Film 27: Duck Soup

Duck Soup (1933) dir. Leo McCarey. USA.

My father loved the Marx Brothers above all other comedians or, indeed, all other movie stars. The first movie he ever took me to was “A Day at the Races.” All I remember about that experience was the fact of my father’s laughter. But there was something else, too, that I understood only much later: The sound of his voice as he described the brothers. He used the tone that people employ when they are talking about how someone got away with something.

That is the same tone I have heard, and used, in discussing such subjects as “Some Like It Hot,” “The Producers,” “Blazing Saddles,” “Airplane!,” Monty Python, Andy Kaufman, Saturday Night Live, “South Park,” Howard Stern, “There’s Something About Mary” and “Being John Malkovich” – -and even movies that are only indirectly comedies, like “Pulp Fiction.” There is a kind of admiration for material that dares something against the rules and yet is obvious, irresistibly, funny. How much more anarchic the Marx Brothers must have seemed in their time than we can understand today. They were among the first to evoke that tone; you can see who the Marx Brothers inspired, but not who they were inspired by, except indirectly by the rich traditions of music hall, vaudeville and Yiddish comedy that nurtured them.

— Roger Ebert

Abigail:  What an absolute joy of a film!  This was not my first time watching this movie, and hopefully not my last.  This film feels so very modern.  It is as hilarious to me as I assume it was to its original audience — the comedy has aged very well.  I think because it is so incredibly influential, and also astutely allegorical. (Unfortunately, Rufus T. Firefly seems to have made it from Freedonia to the USA.)  Without the Marx Brothers, we don’t have modern comedy.  The three of them (sorry Zeppo, you just don’t quite measure up…) are such adept and distinct characters, gleaned and honed from life, that they literally defined comedy — Groucho with his quick witted dialogue, Chico with his broad ease, and Harpo, oh Harpo!  What amazing melding of props and body — and what extraordinary control! I would gladly watch him cut ties, burn hats and mirror his brother in every comedy.

Forrest:  I’d never seen a Marx Brothers film before this, and I’m awfully glad to have made their acquaintance.  It’s amazing how modern they feel.  You can see them set the template for so much of subsequent comedy, from (as Abigail observed) Mel Brooks to Peter Sellars to “21 Jump Street.”  They throw jokes at the screen so fast that it doesn’t matter when a few fall flat — there are three waiting to take its place.  And the verbal jokes are intermingled with sight gags worthy of the great silent clowns — observe, especially, the mirror scene.  This was, in short, excellent.

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