Duck Soup (1933, Leo McCarey)
I’m not trying to be a contrarian, I swear, but I have problems here. I want to love this so much more than I do. I want it to save my life the way it saved Woody Allen’s life in Hannah and Her Sisters. And Groucho Marx comes on the screen and I start laughing uncontrollably; several of the setpieces later on are gobsmackingly brilliant, and the sheer surrealism the whole enterprise periodically teeters on and eventually falls into is just the direction I long for more comedies to approach. But the narrative of the Marx Brothers being anarchic and untouchable at Paramount only to be stymied by Thalberg’s intrusion of plot and music and corn at MGM is bollocks, at least on this evidence. (I’m reminded of the traditional band-sells-out-to-major-label-and-loses-cred model familiar from my rock & roll hobby.) A Night at the Opera is a superior film precisely because the Marxes’ insanity is far less impressive to me when it has no cheese or sleepy sincerity to play off. When every moment of Duck Soup consists of bucking the system and hurling a constant barrage of good jokes, bad jokes, and utter weirdness at the audience, its effect is kind of numbing, even at just 68 minutes. Stop for a second, though — is it nevertheless appallingly fast, furious and hysterical? You bet. It’s bloody splendid, even; I just can’t go along with it being a truly great or revolutionary film.
In few other studio films from the first few years of sound is the artificiality of movie sets in that period so pronounced and oddly beneficial; I personally love the look of, for instance, MGM’s 1930s films in which one constantly is given the faint flavor of a controlled and closed space, which strangely adds to the sense of spectacle and the perverse containment of Hollywood. In Duck Soup, Paramount’s soundstages are like a padded asylum — the sense that this strange world is arbitrarily limited by four walls and a high ceiling reels the viewer into its off-kilter journey through the looking glass. That it occurs in a space so far from our world renders its sense of otherworldly fantasy not just necessarily distant but truly surreal and strange. I’m frankly as delighted by the look of the film as I am by the performances and jokes.
Soup partisans do conveniently forget that it does bog down more than once with witless chit-chat and suffers, for its first third, every time Groucho Marx isn’t on the screen. Once he pops up from that bed and makes his entrance, all hell breaks loose. There’s little point in explaining any of what comes just afterward in the parade of zingers he provides and the chaos that ensues when Harpo and Chico join the fold (no harp solo this time, by the way), because you’ve almost certainly seen this film and if you haven’t, you’re not going to benefit from my explaining to you what’s funny about it. To quickly preface it, though: it isn’t slapstick, not purely, it’s genuinely witty and unstoppably fast verbal and physical comedy that manages to surprise and one-up the audience at nearly every turn.
Context is everything, though, and as indescribably wonderful as the gags are, the pleasurable froth of the Marxes’ comedy is divorced from any sense of narrative, to the extent that it has no weight here — and that’s fine if you’re already seasoned to their humor but you’re more likely not, which is why I find it curious that this has gone down as the signature Marx film. To me, it seems like a knockout niche that should be a person’s third or fourth exposure. I doubt any modern audience is prepared for something as gleefully insane as, uh, Harpo’s dog, for instance. A generation familiar with Animaniacs, A Hard Day’s Night, and the early Woody Allen filmography does enjoy a home court advantage, but one thing that the best “nutty” films and cartoons have in common — Bob Clampett’s Looney Tunes, for example — is that somewhere buried in them is a carefully composed structure and rhythm. Maybe I’m a cynical asshole here but rhythm is important to me even in a film that wishes to throw all such convention out the window. I tend to wonder what this script must have looked like and then I realize that I doubt there really was much of a script. Of course, Notorious technically had no final shooting script; what existed was seen as something to toy with and swing from. Duck Soup feels disconnected from all such pagination — that’s its genius and its curse, for me.
Again, these aren’t actually criticisms so much as apologies and warnings. This is a true avant garde motion picture, sold to this day as a zany and simple comedy — what nonsense. Duck Soup is dangerous, more dangerous than A Clockwork Orange or any such provocation and perversion. Hollywood still hasn’t caught up with this kind of volcanic comedy; at this point it likely never could. And somewhere in all this is enough hysterical material for several movies — the mirror scene alone could go on twice as long without wearing out its welcome, and turning the entire enterprise into a Groucho one-man show for an hour or so wouldn’t have hurt anything — packed into just sixty-odd breathless, ecstatic minutes. But the lulls are still lulls, just as in A Night at the Opera, except cutesier and less professional. The lulls at MGM seemed like well-justified catchings of breath and are so ludicrously straightlaced and silly it’s hard to wish them away. Maybe I’m just a grouch since I find myself adrift in the dense world of Duck Soup each time I see it. Perhaps it leaves me behind and I’m bitter? I can’t say. It’s sacrilege, but even the final battle scene is a little too much to me. The songs are tiresome. Even some of Groucho’s jokes wear out their welcome; is it just me or has insult comedy actually never been all that funny? I’d better shut up now.
At its most inventive, Duck Soup clearly deserves its reputation as a masterpiece. It winds up perfectly, not a bad achievement for a film with no story whatsoever. Oh sure, advocates will tell you it has a story, about Freedonia and declaring war and the vagaries of monarchy and spies and the like. If we can call this mishmash a plot, it’s such a thin one has to be imperceptible — but again, this film just barely needs a story at all. The story in A Night at the Opera is appallingly dumb too, dumber than this, but in that film the story is something to destroy. Duck Soup is already so liberated and violently goofy at the outset that it seems a fair metaphor for some old thing someone said about absence of limitations destroying creativity. Can you really be subversive if you have nothing to subvert? With this level of weirdness and energy, maybe you can.