The Marx Brothers, Duck Soup, and three perfect scenes

War, pestilence, disease, death and really annoying people on social media. Times like these call for the Marx Brothers.

It’s been nearly a century since Groucho, Chico, Harpo and sometimes Zeppo stormed cinema screens, and their surreal, multi-faceted anarchy is still very much the cure for what ails the spirit. 

I got away from it all with a double-feature of Marx classics at one of our awesome local revival cinemas last weekend, and found that no matter how many times I’ve seen stuff like Duck Soup and Animal Crackers, they still lighten my mental load. 

Of the classic early comedy teams I adore, from Chaplin to Keaton to Laurel and Hardy to Abbott and Costello, the Marx Brothers stand out because they’re pure id … and just a little bit dangerous. Most comedy teams had a kind of smart one and a kind of dumb one, but in this trio, they’re all a little bit of both.

The Marxes weren’t quite as well served by the movies as Chaplin or Keaton – they didn’t creatively mastermind their own films, which were never as groundbreaking and perfectly sculpted as something like City Lights or The General. Their early movies are hilarious but also bogged down by cheesy romantic sidebars and interminable songs; their later movies often felt strained and tired as the brothers themselves entered their 50s and 60s and bowed to the whims of studio heads. 

But for that sweet spot of four or five movies that hit the screens 90 years ago now, they were a whirling dervish of Groucho’s wit, Chico’s wordplay, Harpo’s pantomime acrobatics and Zeppo… well, Zeppo was there, too. There’s no filler in perhaps their greatest moment, 1933’s Duck Soup, a fast-moving war satire with no romantic subplots and even poor Harpo refused a chance to play his harp. While there’s funnier gags scattered throughout all their movies, there’s nothing quite as unrelenting. Duck Soup barely runs over an hour, but you can distill it even further by boiling it down to a mere three scenes that show the Marx Brothers at their very best. 

The Marxes were unpredictable and a wee bit unhinged, breaking furniture, grabbing women (in rather un-#Metoo ways, I’ll admit), wrestling strangers, pushing the limits of social propriety. The Three Stooges were violent and chaotic, too, but very childlike. The Marx trio always felt vaguely adult, dada and surrealism given form in flesh, and I’d always picture them whipping out cards, dice and booze between scenes. This scene with Harpo and Chico is one of the Marxes’ intricately building symphonies of insanity, escalating from a shouting match with a lemonade vendor to beautifully choreographed, maddening brutal psych-warfare against the poor befuddled vendor: 

…Meanwhile, while Groucho and Chico were masters at verbal japes and insults and malapropisms, one of the most beloved Marx routines is this elegantly simple, but endlessly comic “mirror gag.” All you need to know is that Harpo and Chico have both ended up disguised as Groucho, running around a wealthy lady’s house in a grand farce until they all end up combining in this one glorious scene: 

But when it comes down to it, the number one thing I think of when I think of the Marx Brothers remains Groucho’s sardonic wit and raised eyebrows, able to cut to the chase and knock any windbag down to size. This astounding little monologue towards the climax of Duck Soup is particularly funny because it’s the rare case where Groucho, as the beleaguered President Rufus T. Firefly, manages to make himself the butt of the joke, and talk himself into going to war in the space of a few sentences. In a world where we’re still seeing madmen go to war for stupid reasons, there’s something vaguely comforting to me in this scene watching Groucho show how pointless and ego-feeding it all is, 89 years ago now. 

The Marx Brothers have been gone for decades, but they’re still making me laugh nearly a century past their peak. Now when you think about it, that’s pretty funny.

Author: nik dirga

I'm an American journalist who has lived in New Zealand for more than a decade now.

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