A distinction must often be made between a piece of art’s original purpose and how its meanings have shifted and changed when viewed through the filter of a different culture and era. Louis Althusser, an ironically Marxist philosopher, put it this way: “It is not their real conditions of existence, their real world, that men ‘represent to themselves’ in ideology, but above all it is their relation to those conditions of existence which is represented to them there.” His point is correct, if obvious: It’s probably impossible to read a classic piece of literature or watch a great film without inadvertently placing our own cultural background and personal observations into the text. But isn’t this the way it should be? A piece of art’s ability, after all, to be interpreted and re-interpreted throughout the centuries is a test of its durability and universality. If it doesn’t reveal insight to us and to our times, then it is merely a remnant of its time, not a text alive in our own.
This difference between the artist’s intent and the universality of an author’s work must be made, especially when we are dealing with a piece like the Marx Brother’s Duck Soup. Now a film over seventy years old, it is downright remarkable how well the film has aged as a satire on war films and incompetent governments; watching it today, there are moments that seem so familiar to today’s state of the Union that the film seems more horrifically prophetic than funny. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert quotes the British critic Patrick McCray: “As an absurdist essay on politics and warfare, Duck Soup can stand alongside (or even above) the works of Beckett and Ionesco.” Yet when asked the significance of the film’s politics, Groucho only shrugged and said, “What significance? We were just four Jews trying to get a laugh.” There is clearly a difference, then, between our Duck Soup and the Marx’s. Can a work of art be praised for what it has accomplished despite its artists’ intention? If the art is still breathing after decades of use, then deviations from the artists are demanded and even essential.
The plot to Duck Soup concerns the utterly ridiculous policies of the new, irreverent leader of the mystical kingdom of Freedonia, Rufus T. Firefly, and his insistence, despite all logical objections, that his country go to war with the neighboring country of Sylvania. He eschews (or, rather, loudly scoffs at) all attempts at diplomacy, and insists on a violent conflict for seemingly no other reason than he has “already paid a month’s rent of the battlefield.” Harpo and Chico are spies for Sylvania named Pinky and Chicolini, though they are secretly working for Firefly as well (whether as double-agents, or as simply spies, is anyone’s guess). At one point, Chicolini is on trial for treason, but his sentence is interrupted by Firefly’s declaration of war. Later on, when all four Marx Brothers are trapped in a besieged building, they play a variation of “Eeenie Meenie Minnie Moe” to determine which one of them will risk getting killed to go for help (“We did it wrong,” Chicolini complains when it first lands on him). Firefly eventually tells the chosen brother, “You're a brave man. Go and break through the lines. And remember, while you're out there risking your life and limb through shot and shell, we'll be in be in here thinking what a sucker you are.” Does any of this seem familiar?
I’ll confess, I am revealing the knee-jerk liberal bias in me by paralleling Firefly’s administration (his brothers) and the Busheviks. But aren’t these parallels unavoidable in such a time as these? What, after all, do we make of lines like, “Until the judgment day, we’ll rally round the flag,” sung by Freedonia’s House of Representatives as the Four Marx Brothers lead them in a battle song? Can we simply stop at Groucho’s declaration that it was all just for laughs? I’m not sure that we could even if we wanted to. Or what about Groucho and Chico’s battle tactics, which are designed to be as cost-efficient as possible? Consider:
“I think we need a standing army, because then we can save money on chairs.”
“Dig trenches, with our men being killed off like flies? There isn’t time to dig trenches. We’ll have to buy them ready made. Run out and get some trenches. Wait a minute: [gestures to his chin] Get them this high and our soldiers won’t need any pants. Wait a minute: [gestures over his head] Get them this high, and we won’t need any soldiers.”
After watching the documentary Gunner’s Palace and reflecting on the scenes in which American soldiers in Iraq reveal the utter worthlessness of their battle armor, some of Groucho and Chico’s logic sounds downright Rumsfeltian. Perhaps it is a coincidence, or perhaps it is the Brothers’ own perceptiveness as great American comedians that inadvertently makes Duck Soup seem like such a prophecy of our times.
