Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Duck Soup (1933)

Duck Soup (1933)

It is surprising to me that when I asked my friends if they wanted to watch Duck Soup with me, they had to ask what it was. When I told them it was a Marx Brothers film, they looked at me as if I was some loony trying to indoctrinate them into my communist ideology. To put it more succinctly, it surprised me that these people had never heard of the Marx Brothers before. I had grown up with the Marx Brothers. I still have fond memories as a kid watching a Night at the Opera (which is also on the list). To me, that’s almost as bad as not knowing who The Beatles are in music. In many ways, it’s similar, for the Marx Brothers truly were trailblazers in comic cinema, helping to shape how comedies were made for decades to come. All three of the Marx Brothers, Groucho, Chico, and Harpo, were comic geniuses, and this film, in many regards is their absolute best.

This movie doesn’t have much of a story, and for the most part, this is completely irrelevant. It’s less of a story, and more of a situation, or argument, from which the three brothers can begin their jokes. The central situation, takes place in the fictional nation of Freedonia, who is in trouble because they lack a president. They decide to appoint Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) as the president. Meanwhile, the neighboring country of Sylvania is aiming to take over Freedonia, and attempts to do so through several nefarious actions. As I said previously, however, this is little more than a front from which the Brothers can tell their jokes. There are many points where the characters digress entirely from the story, and you begin to forget entirely what the story is. However, this is a good thing, as the movie isn’t about a story, it is about making you laugh, and make you laugh it will. From the very first scene, where Groucho shows up late to his own inauguration, to the end when the movie descends into a massive flashing of 3 second clips, the movie will have you rolling on the floor.

Each of the three characters has their own comedic style: Harpo is the pure slapstick comedian. He doesn’t talk, but through his incredible pantomime skills, is still able to get his point across, in very funny ways. Chico is sort of a blend of Harpo’s slapstick, and the fast-talking style of Groucho. A lot of his jokes make use of puns:

Groucho: “So what kind of army should we have?” Chico: “Well boss, I think we should have a standing army.” Groucho: “Oh? Why is that?” Chico: “We’ll save money on chairs that way.”

Groucho’s comedy, on the other hand, comes entirely from his speech. He truly is a master of delivery and timing. You have to pay careful attention to what he’s saying, or else you will miss his joke entirely. In my opinion, he is the funniest of them all.

The film is really just a progression of scenes, in which the overall goal is to get you laughing to the point where you cannot breathe. For the most part, the film succeeds. Every scene outdoes itself, as the film gets zanier and zanier up until its hilarious climax. There are a few scenes which are truly notable, however. One example is Chico and Harpo’s experience with the peanut salesman, which turns into a sort of three card monty ultimately resulting in the salesman’s hat, as well as his sanity getting destroyed. Another notable scene, and perhaps the most famous in the entire film, is the mirror scene. In this scene, Harpo dresses up as Groucho, and through a turn of events, has to act as Groucho’s mirror image. This scene is absolutely incredible, and nearly flawless. It shows the amazing skill of the Marx Brothers, further proven by the fact that it is imitated so much in film and television. Duck Soup also features many instances of advances in visual effects, such as when Harpo shows off a tattoo of a dog house, out of which jumps a real dog.

So why is this film on the list? This film was not a box office smash, it didn’t win any Oscars; it wasn’t even liked in its time. However this film still deserves to be on the list, because, simply, it is comedy in its purest form. There is no story, no romantic interest to get in its way. There is no action to distract it. The only thing there is comedy; three guys trying to the best of their ability to get you laugh, and in this regard, it is perhaps the most successful comedy of all time.

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