Comedians and entertainers in motion pictures took at least 50 years after movies entered the mainstream before shaking loose of their direct vaudeville influences. One of the consequences of this fact is that we have a lasting record of the talents of some—though, as far as I can tell, not even close to all—of the greatest vaudeville acts.
One such great was an act consisting of a family of comedians and musicians operating a variety-show-style performance under the heading of ‘the Marx Brothers.’ Their antics found a natural match in the narrative format of the movie industry, and they became hugely successful, producing 13 feature films in a career spanning decades.
Perhaps their greatest success (though not financially, in its time) is a film called Duck Soup, which today stands on the American Film Institute’s list of the greatest 100 American films of the past century (in addition to being in the top 10 of their list of the 100 greatest comedy films of the past century). Duck Soup is a comedy classic from some of the all-time masters of early (anarchic) movie comedy, and no one with an interest in classic cinema, movie comedy, or theatrical comedy should miss out on watching it.
Recommending Duck Soup:
I have seen every one of the Marx Brothers’ movies more than once, and I enjoy every one of them in some way. That said, I do have my favorites, and while some usually retain positions near the top (such as A Night at the Opera, Horse Feathers, and Monkey Business), Duck Soup‘s position as one of their absolute best is always unquestionable.
In each of their projects, principal players Julius, Arthur, and Leonard Marx (under their famous pseudonyms Groucho, Harpo, and Chico, respectively) play their own established stage personalities in new positions of varying power and importance (joined for a time by Herbert Manfred “Zeppo” Marx). In Duck Soup, Groucho plays Rufus T. Firefly, the new president of the country Freedonia (appointed at the urging of a character played by Margaret Dumont, who appears in many Marx features as a comically aristocratic target for insults), as Freedonia teeters on the brink of war with neighboring nation Sylvania. Meanwhile, Chico and Harpo play Chicolini and Pinky, spies who enmesh themselves in Groucho’s government at the behest of Sylvanian ambassador Trentino (played by Louis Calhern).
Each of the brothers seems to fulfill a different archetypal vaudevillian role: Harpo as the mime or clown, Chico as the hapless wannabe romantic, Zeppo as the straight man, and Groucho as the fast-talking insult comic. Similarly, they each have a primary musical talent: Harpo with the harp, Chico with the piano, Zeppo with his voice, and Groucho with . . . well, his sense of humor, at least. All of these talents contribute in some way to each of their films, and Duck Soup is no exception, containing effortless swings from outlandish musical comedy to non-sequitur-packed repartee.
The plot of Duck Soup, as with the plots of most of the Brothers’ works, is driven forward by a combination of the Brothers’ incompetence, the Brothers’ disregard for convention and authority, and wild swings from good to bad luck (and vice versa). In particular, Harpo and Chico’s incompetent spying, Zeppo’s informing, and Groucho’s intentional sleights of foreign diplomats plunge the country into war.
While A Night at the Opera has the strongest final act of any of the Marx Brothers’ movies, its abundant slow-paced musical segments make it a weaker comedic offering overall than Duck Soup, which navigates from one bit or set-piece to the next without missing a beat.
Some of the gags and sequences from the Marx Brothers’ movies have entered the annals of cultural knowledge, and you may have seen tributes to them without even noticing. A couple of cases-in-point are the mirror sequence from Duck Soup and the state room scene from A Night at the Opera. But smaller moments and influences survive as well (e.g. fans of Monty Python will find aspects of this Duck Soup musical number eerily familiar).
In closing, I would observe that the Marx Brothers serve as something of a happy medium between, on the one hand, the allegorical satires of society and politics in the feature films of Charlie Chaplin and, on the other hand, the occasionally boorish unending slapstick of the Three Stooges. It is a poor fan indeed of comedic movies, classic films, or even of the sketch shows and stand-up comedy acts which have evolved out of Vaudevillian theatre—who has never seen a Marx Brothers movie. But if that describes you in some way, do not despair: there’s no time like the present, and Duck Soup is a great place to start.
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