School: Maria Carrillo
Favorite movie: Donnie Darko
Favorite vacation spot: Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Favorite band: Coldplay
Favorite television show: 30 Rock
Next step: University of Pennsylvania
Projected college major: Chemistry
This article first appeared Dec. 6, 2010.
Director: Leo McCarey
This review was first published in the Maria Carrillo Puma Prensa.
Move over “Schindler’s List,” “Apocalypse Now“ and “Saving Private Ryan,” because comedy author Roy Blount, Jr. is calling the Marx Brothers’ “Duck Soup” the “greatest war movie ever made,” and I’m inclined to agree.
Before the Three Stooges and Lucille Ball, and in fact, before Andy Sandberg, Ben Stiller and Will Ferrell were born, there were four Jewish brothers: Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo Marx. They were titans of the vaudeville comedy circuit, who brought their talents to theaters to the delight of generations of Americans. “Duck Soup” is their “Mona Lisa,” “Hamlet“ or “Paradise Lost“– it is their greatest gift to man. It is also the greatest enemy to our ribs, which are inevitably left aching after a few minutes of their comedic magic.
“Duck Soup,” released in 1933, is set in an unspecified time in the country of Freedonia, which is tumultuously dangling on the brink of war as a result of the irresponsible leadership of President Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx). Meanwhile, the rival country, Sylvania, hires Chicolini and Pinky (Chico and Harpo) as spies to acquire Freedonia’s war plans. What follows is aptly described as the anarchical chaos only the Marx Brothers could create.
Why the title “Duck Soup?” Wish I knew. Allegedly, Groucho Marx once explained its significance: “Take two turkeys, one goose, four cabbages, but no duck and mix them together. After one taste, you’ll duck soup the rest of your life.”
Didn’t get it? Me neither.
Just the same, this is the very essence of the Marx Brothers’ brilliance. They are arbitrary and unpredictable to a fault, in a world conducted by otherwise rational beings. They defy any sense of logic or purpose, and have fun doing it.
But beneath the facade of insanity and hilarity, the Marx Brothers are telling a story with more far-reaching implications than audiences may realize. While “Duck Soup” is recognized as the fifth “Funniest American Film” by the American Film Institute mostly for its rip-roaring, tear-inducing slapstick, it is also a commentary on the absurdity of unnecessary wars, mismanaged government, corrupt judiciary systems and a society bound to customs and appearances. These issues were all ripe for the picking in 1933. “Duck Soup” takes a world constrained by the Great Depression and Mussolini’s fascism, sticks it in a blender, adds dynamite and laughs with us as it is blown to oblivion. The cinematography is limited, the sound is flawed and it is all hilarious just the same. Critics typically overlook director Leo McCarey because the Marx Brothers can steal the show from people not even on stage. However, McCarey must have done something right.
“Duck Soup” has been most recently resurrected for analysis in Roy Blount Jr.’s newest work “Hail, Hail, Euphoria: Presenting the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup, the Greatest War Movie Ever Made.” Blount, in a passionate examination of the Marx Brothers’ best 69 minutes on screen, exposes the nuances and details of “Duck Soup’s” political satire as well as the comedic mastery of the most memorable scenes.
The effectiveness of the Marx Brothers’ comedy, even nearly 80 years after “Duck Soup’s” release, is almost eerie. Laughter seems like a guarantee for anyone regardless of age, gender, race, religion and condiment preference. It’s as if the Marx Brothers’ absurdity taps into Carl Jung’s universal consciousness and directs us all to find people burning hats, wearing fake mustaches and splashing about in lemonade unspeakably funny.
Did I mention this is a war movie?