March 23, 2017

Duck Soup at Cornell Cinema: A Healthy Serving of Laughter

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If reality television existed in the 1930s, the Marx Brothers may be remembered today as the male antecedent to Keeping Up with the Kardashians.  Where the brothers blossomed from vaudeville to Broadway to motion pictures to television comedies, the Kardashians continue to progress from independently produced sex tape to accredited reality series to “Kourtney and Khloe take Miami” to the Kylie Jenner Lip Kit.  The two families take very different approaches on theatrical dramas and elicit laughter, shock and imitation for none of the same reasons. Regardless, Minnie Marx, mother to Chico, Harpo, Groucho, Gummo and Zeppo, may have inspired Kris Jenner to her momager role.  Minnie, an actress in her own right, led her sons to the limelight with a little more talent and a lot more clothing than her modern day match. This week, Cornell Cinema offers a break from Kardashian ubiquity with a return to America’s first royal family of entertainment.  Duck Soup, a 1933 political satire, provides a surprisingly timely and timelessly funny Marx Brother performance.

The film brings viewers to Freedonia, a country on the verge of total bankruptcy and reliant upon a Mrs. Teasdale for a twenty million dollar life preserving loan.  Director Leo McCarey throws his audience directly into the black and white action like Donald Trump’s hurried transition from television personality to leader of the free world.  With eerily twenty-first century speed, the viewer sees Freedonia preserved and upturned in the film’s first two minutes.  Like an accusatory tweet from Donald Trump followed by Kellyanne Conway’s subdued rationale, the president of Freedonia asks Mrs. Teasdale for 20 million dollars, she refuses, she resists, she concedes, she names a new dictator.  The circumstances should be laughably illogical; instead, it plays out now like a Saturday Night Live set at Mar-a-Lago.  When Mr. Firefly (Groucho Marx), the country’s newly appointed dictator, arrives at his induction from the wrong door having just torn off his pajamas and lit a cigar, the comical image reminisces a very recent inauguration in which someone ludicrously unprepared ascends to power.  From that point forward, Mr. Firefly intersperses knock-knock jokes with nominations for Secretary of War. He sings made up songs and orates legislative letters. Subtract the mustache and add a little more volume to his disheveled hair and the impulsive, garrulous, undiplomatic Mr. Firefly challenges Alec Baldwin for best presidential caricature.

Despite these similarities, Duck Soup makes its political satire entirely comedic.  The laughter that comes from each next completely ridiculous, entirely irreverent, absurdly illogical scene fades into more laughter, not an awkward realization of political truths.  The Marx Brothers, like the Kardashians, trade solely off their ability to entertain.  In the case of the brothers, however, they bear real talent for timing, delivery and bodily humor.  The Freedonia storyline falls to the background when each Marx brother enters a scene.  Duck Soup showcases each of their abilities to steal away the spotlight and divert a viewer’s attention.  As with the famously ridiculous hat switching sketch in which even McCarey’s characters break into laughter, the Marx Brothers take on any role with uncommon ease and lightheartedness.  Each character approaches issues of war, love and truce with unapologetic gaiety.  Need more men on the front line?  Put out a help wanted sign.  Losing the war?  Switch sides.  Duck Soup makes everything funny and simple and light with no overwrought, sentimental backside.  The brief film works as the perfect break from pre-Spring-break prelims.  Duck Soup satisfies an appetite for thoughtless laughs just as well as Zeus’ Creamy Zucchini comforts a tired brain after a 75 minute lecture.

Just as the film carries a few minor jokes and spoofs throughout the comedy, Duck Soup, as a whole, remains ridiculously humorous nearly 85 years after its premiere.  Between larger scenes that move the plot forward, McCarey and the Marx Brothers play with a few lines and gags over and over again throughout the film.  These little laughs add up and stay fresh.  Harpo continuously cuts away tailcoats and hair and hats and cigars.  Groucho regularly “rides” a motor bike with no motor.  Each brother hones a comedic persona in this film that sticks with them throughout their career and lives still for present-day audiences.  Duck Soup’s repeated jokes show, on a small scale, how the Marx Brother humor endures in our cinematic culture.  And while the jokes stay funny, the political parody remains pertinent as well.  Duck Soup shows how a senseless streak in political history repeats itself and persists like our sustained laughter.

When the film first premiered, critics dubbed Duck Soup a “flop” and disappointing box office returns backed up their claim. Contemporaneous critics now hail the comedy as the Marx Brothers’ finest film and a classic comedic masterpiece.  Maybe there’s something to be gleaned from the arc of Duck Soup’s critical reception.  Perhaps, television critics and journalists haven’t yet adapted to tastemakers like Keeping Up with the Kardashians and Donald Trump’s political strategies.  Duck Soup’s 21st century acclaim after 20th century criticism reminds us to keep an open mind.  The problem, of course, is in the genre.  Duck Soup, being a comedy in form and featuring four comedic personas, primes us for easy laughter and purposeful mindlessness.  The spontaneity, hilarity and illogicality prominent in Duck Soup make perfect sense in the fictional narrative.  It’s hard to accept this same rhetoric in our real lives.


Julia Curley is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]