If there’s a subject I could, in any way, be an expert on, it would be The Marx Brothers. I have read a lot about them to the point where I can read a biography and not really learn anything new. I think The Marx Brothers humor, particularly Groucho’s, has defined me as a person and as a writer. Groucho’s word play requires you to have a certain level of intelligent and there’s this random “where did that come from?” element to a lot of his jokes that has influenced comedians to this day. I would defined my generation’s sense of humor as a love of randomness. I think a lot that comes from the sometimes surreal comedy of The Marx Brothers.
Duck Soup is The Marx Brothers most perfect movie. The Marx Brothers were ahead of their time and their films are very effected by this. They started out in vaudeville and performed as a comedy act for close to two decades before they could make their first film. They attempted to make a silent film, but the results were so horrendous they were rumored to bury the evidence somewhere in New Jersey. They had to wait until 1929, the first year of sound in films, to make their cinematic debut, and at that point Chico, Harpo, & Groucho were all around 40 at the time, an alarming age for a group known for their high energy. Another handicap they experienced, was that the studio system had a very stringent definition of what a film needed. Romantic leads were forced into almost every Marx Brothers movie because executives didn’t believe movie-goers would stand for 90 minutes of two middle-aged baffoons running around and cracking jokes. Little did they know, decades later, new fans would be fast-forwarding past all that romantic crap! Duck Soup is their first film without any real love element and also has an element of political satire. They had dip their toe into satirical territory before, but this was their most bold example. Groucho singing at his inauguration ” If you think this country’s bad off now, just wait til I get through with it” and saying they can’t call off the war because he all ready paid a month’s lease on the battlefield, should speak to anyone who came of age while Bush was president. It makes you wonder what their films would have been like if they were always allowed to tackle such serious subject matter.
This film includes one of their most famous routinizes, the mirror scene. Chico and Harpo play spies who are trying to steal war plans from Groucho’s President Rufus T. Firefly. They make their way into the President’s mansion and in order to avoid being caught by Margaret Dumont’s Mrs Teasdale, they both independently disguise themselves as Groucho. Being that they are all real brothers, when you have them dressed identically, it’s almost impossible to tell them apart. Groucho catches Harpo who pretends to his mirror image, copying his every move, well almost. It becomes increasingly ridiculous as the two men became so focus on trying to trick each other, they are blind to obvious evidence that they are not, in fact, mirror images of each other, like walking around each other. For a group known for being loud and crazy, it’s interesting that one of their most famous scenes is completely silent. They weren’t the first to do the mirror routine and they certainly weren’t the last, but it is among the best versions captured on film.
Rufus T. Firefly: Not that I care, but where is your husband?
Mrs. Teasdale: Why, he’s dead.
Rufus T. Firefly: I bet he’s just using that as an excuse.
Mrs. Teasdale: I was with him to the very end.
Rufus T. Firefly: No wonder he passed away.
Mrs. Teasdale: I held him in my arms and kissed him.
Rufus T. Firefly: Oh, I see, then it was murder. Will you marry me? Did he leave you any money? Answer the second question first.