“Movies 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.”–Roger Ebert on the Marx Brothers
The Marx Brothers were, understandably, the darlings of the surrealists; and that should be a red flag to contemporary audience members belonging to the religious cult of Hyperrealism.
I say that up front because I have watched this film in the company of such alien types as the Hyperrealists. Their melodramatic, aggressive reactions were the same as I saw in a showing of the films of Busby Berkeley (be forewarned: a series on Berkeley is coming). Naturally, I saw it as my aesthetic duty to cut those sophistic assailants down to size.
The Marx Brothers, perhaps, are the quintessential comedy team with an edge. W.C. Fields exhibits a comparable level of surrealism, but as a predominantly solo act, he’s a mono whisper compared to the quadrophonic Brothers. 1930s audiences showed themselves to be a somewhat more imaginative lot (not by much) than us in that they not only accepted the Brothers level of unhinged zaniness, but they even made stars out of them.
Note that “but not by much,” because Duck Soup (1933) was the Marx Brothers most revolutionary film, a surrealist-politico masterpiece, and it totally bombed at the box office. This resulted in the Brothers being released from their Paramount contract. MGM and Irving Thalberg were quick to snap them up, but Thalberg, a self-confessed fan, knew he had to polish their act in order to increase their accessibility.
The MGM films that followed Soup retained a certain level of zaniness, but it was noticeably diminished. The new producers added musical numbers aplenty (the songs in Duck Soup are minimal and non-intrusive—and although I love musicals, saturating a Marx Brothers film with dance numbers is a really bad idea), and sacked the bland Zeppo (the sole good move). The best of the Thalberg lot was probably Night At The Opera (1935) directed by Sam Wood, a fleetingly competent commission director. Wood lacked the consummate craftsmanship and idiosyncratic comedic intuition of Duck Soup director Leo McCary. McCary had cut his teeth with some eccentric peers. He started as an assistant to Tod Browning and had worked, as a writer, with Chaplin, Stan Laurel, and W.C. Fields. With Wood and Thalberg reigning the Marx Brothers in, a slow descent into the pedestrian was inevitable.
Still, we have Duck Soup, which has rightly been lauded (by those who know better) as the great anti-war masterpiece (along with 1964’s Dr. Strangelove). (Although, if I remember correctly, the late critic Leslie Halliwell preferred Fail Safe to Kubrick,’s film, a judgment I’ve never fully understood).
The irreverence displayed in Duck Soup should delight any weird movie lover. Nothing is sacred. Much to FDR’s dismay, patriotism was lampooned, as was religion: “We got guns! They got guns! All God’s children got guns!” Hallelujah! Bourgeoisie society is likened to fascism, and the boys libidos are raging.
Groucho is new President, Rufus T. Firefly, and his kingdom is the fictional Freedonia (only W.C. Fields could come up with wackier names). The object of Rufus’ affection is the aptly named Mrs. Teasdale (the hilarious Margaret Dumont—stocky, unattractive and no spring chicken, she couldn’t even make a local commercial today). Mrs. Teasdale is a wealthy widow, and Groucho’s painted mustache and ceegar have come ‘ a courtin’ her—and his ceegar is noticeably stiff.
The antagonistic neighboring country Sylvania has sent two spies into Freedonia (Chico and Harpo—go figure). Of course, this is a set-up for nonsensical dialogue, political intrigue, seductive vamps, surreal one-liners, even more surreal slapstick (during the eventual war), and raging testosterone.
A cabinet meeting scene is typical. Rufus is handed a report: “Your excellency, here is the treasury Department report. I hope you find it clear.” “Clear? A four-year old child could understand this report.” Rufus then hands the report to secretary Zeppo and instructs him: “Run out and find me a four-year-old child. I can’t make heads or tails out of it.”
Of course, Zeppo ignores him and goes about his business. And that’s sort of reaction led to much of the complaining I heard during the screening of the film. The unrealistic exchanges throw many modern audiences off. “He didn’t even respond to what she said!” “He looked at the camera!” and so on.
While Duck Soup was a subversive anti-status quo film, it was not rejected by the masses at the time because of all the unrealistic zingers (one of which will immediately be recognized by fans of the Addams Family movies, but then that’s old business). Rather, it’s unpatriotic irreverence went too far for a nation trying desperately to unite together during the depression (which few of us could fathom, I’m sure!) and for a nation on the brink of war. However, escapism was the order of the day, and the Marx Brothers were happy to oblige.
Although their films were probably not considered weird in their day, they have evolved into time capsule misfits because of shifting aesthetics and ideologies. That Duck Soup is still, unfortunately, frighteningly relevant possibly goes unnoticed.
The film is often callous, cruel, uncouth, and laced in spiked Jewish humor, but it never resorts to dumbing down to its audience. And that is a refreshing change of pace.