#74. Duck Soup (1933)

It’ll probably sound petty or hypersensitive to get hooked on something like this but I had a hard time enjoying Duck Soup, was even unsettled by it at times, because watching this movie about a multimillionaire who, dissatisfied with the government’s performance, appoints an “outsider” to the role of President – an outsider who only cares about himself, starts a war, and runs the country into the ground – is a bit too close to home just two days after the election of Donald Trump. Also, the humor is kinda mean-spirited throughout.

What’s impossible to deny, though, is that the Marx Bros (whose work I’d heard of but never seen) were comedic geniuses. A lot of the gags here are amazing – and, amazingly, all these elaborate gags were perfected on stage before making it into the movie. It’s strange to think there were ever performers talented enough to pull of these gags – like the several-minutes during which three men trade hats in funny ways, snatching from one guy to swap with another – in one take, before a live audience.

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The mirror gag, wherein Harpo convinces Groucho that a doorway is a mirror, is probably the movie’s most famous gag, and its strongest display of the Marx Bros’ vaudeville chops.

So it’s clear that these guys are hard workers, maybe obsessive, which is a trait I kind of obsess over when ever I find it in an artist I like. And, while we’re on the topic of obsessive entertainers, it bears mentioning that I checked my phone in the last ten minutes of Duck Soup and saw, just moments after it was announced, that Leonard Cohen had died two days earlier, on election night, but the news was only getting out now. It took a moment to hit me. I finished the movie and then, despite a pretty vicious case of tonsillitis, took off for my local pub where, before doing some freewriting about why I love the guy and his work, I listened to his final interview with David Remnick on the New Yorker’s podcast. In it, we find that Cohen – like David Bowie earlier this year – died of a cancer that he kept a secret from fans. He did kind of hint at it, though, in an email to Marianne Ihlen about a month ago (the letter, a tender farewell to an old friend and lover and muse, leaked and went viral). Ihlen was Cohen’s inspiration for “So Long, Marianne” and, like Cohen, was on her deathbed at the time. What Remnick reveals about Cohen in these final weeks of his life is that the man was working feverishly in his home studio, writing and recording, well aware of how many projects he’d started and wouldn’t be able to finish but doing his best to wrap things up anyway. He talks of the great comfort that has come of “putting [my] house in order.”

I’m moved to think of how hard he was working at the end, despite his suffering (he had a couple of compound fractures in his spine and proved allergic to the medication that might have ameliorated the pain), despite an understanding that he might not finish. I’d like to follow this model he set at the end. Cohen in his final days. Working hard simply because the work was there to be done. He’d never see the payoff, but he understood its value.

Another thing to say about Duck Soup – ambling back from that sad little aside – is that the comedy was way more acerbic than I was expecting. I’m cool with unlikable characters (Phantom Carriage and Dr. Mabuse stole my heart) but there were a couple scenes here, particularly those in which Harpo and Chico mess with a lemonade vendor, where the Bros just come across as bullies – which I think I’m especially sensitive to see at the moment since I’m working at a restaurant and therefore have to deal, regularly, with folks getting irrationally pissed with me, with the servers and managers, when – like this lemonade vendor in the movie – everybody’s just trying to do their job.

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A personal upside to seeing Duck Soup is that I now know the source of the musical number that’s excerpted toward the end of my favorite movie, Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)


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