Humor (Plus) Risk

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Less than 15 minutes from the ending of Duck Soup, the four Marx brothers and a company of hundreds are in the midst of an elaborate musical piece full of violent mood swings and absurd song parodies, when the minor key wailing rises to an uplifting major chord. The brothers themselves turn their frowns to smiles, stand with arms outstretched to the camera, and begin to march forward singing:

They got guns.
We got guns.
All God’s chillun got guns.
We’re gonna march all over the battlefield,
Cuz all God’s chillun got guns.

On the surface, it’s simply a ridiculous spoof of an old African-American spiritual. Upon closer inspection, however, one can see a microcosm of the four brothers’ approach to comedy, satire, and conflict in these few seconds of film. In the face of adversity and danger, the Marxes are defiant, irreverent, and even jubilant. While Groucho’s President Firefly has now plunged his country of Freedonia into war with neighboring Sylvania, he and his fraternal conspirators are happily declaring war to be the natural state of man and doing so by co-opting something sacrosanct to a historically oppressed minority for their own satirical purposes. For Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and even Zeppo, nothing is sacred, and therefore nothing is truly at risk.

In reality, at the time of the film’s release, everything was at risk. For America, 1933 marked the fourth year of the Great Depression and the peak of national unemployment at 25 percent. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had been inaugurated just eight months before Duck Soup arrived in theaters and immediately enacted his landmark “New Deal” to cope with the impact of the Depression. The country was also in the final throes of repealing the Eighteenth Amendment and ending Prohibition, after 13 years of bootlegging and organized crime surrounding the illegal production and sale of alcohol (something the Marxes themselves briefly addressed by setting an early scene of their previous film, Horse Feathers, in a speakeasy).

Of course, a greater shadow was looming abroad in Europe. The lead up to the film’s production saw Adolf Hitler appointed German chancellor in January and promoted to dictator by March. Despite the seeming carefree attitude of the Marxes, they apparently took as much notice of Hitler as did the rest of the world. In his autobiography Harpo Speaks!, the famously silent brother, who was coincidentally born “Adolph Marx,” wrote that Duck Soup was his hardest acting job. He explained, “The trouble was Adolf Hitler. His speeches were being rebroadcast in America. Somebody had a radio on the set, and twice we suspended shooting to listen to him scream…I never knew until then what the emotion of pure anger was like, how it felt to be sore enough to want to hit somebody in cold blood.” Pairing Harpo’s recollection with the political and warmongering overtones of Duck Soup, one cannot ignore the relevance of world events to the thematic resonance of the film.

Yet, even within the Marxes’ own personal sphere, great upheaval had recently occurred or was about to. Shortly before the production of Duck Soup was officially announced, the Marx family lost its patriarch in Sam “Frenchie” Marx. Mother Minnie Marx, who was instrumental in the boys’ vaudeville career and launching them onto the silver screen, had passed just months after the debut of their first film for Paramount, The Cocoanuts. Sam’s death left the brothers as adult orphans, and right at the moment that their contract with Paramount was set to expire, following the release of Duck Soup.

Very little, if any of this turmoil is apparent as one views Duck Soup. The essence of the Marx Brothers that is on display during the “All God’s Chillun Got Guns” sequence, is presaged by the opening shot of four ducks happily floating in a pot of boiling water. Both images metaphorically expose the brothers as divorced from the gravity, or even reality, of their situation, whether it be their own personal simmering cauldron or the escalating tensions of the tumultuous world around them. As Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips notes, “That’s coming from the bottom of the Depression, this pit of despair, and all they can do is…fight back with whatever comic wiles they have.”

The lightheartedness and irreverence of the film are not borne of indifference to the hardships of the time, but are instead weapons against troubled times, for both the Marxes and their audience. While they do indulge in some measure of direct satire of the government, the law, and war, they also combat the ills of their era with distraction from them in comedy that does not relate to any of these subjects. And yet, to label all of the film’s non-satirical humor as simple distraction demeans the complex jokes the brothers employ. Many elements provide a surrealist reimagining of 1930s America where the seemingly impossible is possible, while others hearken back to a vaudevillian style of humor, reminding viewers of a type of entertainment popular before the stock market crash, Prohibition, and even the First World War.

The most direct examples of satirical confrontation are prevalent in the film’s beginning and ending. The reception that celebrates Rufus T. Firefly’s appointment as leader of Freedonia ridicules the pomp and circumstance of government by staging an absurd musical number replete with choreographed marches and ballet dancers to welcome Firefly as he arrives. Since Firefly is none other than Groucho, he of course arrives late, via a fire pole and joins the salute using his cigar to match the swords of the soldiers beside him. Clearly, the fallibility of government officials paired with the exaggerated grandeur of their treatment provides a stark contrast, exposing the disparity between the two. Even the simple detail of Firefly’s one-legged hopscotch—in the middle of Mrs. Teasdale’s explanation of how important this day is for him—expresses the same theme.

