Monday, November 17, 2008
Hail, hail Freedonia!
By Edward Copeland
Can one of the greatest nonsensical farces ever made also be a savvy statement on the absurdity of war? The case could be made as far as the Marx Brothers' brilliant Duck Soup goes. After all, Kubrick had originally planned to end Dr. Strangelove with a pie fight. Duck Soup turns 75 today.
Directed by Leo McCarey, the film opens with a quite literal representation of the film's stars and titles: The Four Marx Brothers in Duck Soup as four real ducks swim in a pan of water. Yes, poor, bland Zeppo still is along for this outing, though it would be his last film with his better-known and wackier brothers.
The setting is the cash-strapped country of Freedonia, dependent on handouts from the wealthy widow (Margaret Dumont) of one of the country's founders. This time, she agrees to bail them out only if the current leader agrees to resign in favor of one Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho).
Meanwhile, the ambassador of neighboring Sylvania (Louis Calhern) is plotting to annex Freedonia for Sylvania, by hook or by crook. Unfortunately, though he appears devious and well-heeled, he somehow thinks it's a good idea to put Sylvania's fate in the hands of two spies (Chico and Harpo). The dialogue flies fast and furious and you'll never catch all the lines on the first viewing but any Marx Brothers film deserves to be seen more than once, especially this one, which I consider their best. I mean, this one has the mirror sequence alone. Their style of comedy is in many ways the precursor of the kind of wackiness that would be practiced decades later in films such as Airplane! or The Naked Gun. Still, it's once the war gets going in Duck Soup, that it truly gets surreal, interspersing bizarre musical numbers and placing Groucho in military uniforms from different eras in each new scene. The whole premise (and movie) is supposed to be ridiculous, but it's difficult not to see that there is something beneath the surface saying that about war in general. And some crazy comics shall lead them...