Up until this point in time, The Marx Brother’s all-out assault on humanity had still mostly been geared at the likes of stuffy socialites, gangsters, college campuses, authority figures, etc. Albeit entertaining but fairly straightforward worlds where there was not that much to be navigated beyond what we already knew to be true. All that was necessary was to sit back and enjoy the boys at work and cue the rolling in the aisles.
Their audiences by now had been conditioned with a certain type of environment. The framework is still somehow familiar in Duck Soup as well — at least on first glance. There we have Margaret Dumont at the center of it all surrounded by a bunch of stuffy bespectacled chaps with beards. She is calling for the resignation of one of the leaders of the nation of Freedonia.
Her choice to fill the position is none other than that progressive visionary Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho). Why she thinks he is anywhere close to being qualified is slightly beside the point. We just want a chance to see Groucho and he receives the usual majestic fanfare rushing down the fireman’s pull to see what all the hubbub is about.
Meanwhile, Louis Calhern of the adjoining nation of Sylvania is simultaneously conspiring with a cunning mistress to ignite a revolution and take over the country from within while also attempting to woo the prominent Mrs. Teasdale.
Two spies are tracking Firefly right as they speak. In fact, they’re a lot closer than they might think. They’re his brothers. Scratch that. They’re Pinky and Chicolini sent to scrape together some dirt to discredit him with the people. Little does their ringleader know that Groucho, errr, Firefly has been doing a good enough job being disreputable all by himself.
Only when Margaret Dumont has returned back in the fold do you realize how much she improves Groucho’s jokes. Years later the man said himself that the key to the magic was the fact that she never understood any of his barbs — much less why they were funny. However, in this particular outing, Louis Calhern and the demonstrative lemonade vendor Edgar Kennedy do much the same for the other two conniving troublemakers, Chico and Harpo. They’ve never truly had such a good foil as Groucho had in Dumont.
The picture segues into a scene where Groucho sticks his head out the window overlooking a peanut vendor and pretty soon Chico is being offered a spot in Groucho’s cabinet. Sounds about right. Likewise, Harpo gets in on the action and the most surprising discovery is that his body is covered with art in the film’s next truly surreal interlude.
Now with such crucial positions so close to Groucho, who coincidentally would have probably offered positions to a chimpanzee if given the chance, the two infiltrators are called upon to steal Freedonia’s war plans. Again, who cares?
Crucially, their little escapade sets up The Marx Brothers’ next iconic gag with three Groucho’s dressed in nightcaps and pajamas. The mirror scene is the most remembered bit and it’s fun but it’s only a segment of a whole drawn-out sequence that plays on the brothers’ mistaken identities. This in itself could be another commentary if you wanted to make it into one.
Personally, it struck me for the first time that though physically the sequence revolves around Groucho, much of it takes place in Harpo’s world without any dialogue. Furthermore, there are times when we don’t actually know who is Groucho or who is not until we are given cues whether Chico’s trademark accent or Harpo’s hat.
First, the mirror is shattered and then reality when one Groucho steps out and is replaced by another only to be joined by a third. Regardless of what you want to say about this realm of the absurd, it’s a great gag.
Then there’s the final sequence which is the actual escalation of the war between the two belligerent countries but it’s done with the typical tongue-and-cheek manner you might expect from the brothers where war is equated to a minstrel show and Groucho breaks out into a slightly doctored spiritual, “All God’s Children Got Guns.” From thence forward let the surrealist nonsensical nature of war take over.
For me, Groucho sums it up in sending Chicolini off to battle, “While you’re out there risking life and limb through shot and shell, we’ll be in here thinking what a sucker you are.” This was no grand anti-war statement. If anything it was a cynical statement. Of course, that doesn’t take into account Groucho’s constantly changing military garb from Revolutionary War attire, Civil War uniforms, a coonskin cap, etc. It was comedy pure and simple.
In my mind, it’s no small coincidence that one of the Brothers most reputed films was also directed by Leo McCarey who in some respects still remains criminally underrated. Certainly, he was more a Cary Grant director than a Marx Brothers one but there’s a sense that he could focus their comedy into something utterly electric.
The irony of it all is that The Marx Brothers really hadn’t changed all that much but the way people perceived them and by extension, how they perceived their comedy, had provided this new context that surrounds Duck Soup. So people could start placing all types of assumptions and beliefs onto the film in ways that were most alarming and subversive.
I think the brothers themselves may have even admitted that they unwittingly rather than consciously made this departure. But the implications were great and cultivated the soil for a film that’s legacy would only grow year after year. And it’s true that there really is no superfluous scene. There’s no real chaff as it were even if it is all utterly marvelous absurdity.
However, it made just enough sense for Mussolini to ban the film on grounds of pointed satire. One last time let’s turn to Groucho who would have been overjoyed by such a response but pointed out, “We were four Jews just trying to get a laugh.” That was all. But it was so much. Duck Soup is a pinnacle of comic nonsense.