One truth remains certain: The Marxes taking on America and declaring war on the world was inevitable. Looking circumspectly at all of their previous Paramount films, we see that they all seemed to be leading up to the Brothers’ final dismantling of global politics. As I noted in my review of the much-loved but frankly inferior A Night at the Opera: “Their path of destruction began with the hotel business in The Cocoanuts, continued onto summer parties, [the arts, and high society] in Animal Crackers, the mafia and ocean voyages in Monkey Business, the theater in I’ll Say She Is, [a post-secondary] educational establishment [and prohibition] in Horse Feathers, and, at last, the entire world in Duck Soup.” If filmgoers of the 1930s didn’t see the progression coming, they probably weren’t paying attention.
The ongoing theme throughout these early films always included the Brothers crashing high society with their anarchic gags and biting insults, but if we look carefully, we see that they really made no distinction between the rich and the poor. They lampooned both with equal fervor; the difference seems to be that the rich were more prone to take notice and get offended. The Brothers’ utter chaos and its particular effect on high society could be seen as a metaphor for the Depression itself: Tough on everyone, but particularly terrifying to those who had more to lose from its consequences.
As a spectator in this generation, I know but cannot relate to how the audiences of 1933 reacted to Duck Soup. At the time of its release, the First World War was over and the second one was the farthest thought from the American public’s minds, so the picture must have seemed more archaic and slapstick than reflective and prophetic. Mussolini banned the film in Italy, much to the Marx Brothers’ delight; this fact is certainly insightful to the underlining themes found in the picture, even though it was a critical and commercial flop when initially released in the States. Yet today, the film is rightfully considered the best of the Marx Brothers’ comedies. Viewed through our generation’s lens, it also comes across as the darkest, and perhaps the bleakest of their films—on par with other war comedies like Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, only slightly more unnerving in that Duck Soup doesn’t seem to seem to realize that it is anything more than innocent fluff.
Three key relationships between the individual Marx Brothers shape their comedic strategy, not counting when the four of them are onstage together: Groucho/Chico, Chico/Harpo, and Groucho/Zeppo (you could also make the case for Groucho/Margarent Dumont, but as a non-Brother, she was never in on the joke and therefore serves more as the Brothers’ ultimate victim than their collaborator). Their Paramount films follow a type of formula that is based around the above relationships: They play as a series of interactions in these combinations for their first two acts, and they conclude with the four Brothers coming together and finally shattering the house of cards that they have carefully picked at in pairs throughout the previous scenes. Why these particular combinations work so well is difficult to say, except that the Brothers’ distinct comedic styles create better chemistry in certain combinations than in others. Groucho and Harpo share one of the great, silent comedic sequences in Duck Soup (the “mirror” sequence, which I won’t give away), but it is an exception to the rule—more of an island unto itself than a furtherance of the Brothers’ established anarchical rules.
The Harpo-Chico combination is probably the most obvious: They are simply great foils for one another. One talks too little, the other talks too much. Harpo is a silent clown who is neither concerned with the films’ plots or the other characters (the other Brothers aren’t either, but they at least pretend to be concerned in order to establish their own, dysfunctional agenda), and Chico is a fast-talking swindler who likes to hear himself ramble. Like all great comedy pairs, they are the polar opposite of one another, and I suspect that Harpo ultimately sticks to Chico because he enjoys vexing the Italian by pretending that he doesn’t understand what’s going on around them. Yet Harpo is smarter than he pretends to be: The man can play a harp—certainly no small feat. More than that, Harpo is ultimately responsible for reducing the films’ villains to shambles by simply toying with them until their patience ends and their sanity flees. Chico is merely along for the ride, and he honestly thinks that the villains’ plight has something to do with his (worthless) instruction to Harpo. The joke, then, is ultimately on Chico, who believes that he has to keep Harpo around because the silent clown would be utterly helpless without him. Harpo knows that it’s the other way around but keeps it to himself, and their scenes together are therefore sort of touching in the way they play out.
