DUCK SOUPD: Leo McCarey; with the Marx Brothers, Margaret Dumont, Louis Calhern, Raquel Torres.
War and fellow traveler anarchy get a workout in this 1933 Marx Brothers vehicle that moves like a rocket through a brief but unrelenting 66 minutes. It's far and away their most cohesive battery of sustained lunacy, a fever-pitched series of sight gags (the best from the mutely Dionysian Harpo), and a barrage of puns, double entendres, and winking, often leering asides to the audience courtesy of Groucho and Chico. Younger brother Zeppo fills the straight-man bill to a T, but the Brothers' perpetual dowager foil Margaret Dumont renders him obsolete almost immediately (as was usually the case). The plot -- what there is of it -- is little more than a device to dangle jokes from, but with the Marxes that was never much of a concern. Their vaudeville roots shine through at all times, but unlike lesser films like 1938's Room Service
, the action in Duck Soup
never feels overly stagey or ploddingly scripted. It sizzles with a barely concealed sexuality, at once infantile and highly intellectualized -- smart stuff, through and through. Groucho is Rufus T. Firefly, the new dictator-for-life of tiny Freedonia who declares war on a whim on neighboring Sylvania. Chico and Harpo are a deuce of inept spies, and Dumont, she of the jutting bosom, is the object of Groucho's libidinous (if conflicted) desires: "I can't offer you much, my dear, only a Rufus over your head!" Ba-da-bing!
It bears noting that the Marx Brothers' close ties to both the Dada and Surrealist movements -- never formally trumpeted by the comedians, but readily apparent throughout their careers -- are in particularly full bloom here. André Breton pronounced in 1924 that "the simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd." Breton's declaration nails the anarchic, gleeful lunacy of the Marx Brothers -- although in their case, the pistol fires dum-dum rounds and "Bang!" flags. Duck Soup
's legendary "mirror sequence," one of the best gags in the history of film, is itself pure Dada subversion. Groucho would have scorned such weighty analysis, but he could afford to. He always got the girl.