In some sense, a Marx Brothers film is a difficult film to review. The plot is insubstantial fluff and the straight material is as stiff and turgid as any 30’s B-picture. Thankfully, though, the one and only way the Marx Brothers could be described as “merciful” is in their merciless cutting of any “straight” material to its bare minimum during a time that all-but demanded it. While other films, even comedies, would go on and on forever with their central romantic love story and give way to episodic comedy in order to maintain a semblance of narrative, the Marx Brothers proudly couldn’t care less and included so little of the straight material so as to not even register. Even more-so, they absolutely skewer it, with the little included almost seeming like a satire of the need for all such films to hold themselves up to some semblance of narrative. They give us just enough to know we’re supposed to see a narrative in a film, and then they completely brush it to the side as if to say “you want a narrative, go fetch”.
In fact, that about sums up their comedy in a nutshell: characters trying to be serious and the three maestros of chaotic anarchism at the center of the film having absolutely none of it. In doing so, they expose quite a bit about what we value as “serious”. They tackle a lot in 1933’s Duck Soup– government, aristocracy, romance, the wealth of nations on the edge of an impending globalism – but they’re more interested in making a travesty of our conceptions of how to tell a story than anything else. The very idea of Graucho Marx here as the newly minted de facto leader of the fictional European country of Freedonia makes no sense whatsoever, and they don’t try to have it make sense. They just run with it – a jab at the artifice in leadership and the illegitimacy of national leaders as a whole, but more directly a re-reading of the artifice of film stories and an arrival at their logical conclusion. The fact is so many movies do rest on such contrivances and they take them as fact – expecting an audience to accept without question – and the Brothers are revealing this for what it is by making no bones about even trying to legitimize Graucho’s position.
Elsewhere, that’s what the boys do best really – screwing with us. Before the Marx Brothers, it was comedy standard for “comic relief” roles to be passive and compliant with social norms, the “butt” of jokes in a serious society moving past them and leaving them out to dry. The Brothers, long-time experts of vaudeville stage and a particular Jewish form of comedy they brought to the mainstream, did nothing less than absolutely ravage this and flip it on its head. Here, they were the oppressors, the collaborators, and the destroyers, playing a society none-the-wiser as they not only remained two steps ahead, but necessarily created the steps. They were abusers and loving every minute of it as they shook a serious-minded society to its knees.
There’s a chaotic lunacy to the film that knows no bounds, something unique today and absolutely shocking then. They were completely uninterested in the bounds of narrative form, other than in their capacity to subvert it and blow it to smithereens with the pinpoint overkill of a Wile E Coyote blowing up the Roadrunner with a thousand tons of bombs which must, for no reason other than “this would be funny”, necessarily be circular and with a little wick coming out of the end. In this light, the boys had multiple overlapping tools to instigate their chaotic destruction: Graucho’s playful blow-to-the-head of verbal wit and mastery of “did he just say that” general punnery, Harpo’s wonderfully sly contrast to Graucho’s never-ending motor-mouth with his literal deafness and rubber face, and Harpo’s and Chico’s wheelbarrow of intricately-planned yet cheerfully lunatic verbal pratfalls.
Reviewing the film beyond this point almost runs into the brick wall of listing moment after moment on-end. To the Brothers’ credit, however, they make it all but impossible to do anything other than run gleefully, head first, and with reckless abandon into just doing exactly that. I could write about Graucho’s stunning introductory verbal spit-firing, the famous hat routine that sees Chico and Harpo at their peak as a pairing, and of course, the mirror routine where Harpo dresses up as Graucho to spy on the elites of Freedonia and finds himself on the other side of a doorway with Graucho looking directly at him. Harpo must pretend it’s a mirror and imitate Graucho’s every action as Graucho tries desperately to catch him in the act – a master-class of comic timing and tension, perpetually on the edge of chaos but nonetheless sustained by the force of these two men doing shtick. Of course, the big joke here is the realization that, after all, Graucho is a construction, a fake character made up of a greasepaint mustache and put-on verbalisms which Graucho the man had adopted into his public persona as he bled together life and performance. If Harpo can dress the part of Graucho but can’t speak, by his character’s definition, does that make him eternally different from Graucho, merely putting on airs to achieve an effect? Or, if so much of Graucho’s character is in his appearance, is Harpo now quite literally Graucho himself? Here, as always, the Brothers were playing around with identity and the way putting on a role can approximate both superficial and deeper life.
Duck Soup is a series of sketches, really, and it makes no attempt to hide it – it’s this very forward-thinking postmodern filmic-ness that carries the film along through the tide of history when others get left behind to flounder or find themselves stuck on branches – the film is so confidently loopy it will have nothing but standing atop the tide on a makeshift couch-as-pirate-ship wearing a pirate hat made of feathers sticking halfway out of a pillow. Above all, Graucho’s constantly walking an unbelievably tense tightrope between serving as a springboard not for but against all the film’s characters AND all-but staring the entire time at the camera as if speaking to us is inspired genius – the key is that he rarely stares at us in the open, but looks just to the side to leave us perpetually unsure and unnerved about who he’s controlling: the characters, us, or both. Again, the eternal question of the Brothers’ is of our relationship to the film’s characters: the Marx brothers abuse us, the audience, with their formal trickery of film elements just as they abuse the film’s characters. When Graucho is speaking to them, it’s not that he might be really speaking to us, but that we, in all our eternal passivity to his greatness and chaotic anarchy, may just really be characters following a pre-ordained script after all.
A script, again, which the Brothers want nothing to do with, and they stand proudly above us, looking down with an angry, smug grin. They create a film of deep satire under the guise of cheeky comedy, a stunningly bitter, caustic, radical, and even angry indictment of the human condition masquerading as farce that reveals that such farce, for its rejection of logic and narrative form, is such an indictment and rejection of good taste to begin with. The Marx Brothers were just the first, and still possibly the only ones, to realize it. They spend the film playing with just about everything, but especially us, and in doing so, they break down the boundary between film and life and ask us about the ways we follow a certain deterministic life narrative set up for us. They question how much abuse we’re really willing to take before we get up and just throw something at something else, just for the hell of it.