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
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.
gave them a mass audience, and they were the instrument that translated what
was once essentially a Jewish style of humor into the dominant note of American
comedy. Although they were not taken as seriously, they were as surrealist as
Dali, as shocking as Stravinsky, as verbally outrageous as Gertrude Stein, as
alienated as Kafka. Because they worked the genres of slapstick and screwball,
they did not get the same kind of attention, but their effect on the popular
mind was probably more influential. "As an absurdist essay on politics and
warfare," wrote the British critic Patrick McCray, " `Duck Soup' can
stand alongside (or even above) the works of Beckett and Ionesco."
Marx Brothers created a body of work in which individual films are like slices
from the whole, but "Duck Soup" (1933) is probably the best. It
represents a turning point in their movie work; it was their last film for
Paramount, and the last in which all of the scenes directly involved the
brothers. When it was a box office disappointment, they moved over to MGM,
where production chief Irving Thalberg ordered their plots to find room for
conventional romantic couples, as if audiences could only take so much Marx
before they demanded the mediocre (Buster Keaton's sound comedies for MGM
suffered from the same meddling and dilution).
Night at the Opera" (1935) their first MGM film, contains some of their
best work, yes, but in watching it I fast-forward over the sappy interludes
involving Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones. In "Duck Soup" there are no
sequences I can skip; the movie is funny from beginning to end.
describe the plot would be an exercise in futility, since a Marx Brothers movie
exists in moments, bits, sequences, business and dialogue, not in
comprehensible stories. Very briefly, "Duck Soup" stars Groucho as
Rufus T. Firefly, who becomes dictator of Fredonia under the sponsorship of the
rich Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont, the brothers' tireless and irreplaceable
foil). Neighboring Sylvania and its Ambassador Trintino (Louis Calhern) have
designs on the country, and Trintino hires Harpo and Chico as spies. This
flimsy premise provides a clothesline for one inspired sequence after another,
including sustained examples of Groucho's puns and sneaky double entendres. But
it also supports a couple of wordless physical sequences that probably have
their roots in the vaudeville acts the brothers performed and saw years
is the three-hat routine involving Chico and Harpo and the straight man Edgar
Kennedy (who started with Mack Sennett and Chaplin). Chico, as a spy,
inexplicably adopts the cover of a peanut vendor, and Harpo is a passerby.
Kennedy has the lemonade cart next to Chico's peanut cart, and the brothers
make his life miserable in a routine that involves their three hats changing
position as quickly as the cards in a monte game.
other sequence is one of the gems of the first century of film. Harpo disguises
himself as Groucho, and for reasons much too complicated to explain, sneaks
into Mrs. Teasdale's, tries to break into a safe and shatters a mirror. Groucho
himself comes downstairs to investigate. Harpo is standing inside the frame of
the broken mirror, and tries to avoid detection by pretending to be Groucho's
reflection. This leads to a sustained pantomime involving flawless timing, as
Groucho tries to catch the reflection in an error, and Harpo matches every
move. Finally, in a perfect escalation of zaniness, Chico blunders into the
frame, also dressed as Groucho.
is impossible to discuss Groucho's dialogue without quoting it, and pointless
to quote it since Groucho's delivery is essential to the effect. He played an
utterly irreverent character whose speech was at the mercy of puns, insults and
bawdy insinuations that tiptoed just this side of the censors (as when Rufus T.
Firefly tantalizes Mrs. Teasdale with visions of marriage and then confesses,
"All I can offer you is a Rufus over your head"). Many gifted comedy
writers, including S.J. Perelman, labored over the Marx Brothers movie scripts,
but all their dialogue had its origins in Groucho's own speaking style,
perfected over the years.
1972 I was able to spend some time with Groucho, for a profile for Esquire. He
was then 81, and still unmistakably occupying the persona he had made famous.
(Who he was in private remains a mystery to me; in public he was always
onstage.) His first words to me could have been said in more or less the same
way by Rufus T. Firefly: "Esquire isn't my favorite magazine, you know.
Interviews are really murder. They keep asking you questions. I could be
brought up on a rape charge. I don't mind a hatchet job, if it's truthful.Couldyou pin a rape charge on me? Could
you try? I'd appreciate it. You don't do any dental work, do you? I have to go
to the dentist before I go to France."
two sessions separated by a couple of weeks, I heard him talk for hours at a
time, always in the same way, circling his material looking for loopholes. I
began to think of him as a soloist, and speech as his instrument. Like a good musician,
he no longer had to think of the notes; he worked in terms of timing and the
through-line, and questions did not inspire answers but improvisations.
as a comedian would have been impossible in the silent era, just as Chaplin and
Keaton adapted only uncertainly to sound. And yet in appearance the three
essential brothers (Zeppo seemed superfluous) were like caricatures from the
silent era. Harpo of course was always silent anyway. Chico had the Italian
persona, with the curly hair and Pinocchio hat. And Groucho was such an
artificial creation, with his bold slash of a greasepaint mustache, his
eyebrows and his cigar. His look was so bizarre it wasn't makeup so much as a
mask; there are times during the mirror sequence in "Duck Soup" when
we have to ask ourselves which one is the real Groucho.
as "Duck Soup" inevitably is in some respects, it has moments that
seem startlingly modern, as when Groucho calls for help during the closing
battle sequence, and the response is stock footage edited together out of
newsreel shots of fire engines, elephants, motorcycles, you name it. There is
an odd moment when Harpo shows Groucho a doghouse tattooed on his stomach, and
in a special effect a real dog emerges and barks at him. The brothers broke the
classical structure of movie comedy and glued it back again haphazardly, and
nothing was ever the same.
Why the title? The critic Tim Dirks explains: "It is claimed that Groucho
provided the following recipe: `Take two turkeys, one goose, four cabbages, but
no duck, and mix them together. After one taste, you'll duck soup the rest of
your life.' "
Two Groucho Marx interviews are available on RogerEbert.com: One
and another from1972.