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Written by: Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby

Directed by: Leo McCarey

Starring: Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx, Zeppo Marx, Margaret Dumont, Louis Calhern

“You know, you ain’t stopped talkin’ since I got here? You must’a been vaccinated with a phonograph needle”

The introduction to Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) sets a pace for Duck Soup that doesn’t let up for the entire film. Groucho’s incredible rapid-fire dialogue is famously sharp and layered, and his innuendo-laden chatter is perfect for a satirical portrayal of a slimy, immoral and oblivious dictator. The marriage of jokes and physical comedy, as is always the case with The Marx Brothers, makes for a hypnotizing combination.

The nation of Freedonia is abysmal economic shape and Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) inexplicably recommends Firefly as the nation’s new leader. Firefly has no concept of politics and is more interested in swindling Mrs. Teasdale out of her late husband’s fortune than he is in running the country. Meanwhile Trentino (Louis Calhern) an ambassador for Sylvania hires two spies to dig up information about Firefly. The spies, Chicolini (Chico Marx) and Pinky (Harpo Marx) are among cinema’s most incompetent spies. Of course the details are irrelevant (Hey, that’s’a the answer!) as the plot serves only as a forum for gags mostly targeting political incompetence and the folly of war.

In past viewings of Duck Soup and the Marx Brothers’ other films, I’ve been so enamored (and perhaps overwhelmed) by Groucho’s enormous presence that I failed to take much notice of what the other brothers were doing. This time, however, it was Harpo’s silent, absurdist physical gags that held me in absolute fascination. I recently watched The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, a documentary in which critic and philosopher Slavoj Zizek suggests a psychoanalytic reading of the Marx Brothers’ films which suggests the three brothers represent Freud’s famous psychic construct. By this reading, Groucho=superego, Chico=ego and Harpo=id. In the cases of Groucho and Chico, this reading works well enough, indeed, though I suspect that Zizek is being more than a little playful with his interpretation, but in the instance of Harpo I believe this provides a real insight into the character. Harpo is constantly functioning on a different level than the characters around him, ignoring threats and panic and instead entertaining himself with weird games and tricks. He carries a huge pair of scissors which he uses every chance he gets to cut off someone’s clothes, tie, cigar, sausage, whatever. He gets enormous joy from knocking things out of peoples’ hands or lighting a man’s hat on fire. Harpo is driven by his desires, which sets his physical comedy apart from, say The Three Stooges. The Stooges were ok, but their gags are all surface and driven by anger towards others, while Harpo’s willfully silent mischief is all about pure self-pleasure. What stood out to me about Duck Soup this time around is that while Groucho spends so much time talking about how he’s up to no good, Harpo is actually doing it, constantly and without fear of consequence. Because of this, Harpo’s role is effectively the more subversive one and the glee one gets from watching Harpo is so much more affecting on a gut level than Groucho’s sharp wordplay.

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