I’ve had many discussions in this blog about the thin line between great absurdist humor and absurdist humor that falls flat. The Big Lebowski (my practically ur-example of absurdist humor) hits the right notes from beginning to end. Martin & Orloff flails most of its running time without any real direction. And, despite the seeming contradiction there, great absurdist comedies drop jokes with laser-point precision. 1933’s Duck Soup challenges my general premise. It challenges my premise because Duck Soup is an undeniably brilliant and gut-busting comedy, but it takes a shotgun to the idea of “direction” or “meaning” or “themes.” It simply is, and somehow, it makes that work.
If Duck Soup has a raison d’etre, it is an excuse to lay down as many jokes, gags, and slapstick at a machine gun-fire rate that it can. Actually a machine-gun is the wrong metaphor here; Duck Soup fires off jokes like a gatling gun on steroids. Though the film has an expository opening at the beginning (before the Marx brothers show up), once Groucho makes his grand entrance, the film just doesn’t stop. It actually becomes sort of exhausting. If the film were any longer (an hour and eight minutes is the absolutely perfect running time), it would have been too much to handle. But, as the act of comedy distilled to its pure essence, the Marx brothers knew what they were doing.
What plot that exists in Duck Soup is always in support of the film’s jokes and almost never the other way around, and, against all rules of comedic writing, that works. When the struggling nation of Freedonia needs a loan to stay afloat, the wealthy Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) agrees on the condition that Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) be appointed as the new prime minister. Of course, Rufus being Groucho, he’s no more fit for the job than the last officeholder, and his zany ideas for proper political behavior get the film’s conflicts rolling.
The scheming ambassador of Sylvania, Trentino (Louis Calhern), wishes to marry the wealthy Mrs. Teasdale, who only has eyes for Rufus. And so he hires two spies, the mute Pinky (Harpo Marx) and Chicolini (Chico Marx), to dig up dirt on Rufus T. Firefly. Of course Pinky being Harpo and Chicolini being Chico, they’re no more competent as spies than Rufus is as a government minister. And when Freedonian Bob Roland (Zeppo Marx) discovers Trentino’s schemes, Rufus’s confrontations with the Sylvanian ambassador lead to all-out war between Freedonia and Sylvania.
Let there be no doubts. Duck Soup is funny. I was belly-laughing from beginning to end. There are bits in the film where it doesn’t work as well. Some of the musical numbers are more ridiculous than funny though that may have been the point. And any second (literally any single frame of the film) where at least one of the Marx brothers isn’t on screen robs it of its power. But, if any single one of them is there, it’s magic. And if they’re all three on screen… it’s divine (Zeppo is also in the film but plays the straight man). Whether it’s Groucho and Chico’s endless non-sequiturs or Harpo’s silent slapstick, Duck Soup fires on all cylinders from beginning to end.
Like Bringing Up Baby or Modern Times, Duck Soup makes the convincing case that cinematic comedy peaked in the 1930s and it didn’t really find itself again until Woody Allen’s dramedies burst on the scene. And it’s easy to pinpoint why. Early comedies just didn’t stop. Most modern comedies are lucky to have a handfull of big, belly laugh moments even though they throw tons of weak material at the screen hoping something sticks. The classic comedies are endlessly inventive from beginning to end. It’s a marvel, and more comedy writers need to study the crisp rapid-fire dialogue of the Preston Sturges screwballs and the brilliant physical timing of Harpo Marx/Charlie Chaplin to get how real comedy works.
I want to work on my screenplay so I’ll draw this review to a close (I haven’t worked on the screenplay in a significant manner in two days now). Let me leave you with this. I will always remember the avalanche of “bits” in this film. Chico, Harpo, and a lemonade salesman switching hats in a zany bit of misdirection; Chico and Harpo pretending to be Groucho and then Groucho arriving; Groucho’s ever-evolving suite of outfits when war finally breaks out until he ultimately looks like Daniel Boone. The jokes never end. And that should be all the invitation one needs to watch this classic comedy masterpiece.
Final score: A