Category: 1933


Duck Soup

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

 

The original King Kong is one of the most beloved adventure films of all time. An obscure team of directors and producers that no one in Hollywood had ever heard of (or would really hear much from ever again) brought a fantastic tale of man vs. beast and the power of beauty to tame wild aggression, and they combined this tale with special effects (that while laughably horrible by today’s standards) were unbelievably exciting and terrifying for a 1930’s audience. Before this viewing, I had never actually seen the original King Kong and was only directly familiar with what I now know to be the far superior remake by one Peter Jackson (although I never would have guessed how faithful he was to the original source material). And while this film left me slightly disapppointed because Peter Jackson’s version really fleshed out the story and gave the characters greater depth and the film better emotional resonance, I can easily see why this is a beloved all-time classic.

The film tells the story of Carl Denham, a movie producer filming his newest flick in an uncharted island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. He has chosen street waif, Ann Dunham (the absolutely gorgeous and talented Fay Wray), to play the lead. He plucked her right off the streets. They set sail on a steam boat to Skull Island where they come upon a tribe of natives (who are portrayed so unbelievably, ridiculously racist) who worship a giant ape named Kong. Ann is kidnapped by the natives and given to Kong as a sacrificial bride. What follows is an adventure story set against dinosaurs and other fantastic creatures to rescue Ann from the clutches of Kong. Eventually Kong is captured and brought back to NYC where you have the infamous climbing of the Empire State Building. I don’t care that I ruined the story. This movie is like 80 years old and been remade several times.

The effects in the film are pretty damn ridiculous by today’s standards, and there were a couple of times that I literally laughed out loud because of how bad they were, but I have to remember how damn old this film is and how much it shocked and amazed audiences when it was released. Computers weren’t something film studios were using yet to make movies and this film is a pretty grand achievement in early visual effects. The acting is also ridiculously over the top, but Fay Wray was pretty damn good as Ann. There’s a reason she’s the all time reigning “Scream Queen”.

This movie was fun. Their wasn’t a lot of depth to the characters and I know I’ve been spoiled by Jackson’s remake. But I really enjoyed it. It does have one advantage over Peter Jackson’s version though. This film clocks in at about an hour and a half, not well over three hours like Peter Jackson’s film, so at no point do you think any of it has begun to drag on you. If you haven’t seen this film yet, you should watch it simply for the place it holds in the hallowed halls of film history. Just be prepared to take its age into consideration.

Final Score: B