Let’s Talk About… ‘Duck Soup’/’A Night at the Opera’ (1933 & 1935)

Films #22 & #23 in FilmExodus’ AFI 100 Movies

Every week FilmExodus does a review/analysis of a different cinematic masterpiece from AFI’s 100 Movies 2007 updated list. For a complete overview and how you can participate, click here.

 

 

To best celebrate the wild, anarchic style that is the Marx Brothers, I decided to break the format and review/discuss both of their films at the same time. This is going to be more freeform than usual AFI overviews because you can’t really review a Marx Brothers film without talking about them all as a whole. Their films are like live action Looney Tunes cartoons (the comparison has nothing to do with the fact that Bugs was modeled after Groucho), rapid fire gags mixed with clever one liners but with complete disregard to any narrative structure. The plots are window dressing. Something to hold up the madness, nothing more.

To quote a song from a film that has nothing to do with this film “Let’s start at the beginning, a very good place to start.” But the beginning of the madness is actually a bit hard to pin down exactly.

Certain details like the fact that the brothers started as a vaudevillian act called the “the four nightingales” and that Harpo’s extreme nervousness lead to his silent shtick all come from his book “Harpo Speaks” But all other facts come from second and even third hand accounts. We know the basic gist of their background I.E, dates of birth and heritage but the nitty gritty of their time before their extremely successful run at the Palace Theater is not well documented. It’s as if the brothers manifested themselves out of thin air.

But what we do know is, that by the time they hit Hollywood, not only were they practically household names, they had essentially perfected the personas they would use for the rest of their lives.

Let’s talk about those iconic personas.

 

Groucho Marx

The grease paint mustachioed ring leader of the circus, Groucho used his arsenal of nonsensical but extremely witty one liners to subvert the upper class. He took delight in verbally or even physically ruining the day of hoity toity members of society that use the phrases “why, I never!” Or “my word” at the slightest provocation. He was the thorn in the side of the elephant that was the upper elite.

Best quotes from Duck Soup:

Rufus: Not that I care, but where is your husband?

Mrs. Teasdale: Why, he’s dead.

Rufus: I bet he’s just using that as an excuse.

Mrs Teasdale: I was with him to the very end.

Rufus: No wonder he passed away.

Mrs Teasdale: I held him in my arms and kissed him.

Rufus: Oh, I see, then it was murder. Will you marry me? Did he leave you any money? Answer the second question first.

Mrs. Teasdale: He left me his entire fortune.

Rufus: Is that so? Can’t you see what I’m trying to tell you? I love you.

 

Rufus: I got a good mind to join a club and beat you over the head with it.

Rufus: I danced before Napoleon. No, Napoleon danced before me. As a matter of fact, he danced 200 years before me.

 

Best quotes from A Night at the Opera:

Otis: [to carriage driver] Hey you. I told you to slow that nag down. On account of you I almost heard the opera.

 

Otis: You didn’t happen to see my suit in there, did you?

Fiorello: Yeah, it was taking up too much room, so we sold it.

Otis: Did you get anything for it?

Fiorello: Uh… dollar forty

Otis: That’s my suit all right.

 

Chico Marx

Where Groucho mined comedy gold from his rapid wit, Chico was the exact opposite. Chico’s shtick was that he knew very little English and either mispronounced or created new words wholesale. On paper, it’s a gag that sounds incredibly one note or even borderline stereotypical but he was never the butt of the joke. The comedy didn’t come from schadenfreude but his ability to command any scene with manipulating everyone aground him with nonsense. He would bend you to his will by running you down with gibberish.

Best quotes from Duck Soup:

Prosecutor: Something must be done! War would mean a prohibitive increase in our taxes.

Chicolini: Hey, I got an uncle lives in Taxes.

Prosecutor: No, I’m talking about taxes – money, dollars!

Chicolini: Dollars! There’s-a where my uncle lives! Dollars, Taxes!

 

Chicolini: Now I aska you one. What has a trunk, but no key, weighs 2,000 pounds and lives in a circus?

Prosecutor: That’s irrelevant.

Chicolini: Irrelephant? Hey, that’sa that answer. There’s a whole lot of irrelephants in the circus.

 

Ambassador Trentino: Now, Chicolini, I want a full detailed report of your investigation.

Chicolini: All right, I tell you. Monday we watch-a Firefly’s house, but he no come out. He wasn’t home. Tuesday we go to the ball game, but he fool us: he no show up. Wednesday he go to the ball game, but we fool him, we no show up. Thursday it was a double-header, nobody show up. Friday it rained all day, there was no ball game, so we stayed home, we listen to it over the radio.

