A Century of Film is Devin Wilger’s attempt to watch a movie from each year between 1917 and today. For 1933, we tackle the Marx Brothers with Duck Soup.
I’ve always been aware of the Marx Brothers, but never actually familiar with them. The computer lab in my elementary school named all of the computers on it after one of them, after all, and while the network occasionally collapse in a comedy of errors that wasn’t exactly an introduction to their comedy. Otherwise, I had not actually watched one of their films, and until now the closest I got was watching Skidoo - featuring Groucho Marx as God - which isn’t a good introduction to anything.
My expectations, then, we minimal. I knew one of them didn’t talk - Harpo, as it turns out - and one of them had a weird greasepaint mustache - Groucho, as everyone knows. So I was at least mildly surprised that there weren’t any jokes for the first five minutes of the movie, which wasn’t very long to begin with. Instead we get a pile of setup, there’s a country that’s broke called Freedonia, and a woman who has basically been bankrolling the place. She decides that the only way that the country is going to get any more money is if her preferred man, Rufus T. Firefly, takes over. Since he’s being played by Groucho Marx, this is not the best plan. He quickly gets in an argument with the ambassador of nearby Sylvania, because said ambassador calls him an upstart. I’d say it basically predicts the current political situation south of the border, except Groucho is good with words.
That’s the plot, but really the plot is barely there, and Harpo’s ongoing feud with a lemonade stand operator (Edgar Kennedy) is just as important as anything going on in the actual war. This is a film about gags, whether it’s Groucho’s constant barrage of puns, Harpo’s secret scissors or Chico’s wacky Italianesque accent. Zeppo is also there. It occasionally feels like the Marx brothers have invaded a more serious movie, as all the political intrigue is set up only to be set on fire by a never-ending flurry of gags.
It helps that the gags are funny, especially a slapstick mirror sequence that gets progressively weirder as it goes. It doesn’t really matter that the film doesn’t really make sense or even have a plot, because the jokes are solid enough to sustain it. Everything is a setup for a punchline, even several of the punchlines, which is kind of refreshing in 2017.
Lots of Hollywood comedies insist on having an actual story, relationships between characters and even a valuable lesson about friendship and family or some nonsense like that. This has none of those things. It exists as counter-programming to a lot of comedy out there, evidence you don’t need a lot of stuff provided that the jokes are solid and people are laughing. Duck Soup doesn’t really waste time - at 68 minutes it’s barely feature length - and even the fact that it starts relatively joke free is just a setup for the joke that is the rest of the movie. It’s just trying to get a laugh, and doing everything it can to achieve that goal, often forgetting what it is ostensibly about in the process.
I liked that, maybe because I’ve sat through more than a few modern comedies that try to mean something, that sacrifice laughs for hugs and a teachable moment about family. That’s unnecessary, all you need is a man’s hat starting on fire as he gets kicked in the pants. The dish Duck Soup cuts out all the fat for a light, enjoyable meal.
Next time, we see some Dames.