`Duck Soup' remains a comedy high point


The Marx Brothers were never better

Film Column

August 02, 2002|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Duck Soup may be the most timeless, and most prescient, movie comedy ever. Without a doubt, it's one of the funniest.

Nowhere is the Marx Brothers' fabled disregard for all things proper better displayed. The four brothers - this is the last film featuring Zeppo, who would soon decide against life as a straight man - were always zany, and their blatant disregard for the conventional ever on display. But alone among their movies, in this send-up of politics, governments and the hapless hypocrites who run them, the Marxian world-view makes perfect sense. As the rival nations of Freedonia and Sylvania gear up for a war prompted by the word "upstart," common sense is given the heave-ho, replaced by ego, avarice and buffoonery.

Catch the movie at noon tomorrow at the Charles (it's the latest entry in the theater's lovingly formatted series of Saturday matinees) and relish the Marxes' joy at the absurd perfection of it all. Never before, and never again, would their barbed wit be pointed at so perfect a target. And never would they hit it so square-on.

As Rufus T. Firefly, leader of the financially challenged Freedonia, Groucho effortlessly lampoons every stuffed-shirt politician who ever lived, as well as all the procedural and governmental doctrines they hold dear. Harpo, in his last movie before the blanding machine at MGM turned his character from incorrigible to lovable, zips through the movie like spit on a grill, running hither and yon, never stopping for a moment nor moving in a manner even remotely predictable. Chico's Italian accent almost makes sense (he even, for the only time on film, offers a reason for it), and perennial foil Margaret Dumont is at her regally put-upon best.

Any worries that the film may be dated are dispensed with almost immediately, as the guests at a reception honoring the newly appointed leader are announced. "The honorable Minister of Finance and Parking Tickets," a regal voice intones, acknowledging a relationship between unfortunate car owners and balanced municipal budgets that's apparently been going strong for 70 years.

Working off a script by Arthur Sheekman, Nat Perrin, Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmar, under the puckish direction of Leo McCarey (who'd win an Oscar for Going My Way 11 years later), the brothers put on camera a series of gags and visual sequences that continue to define movie comedy. Most famous is the scene where Harpo (dressed as Groucho) cons Firefly into thinking there's a mirror between them by mimicking his every move. Absolutely silent and determinedly unchoreographed - the brothers crack each other up repeatedly - the sequence is funny precisely because it's imperfect. The two Fireflys are just alike enough to make the gag feasible, different enough to make it absurd.

There's also: the dueling vendors sequence, with Chico and Harpo (as peanut vendors) having at it with that master of the slow burn, Edgar Kennedy, desperately trying to sell his lemonade in peace. Chico being put on trial for spying, Groucho's Firefly suggesting he get "10 years in Leavenworth, or 11 years in Twelveworth," and the ever-helpful Chico offering to take "five and 10 in Woolworth." Harpo making like Paul Revere, and ending up in bed with his horse. The cabinet and ministers of Freedonia breaking into song as war is declared, complete with a rousing chorus of "We got guns/They got guns/All God's children got guns."

A flop when it was released in 1933 - so poor was the audience reception that Paramount dropped the Marxes - the movie is proof positive that audiences don't always get it right the first time. Fortunately, that error in judgment has been more than corrected over the years.

Script reading

The script for Marla Moore's Passing the Light, a finalist in the Sundance Institute's program for first-time screenwriters, will be read by actors during a Salon Screening Monday night at the Creative Alliance, 413 S. Conkling St. Moore is a master's candidate in the Howard University film program.

Admission is free, snacks will be served, and the bar will be open. Information: 410-276-1651.

Little Italy feature

Roberto Benigni's surprisingly powerful Life Is Beautiful, the story of a father's fanciful attempts to shield his son from the harsh realities of a Nazi concentration camp, is the feature tonight at the free Little Italy Open-Air Film Festival. Showtime is 9 p.m. at the corner of High and Stiles streets; get there early for a decent seat.

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