However, it is in Firefly’s musical number “Just Wait ‘Til I Get Through With It,” as he lays out the laws of his administration, that the satire begins to hit home with the contemporary audience. He sings:

If any form of pleasure is exhibited
Report to me and it will be prohibited.
I’ll put my foot down, so shall it be.
This is the land of the free!

The word choice here cannot help but conjure up a connection to and criticism of Prohibition in America, only just concluding at the time of the film’s release. Furthermore, the line that lends the song its title states:

The last man nearly ruined this place.
He didn’t know what to do with it.
If you think this country’s bad off now,
Just wait ‘til I get through with it.

Michael V. Tueth points out, in his book on film comedy, Reeling with Laughter, that the evocation of Herbert Hoover, “the last man,” would not have gone unnoticed by audiences of that era. Yet, he argues that, “The target of the film’s satire, however, is not any particular politician or policy, but the very institution of government in general, rife with egotism, greed, deception, hypocrisy, and particularly enamored of war.” This broad net of ridicule allows for greater applicability of the film’s critique. While Hoover and FDR may be relevant to the jabs the movie offers, Firefly does not represent either of them.

This is even more apparent in the scene that precedes the musical number “The Country’s Going to War.” Firefly monologues, practically soliloquizes, on the prospect of his proposed peaceful gesture of a handshake being rejected by Trentino, ambassador of the country’s rival, Sylvania. He muses aloud:

A fine thing that’ll be. I hold out my hand and he refuses to accept it. That’ll add a lot to my prestige, won’t it? Me, the head of a country, snubbed by a foreign ambassador. Who does he think he is, that he can come here, and make a sap of me in front of all my people? Think of it—I hold out my hand and that hyena refuses to accept it. Why, the cheap four-flushing swine, he’ll never get away with it I tell you! He’ll never get away with it!

The farcical egotism and self-fulfilling prophecy of this type of thought process does not directly apply to any American president at that time, or even to foreign rulers of the period. The criticism of causes of war does, however, echo that of Erich Maria Remarque’s German soldiers in All Quiet on the Western Front. They theorize that war is started by one country offending another and then whittle the definition down to an offense between two rulers. Groucho takes this one step further by making the slight offense that determines the fate of a nation as one originating solely in the imagination of a ruling egomaniac.

The contrast between Remarque’s grim retelling of a soldier’s tour of duty in World War I and the Marxes’ hyperbolic and silly approach to the topic of war clarifies the differing aims of each work. While Remarque sought to expose the public to the horrors and futility of war, the brothers Marx provide a balm of laughter that temporarily erases the memory of troubled times and assuages fears of mounting conflict abroad.

The ensuing war between Freedonia and Sylvania provides more commentary on this topic with Groucho’s uniform constantly changing between cuts: From Union soldier to Confederate general to Polish hussar to coonskin cap. As Martin Gardner points out in his book The Marx Brothers as Social Critics, “The absurdity of the rapid change of costumes reinforces the pointlessness of war.” Moreover, the multiple sets of war attire worn by all four of the brothers serve to fortify the universality of their satire. They are not only mocking the senselessness of the most recent global conflict, but any and all wars, past and future.

Much of the comic material that makes up the middle portion of the film is not directly related to government, politics, or war. It instead promotes the film’s anarchic agenda by discarding the import of the matters of state and focusing instead on bad puns, physical comedy, and innuendoes. Chicolini’s request of “a nice cold glass o’ lemonade” when the judge at his high treason trial calls his comments “the kind of testimony we can eliminate” seems apolitical. But his disregard for protocol of the judicial system and unwillingness to cooperate with the process indicates a disdain for politics and country that endorses anarchy over democracy. The rapid-fire release of puns and double entendres set loose by both Chico and Groucho serve as consolation to a weary populous by tearing down the seemingly failed trappings of the political system through a blatant indifference to its consequences.

Although this style of humor may seem to believe in nothing, it actually places its faith in nostalgia for vaudeville comedy routines, helping to remind viewers of a “simpler time.” Vaudeville incorporated all kinds of entertaining acts, from musical performances to feats of strength, but perhaps made its most lasting impression on the 20th century in its style of comedy, famously full of slapstick, witty one-liners and double acts, and lots of clever wordplay. It was one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and served as a training ground and catapult for the Marx brothers themselves to hone their comedy craft until the film industry was ready for them (and not the other way around).

