A Year: Day to Day Men: 17th of November

Alongside His Steed

November 17, 1933 was the released date of the Marx Brothers film “Duck Soup”.

Movies gave the Marx Brothers a mass audience, and the films were the instrument that translated what was once essentially a Jewish style of humor into the dominant note of American comedy. Although they were not taken as seriously, the Marx Brothers were as surrealist as Dali, and as verbally outrageous as Gertrude Stein. Because they worked the genres of slapstick and screwball comedy, the Marx Brothers did not get the same kind of attention. However, their effect on the mind of the population was very influential.

The Marx Brothers created a body of work in which individual films are like slices from the whole, but the 1933 “Duck Soup” is probably the best. It represents a turning point in their movie work; it was their last film for Paramount, and the last in which all of the scenes directly involved the brothers.

When “Duck Soup” became a box office disappointment for Paramount, the Marx Brothers moved over to MGM. Production chief Irving Thalberg ordered their plots pf new films to find room for roles of conventional romantic couples, breaking up the madcap routines and slowing the pace. Buster Keaton’s sound comedies for MGM suffered from the same interference, meddling and dilution by the studio.

To describe the plot of a Marx Brothers film would be an exercise in futility, since a Marx Brothers movie exists in moments, bits, sequences, and dialogue, not in comprehensible stories. The film “Duck Soup” stars Groucho as Rufus T. Firefly, who becomes dictator of Fredonia under the sponsorship of the rich Mrs. Teasdale, played wonderfully as Margaret Dumont. The neighboring nation of Sylvania and its Ambassador Trintino have designs on the country of Fredonia. So Ambassador Trintino hires Harpo and Chico as spies for information. This premise provides a basis for one inspired sequence after another, including sustained examples of Groucho’s puns and sneaky double entendres. It also supports a couple of wordless physical sequences that probably have their roots in the vaudeville acts the brothers performed and saw years earlier.

One comedy sequence in “Duck Soup” is one of the highlights of the first century of film. Harpo, who has disguised himself as Groucho, sneaks into Mrs. Teasdale’s room , tries to break into a safe and shatters a mirror. Groucho himself comes downstairs to investigate. Harpo is standing inside the frame of the broken mirror, and tries to avoid detection by pretending to be Groucho’s reflection. This leads to a sustained pantomime involving flawless timing, as Groucho tries to catch the reflection in an error, and Harpo matches every move. Finally, in a perfect escalation of zaniness, Chico blunders into the frame, also dressed as Groucho.

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