 

Best quotes from A Night at the Opera:

Fiorello:  [Disguised as one of the world’s greatest aviators] So now I tell you how we fly to America. The first time we started we got-a half way there when we run out a gasoline, and we gotta go back. Then I take-a twice as much gasoline. This time we’re just about to land, maybe three feet, when what do you think: we run out of gasoline again. And-a back-a we go again to get-a more gas. This time I take-a plenty gas. Well, we get-a half way over, when what do you think happens: we forgot-a the airplane. So, we gotta sit down and we talk it over. Then I get-a the great idea. We no take-a gasoline, we no take-a the airplane. We take steamship, and that, friends, is how we fly across the ocean.

 

Otis: It’s all right, that’s in every contract. That’s what they call a sanity clause.

[Fiorello laughs loudly]

Fiorello: You can’t fool me! There ain’t no Sanity Claus!

 

Harpo Marx

If Groucho was a machine gun of ridiculousness and Chico was a grenade of bewildering insanity, Harpo was a shuriken of physical comedy. Get it? Because shurikens are used by ninjas and ninjas are silent and Harpo doesn’t talk. Look, it’s not my best analogy but Babe Ruth struke out more times than he got homeruns and nobody gives him shit, so cut me some goddamn slack. Writing jokes is hard.

There’s no better example of his incredible talents than the legendary mirror gag found in Duck Soup. The set up is simple (and was actually lifted from a Max Linder film seven years previous but time has forgotten about Linder, so nobody cares) but the execution is flawless. It’s so ridiculously perfect that Cinefix recently named it the funniest movie moment of all time.

Take a look:

Perfect, right? Comedy doesn’t get much better. *Max Linder cries for all eternity*

Best quotes from Duck Soup:

(…….)

Best quotes from A Night at the Opera:

(…….)

Get it? Because he doesn’t talk. What did I just say about cutting me some slack? Humor me, goddamn it.


 

Now that you have the crash course on the Marx Bros (except Zeppo because nobody gives a fuck about Zeppo), let’s talk about the films themselves.

 

Duck Soup

Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) is named President of Freedonia by the wealthy Mrs. Teasdale and immediately declares war against Sylvania. There’s also two spies- Pinky and Chicolini (Harpo and Chico) who were better at selling peanuts than political espionage. The other Marx brother Zeppo is there, doing shit but again, nobody gives a fuck about Zeppo. Like I said at the beginning and will probably repeat when I get to the other film, the story is irrelevant. It’s only there to service the gags, which are numerous.

But regardless of the amazing wordplay and “the funniest movie scene of all time”, the film was a box office disappointment, pulling in far less than their previous films. It was dismissed by critics at the time but critical opinion has evolved and the film has since achieved the status of a comedy classic. It has even been chosen by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry.

Here’s a taste of why it’s been revered for almost 100 years:

 


 

A Night at the Opera

Sly businessman Otis B. Driftwood  (Groucho) who is trying to con someone, anyone, gets caught up in a case of mistaken identity between two opera singers and two drifters. (Harpo and Chico, obviously) There’s also a subplot involving two lovelorn romantics but like our good buddy Zeppo, it’s pointless and nobody cares.

Unlike Duck Soup, A Night at the Opera was a massive success. Finally, critics of the past got their shit together and recognized genius immediately instead of waiting like 30 fucking years. But like Duck Soup, it was also included in the National Film Registry. Which officially means it’s the tits, yo.

Here’s some crumbs from the delicious cake that is this film:

 


 

My hot take on these comedic masterpieces.

They still hold up. I know it would be a more dramatic statement if after all the hype I just said they were mediocre but the brilliance of the Marx Brothers hasn’t been diluted by time in the slightest. Comedy is the more often than not, the first thing to age (seriously, rewatch some of those sex comedies from the 80’s and try to keep your skin from crawling), but the hyper lunacy and pure chaos on display is not only still laugh out loud funny but will connect to every generation because everyone loves fucking with the 1%. That’s truly the one thing that connects us all.

American film critic Andrew Sarris was the first to propose the Auteur Theory, where a director’s stamp should be more important than the film itself. It’s a theory that’s been debated for decades but if it’s true and the director is the omnipresent god stamping is his film with his style, the Marx Brothers are without a doubt the auteurs acting world. Unlike they’re predecessors, they didn’t write a single line of dialogue or shoot an inch of film but every film they made was 100% theirs and no films bore their mark better than these two. They’re geniuses and these are their masterpieces.