Not only did the heyday of vaudeville represent a time before Prohibition and the Depression, but even before the First World War. For middle-aged moviegoers, it was a reminder of the comedy of their youth. One could forget the woes of today while listening to Chico and Groucho debate whether to have a standing army because, as Chico insists, “Then we save money on chairs!” Interest for vaudeville shows waned as America’s love for the movies waxed, but many acts didn’t translate to the early era of film, because silent movies had no place for quick dialogue exchanges and puns. The coming of “talkies” in the late 1920s allowed for these two art forms to merge more fully, and gave performers like the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields a place to reach a wider audience while still delivering the kind of humor they had been working for decades.

Harpo is, as always, the exception. His enforced silence, happily never explained in any of the Paramount films, required his comedy to be more visual and physical, another staple of the vaudevillian stage show. Had he been a solo performer, Harpo might have found fame earlier than the other brothers alongside such silent film stars as Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd.

Consequently, Harpo’s comedy is almost entirely universal and able to embody elements of both vaudeville and silent film in the midst of the era of talking pictures. But, most of all, he embodies the anarchy of the Marxes. This is perhaps most apparent in his character Pinky’s feud with a lemonade vendor. Though the vendor is belligerent toward both Pinky and Chicolini as they bicker outside their peanut stand (which is actually just a front in order to spy on Firefly), he does not represent the kind of corrupt establishment that Trentino does, which makes the ambassador deserving of their abuse. That this battle between vendors ends with Harpo bathing his feet in this lowly vendor’s vat of lemonade shows a type of abusive comedy that doesn’t just “punch up,” but in every which way it feels inclined to punch.

There is more to Harpo than sight gags, though. Quite often, Duck Soup slips into the territory of surrealism, and it is always associated with his character. Somehow, Pinky is able to magically rise from a bathtub drain, pull a working blow torch from his pocket, summon a dog to emerge from the doghouse tattoo on his chest, and perfectly anticipate and imitate every move Firefly makes in the famous mirror scene. The surrealist bent of Harpo’s comedy is no coincidence. The silent Marx was, in fact, associated with famed surrealist Salvador Dalí, whose fascination with film, and particularly Harpo, led to some minor collaboration between the two during that time period. Surrealism’s tendency to render images uncanny, to take the familiar and make it seem foreign, could not be better represented in Harpo’s comedy.

Things that ought to behave one way in reality operate in unexpected ways, usually to subvert or shock an opponent like Firefly, Trentino, or the lemonade vendor. At times, this surrealist comedy wanders into absurdist territory, as in the scene where Chicolini, Pinky, and the lemonade vendor continually trade hats, an action Samuel Beckett would later mimic in his existential play Waiting for Godot. Most often, though, Harpo’s ability to make dreamlike and wondrous results of mundane objects and moments serves as an inspiration for an audience in trying times. If Pinky can make the sidecar of a motorcycle drive without the motorcycle, leaving Firefly in his dust, then anything is possible, even emergence from economic and political disasters and looming war.

None of these elements fit perfectly together in Duck Soup. Like the spirit of the film’s maniacal ringmasters, the movie often devolves into seeming chaos and bulges at the seams when you try to label at as simply satire or surrealist comedy. But, the film provides a buoy to its audience amidst the sea of difficulty that was the early 1930s. Many of these effects were not likely to be conscious to Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo during the production of the film, but that is, perhaps, why it works so well. In these early films, all four of the Marx Brothers are insulated from the dangers of the world around them and the effects of their own madness, while the other characters must endure the impacts of the plot and the brothers’ chicanery. But the willing audience member is always invited into the Marx bubble, becoming an honorary fifth Marx (no offense to Gummo). Inside that bubble, the Marxes were surviving their global, national, and personal tragedies (and helping the public to do the same) in the only way they knew how: with their own brand of humor.

Some of that humor evidently did not resonate at the time, as Duck Soup was considered the brothers’ first box office failure. This led to not only the end of their Paramount contract, but also to a softening of their comedy and characters in their subsequent films, such as (the still wonderful) A Night at the Opera. But if time was not kind to them in the thirties, it proved kinder as years passed. The anti-establishment ethos of the 1960s led to a resurgence in their popularity, and Duck Soup eventually became the most highly regarded of all of their films by both fans and critics, and landed at number 85 on the American Film Institute’s list of “100 Greatest American Films.”

When Woody Allen’s character Mickey in Hannah and Her Sisters turns away from suicide because he fortuitously wanders into a screening of Duck Soup, it is not wholly unbelievable to think that someone might find a reason to keep fighting against the darkness while watching four goofballs play their own soldiers’ helmets like xylophones. The film still offers audiences today something to hold onto when the going gets tough. It invites you to look adversity straight in the eye, honk your horn, and laugh.