Groucho will always be the leader of the Brothers, or he is at least placed in that position in their films, and his interactions with Chico become an opportunity for Groucho to reach the level of exasperation that he dishes out to other people. Groucho can take it in as much as he dishes out, but then, so can Chico, and this is why their joint scenes are so inspired. No one bites like Groucho, who insults, belittles, and downright angers everyone in equal measure. What’s essential about Chico, as the rebel whose opportunistic tendencies rivals Groucho’s, is that he bites Groucho back. Their interactions are like battles of wits in which Groucho tries his darndest to get the upper hand over Chico, who responds by producing a pun or a tongue-twister that leaves Groucho scrambling to one-up Chico again. We have a feeling that their conversations would last forever if Harpo or someone else didn’t run in and interrupt them.
Zeppo, that great comic parody of the schleppy juvenile role of the 1920s/30s musicals, has a very limited role in Duck Soup as Bob Roland, Firefly’s personal secretary and advisor, but he has at least two key scenes in which he instigates perhaps the most chilling moments of any Marx Brother film. The first comes when his outwardly sappy character quietly councils a game Firefly to insult the ambassador of Sylvania and instigate war; the second features Firefly firing his machine gun out of window at incoming soldiers, and when Roland advises Firefly that he is “shooting his own men,” he is afterwards quick to passively accept Firefly’s bribe of money not to tell anyone about the tragic misunderstanding. Zeppo’s onscreen relationship with Groucho has always been tricky to ascertain; Zeppo is generally Groucho’s aloof secretary in their films, but he is seemingly capable of reducing Groucho to stunned silence with simple, plain-English rebuttals (see Animal Crackers) when Chico’s snappy comebacks only fuel Groucho’s insults all the more. Duck Soup explores their relationship in more depth than any of the other films by plainly revealing how influential the soft-spoken Zeppo is over the madcap Groucho—Bob Roland alone suggests the war, and we have the feeling that only Bob could convince Firefly to back down (I would tell you what a quiet advisor influencing a man-child prime minister reminds me of, except I don’t want to insult your intelligence). Zeppo’s parts are usually small, but he performs exactly what is required of him as an outwardly wooden fellow who is incapable of being rattled by a man whose business is to rattle.
These relationships come to a head as, once Firefly has declared war, all four brothers find themselves trapped in a fragile shack, surrounded by the enemy. The final act of Duck Soup has rightfully been called the funniest of all of cinema and has been interpreted and analyzed by countless critics and Marx enthusiasts as thus; nevertheless, I must refer back to my previous thesis that viewed today, there is also an immense sadness to the film’s closing moments. Duck Soup is the type of film that has tapped into our collective consciousness by peering into the workings of topics that are never far from our current events—war, politics, government stupidity, and greed. It’s probably impossible to know how this film will resonate with audiences in fifty, even one hundred years from now, but we can almost certainly say that it will resonate. As for today, let me break the rules of criticism and give away just one punch-line in the film: The Brothers are trapped in a shack. The war rages outside. They are surrounded by the enemy, and everything seems lost. Zeppo comments that they are low on ammunition, and they need help fast. Harpo smiles, honks his horn, pulls a sign from his trenchcoat and hangs it outside on the front door. We read the sign: “Help Wanted.”
For the Marx Brothers, help does come. Today, we are fighting a war in which we are surrounded by an enemy that has us helplessly trapped, and the rest of the world has notified us that help is not on the way. I cannot help but watch this scene and think of Shakespeare’s dark tragedy Titus Andronicus. In this play, the hero, having earlier murdered his own child, has just witnessed the slaughter of his two favorite sons, and simultaneously has learned of the banishment of another son. As this information reaches him, he cradles his weeping daughter who has just been ravaged and mutilated. He sits among the ruins of his life, and all he can do is laugh loudly, heartily. His reason: “I have not another tear to shed.” It seems that we chortle at Duck Soup today under similar motivations. I hope we can someday reach the point that we appreciate the film simply because it shows four Jews trying to get a laugh.
Groucho Marx: Rufus T. Firefly
Chico Marx: Chicolini
Harpo Marx: Pinky
Zeppo Marx: Bob Roland
Margaret Dumont: Mrs. Teasdale
Louis Calhern: Trentino, Ambassador of Sylvania
Edgar Kennedy: Lemonade Vendor
A film by Paramount Pictures. Directed by Leo McCarey. Written by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. No M.P.A.A. rating—contains innuendo that will probably fly over childrens’ heads, but otherwise fine for the family. Running time: 68 minutes. Original United States theatrical release date: November 17, 1933.