Saturday, November 18, 2006

Duck Soup (1933), Briefly

(I'm just full of very small, very short thoughts today. Maybe I should only post like this from now on...)

It is often said of The Marx Brothers that they were great filmmakers who didn't make particularly great films. All their funniest movies — I like A Night at the Opera, Horse Feathers and, yes, Duck Soup best — have long boring stretches, with ooey gooey love subplots, or ponderous musical interludes. I've always wondered why Los Bros Marx, who were, in my opinion, some of the few absolute geniuses of early sound cinema, chose to stuff their films with so many tedious, unnecessary distractions. Okay, sure, maybe the first time you chalk it up to inexperience, but they did it again and again. And we can't chalk it up to "changing tastes" — there are plenty of comedies from the period that are plenty funny (not Marx Bros. funny, but plenty funny) that don't toss in all the extraneous stuff.

Watching Duck Soup today on my DVR I had a revelation: maybe the Marx Brothers knew that stuff was boring and threw it in, not because it was boring, but because it made them seem funnier simply because everyone and everything around them was so stiflingly unfunny and tiresome. The people around them are so stiff, it not only makes the Marxes funnier in comparison, it makes us actively root for and anticipate every delicious Groucho put down. So much of the Marx humor simply comes from deflating the rich and powerful — if we were ever to sympathize with those people we probably wouldn't enjoy watching them take their medicine.

So that's my theory. An interesting one...someone let me know if someone has broached it before, I am a casual Marx scholar at best. I'm still looking for that last unreleased Marx Brothers movie where the fifth brother, Karl, made a brief and surprisingly humorless appearance.

Oh and one more thing: did the Marx Brothers invent quotable humor? Nowadays, all the enduring comedies are the ones you can use to cut up your friends and associates, the Spinal Taps and Office Spaces of the world and such. Duck Soup, and most Marx Brothers movies, are pretty much all quotable lines. A brief, appreciative sampling (and, of course, Rufus is Groucho):

Rufus T. Firefly: I could dance with you until the cows come home. On second thought, I'd rather dance with the cows till you come home.

Mrs. Teasdale: Notables from every country are gathered here in your honor. This is a gala day for you.
Rufus T. Firefly: Well, a gal a day is enough for me. I don't think I could handle any more.

Rufus T. Firefly: Remember, you're fighting for this woman's honour, which is probably more than she ever did.


Blogger poorpete said...

I might be in the minority but I find a lot of the musical numbers to be fun, especially if it's Harpo and Chico on the Harp and Piano! I even like some of the non-Marx songs, like "Cosi Cosa" in A Night at the Opera. I don't know if the boring scenes are on purpose, though because they're so obviously a studio-mandated addition might explain why they didn't spend much time perfecting them.
"What is it that has four pairs of pants, lives in Philadelphia, and it never rains but it pours?"

10:02 PM  

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