Duck Soup for Easter Dinner (AFI #60)

April 24, 2011 at 11:21 pm (AFI Top 100 in 100 Days)

The Marx Brothers are more fun than a barrel of monkeys. I’ve seen Groucho’s “You Bet Your Life,” and the legendary episode of “I Love Lucy” starring Harpo, but watching “Duck Soup” was a new experience. My 14-year-old son and I laughed our (honk) off.

Having nothing to compare it to, I can’t say whether I agree with the popular notion that “Duck Soup” is the best Marx Brothers film. That is an exercise for another day. I don’t know for sure whether Mel Brooks ever cited the Marx Brothers as influences, but I am betting they are. Much of the gags reminded me stylistically of various things done by Mel Brooks, who I believe to be one of the funniest filmmakers in history and ought to have at least one of his own titles in the “Best” list. (I would vote for “Blazing Saddles.”)

The Marx Brothers developed their schtick and signature looks on vaudeville (plastic nose and glasses sets became famous because of Groucho), then transferred them easily to the screen. “Duck Soup” was seen at the time as genius in both comedy (it still is) and political satire. When Groucho Marx was asked about the political satire, he answered that they were just “four Jewish guys trying to get a laugh.” Because they never commented publicly about their intentions toward political satire, the subject has been much discussed among film historians. Mussolini reportedly banned the film in Italy.

Film is of course primarily a visual medium, but the Marx Brothers didn’t let all their gags be sight gags. They took full advantage of the dialogue, too. “I wanted to get a writ of habeas corpus, but I should have gotten a-rid of you, instead!” Honestly, Groucho is so quick with most of these that I had to pause and go back and make sure he’d actually said what I thought I’d heard. The Marx Brothers, in 1933, were funnier than most television sitcoms on TV are in 2011.

As far as whether I agree with “Duck Soup” being on the AFI list: Yes. I am not convinced it should be as low on the pole as 60, but then at this point, I’ve still only seen a handful of these titles to be able to think about re-ranking them.

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