When told about the Marx brothers, I often think of Groucho. Until I watched Duck Soup, I didn’t know what his shtick even was. Were they silent comics, akin to Chaplin and Keaton? Did they transcend the talkie-divide like Laurel and Hardy? Were they lightning-fast talkers, in the same vein as Woody Allen or Henry Youngman? It turns out that the family of the Marx Brothers – Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo – are a bit of everything. Each sibling either prefiguring or directly influenced-by a specific comic of the past. Chico, the smart-talking but not-so-clever one. Harpo, the physical silent one. Groucho, the intelligent, one-liner one. Zeppo, the one many forget. Considering their work included Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera (films that appear on the vast majority of ‘Best Comedies of All Time’ lists), it comes as no surprise that the extended runs playing at the BFI Southbank are a must-see for fans of the funnies and comedy connoisseurs.
Duck Soup, in particular, is a seminal starting point. Considered by some (including Barry Norman) as their masterpiece, the comics shine as innovative and inventive characters, that scene-after-scene, steal the show. When they are paired up, or bouncing off each other in a group, the gags are fireworks, snowballing and escalating to a crescendo of silliness that you cannot help but belly-laugh before it finishes. The plot is secondary to the snappy jokes that showcase the brothers ability to entertain. Akin to Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s Team America: World Police, this comedy of war is also a musical, whereby Groucho’s ‘Laws of administration’ only serves to highlight the self-serving attitudes of those in power, akin to how ‘America, F*** yeah!’ directs our attention to the arrogance of a superpower. In fact, though set within the fictional country of ‘Freedonia’ with a European look, the anthem includes the Star-Spangled inspired “Hail, Hail, Freedonia, land of the brave and free”.
As with greatest comedies, Duck Soup has sequences that are unforgettable. Despite the imitators, they are still as fresh as they must’ve been when first screened. The energy and intelligence of the jokes complement the actors physical skill with their clearly pre-planned miming. The “Mirror” sequence, as a missing mirror prompts two Marx brothers to reflect each other seamlessly, is genius. What appears to be an unbroken scene, you can only marvel at the inventive selection of movements that run parallel to each other. A three-way scene between Chico and Harpo as they steal a hat, grab a leg and bonk each other on the head is mesmerising. We relate to the frustration of the straight man in between them, but we simply don’t know where it will lead. Suffice to say, it leads to somewhere unexpected and provides the theatrical bang the moment requires.
Woody Allen clearly owes a debt to the timing of Groucho Marx. Hilarious retorts such as “Go, and never darken my towels again” would slip straight into an Allen film. Duck Soup deserves to be placed on the pedestal it has been hoisted upon. It failed at the box-office on its initial release, moving Chico, Harpo and Groucho from Paramount to MGM – without Zeppo. Then they made A Night at the Opera. It does include a joke of its era (always tricky with these older comedies) but it is throwaway, and can be ignored. The film on the other hand cannot be. When Freedonia call for help, we see a wonderful montage of elephants and dolphins crossing oceans and deserts to support. A joke that only gets better the longer the montage continues for. We desperately don’t want the film to end considering its short, crisp run time of only 68 minutes.
These brothers were a troupe of comedians who knew what jokes could be, and between the three of them, they learnt from the best of their time – Buster, Charlie and Harold all preceded them. But less than a decade from when talkies took over cinema, the brothers balanced physical, verbal and intelligence within Duck Soup, pushing them up the table to join their mentors as timeless comics. I can only hope that elephants, dolphins and film fans of every animal trait seek this film out during January – as I know I will.
This post was originally written for Flickering Myth