenes where he feuds with a man selling lemonade, you get some top-notch demonstrations of physical comedy in how Harpo aggravates this human being.

Physical comedy is also at the center of a scene in the film where Rufus T. Firefly runs into his doppelganger in his living room and the doppelganger acts like he's merely the reflection of Firefly, even though there's actually no mirror separating the two individuals. I had seen this sequence parodied countless times in my life (I'm sure you have too) without even realizing it stemmed from Duck Soup specifically. Here was a piece of comedy so well-executed that it's still being homaged 85 years later. It's hard to imagine a single piece of comedy being that influential, but that's just what Duck Soup has done with a scene so hysterical that it's not hard to see why it's been replicated in so many pieces of pop culture over the years.

It isn't just in body language that the Marx Brothers generate yuks though, we also get a number of memorable moments in dialogue-based jokes that frequently revolve around puns & wordplay. Groucho Marx, romping around with his painted-on mustache, has a confident swagger in his line deliveries that's tremendously enjoyable, especially when said delivery is getting undercut by way of his plans or conversations not going according to plan. These two types of humor get pushed together for a wartime climax containing my favorite joke of the entire film. The joke in question is the sight gag of a cartoonishly simplistic face drawn on a vase that Rufus T. Firefly's head is trapped in. Sometimes, all you need to generate a hearty laugh is just a goofy drawing of a face. Duck Soup generates some of it's biggest laughs from these kind of straight-to-the-point jokes, though even these types of gags show a remarkable level of consideration behind them in their execution.

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