I finally saw Duck Soup for the first time since young, young youth.
The funniest thing about this publicity shot from the film is how straight Groucho looks compared to the others. Cuz with a greasepaint stache like that, you can pose as manly as you want and you’d look as silly as Harpo.
Harpo was my favorite when I was a kid because my mom told me that under his silent vaudeville schtick he was a highly accomplished musician. Also, you know, the gags.
O, the gags. They abound.
You get the puns and innuendos from Groucho, for the verbal headcases like me. You get the elegant slapstick for the theatrical headcases, also like me.
You get a pace fast enough to make 2012 kids’ animation seem like Cocoon.
You get political satire reckless enough to make SNL seem like the New York Times.
And here’s why I get mad when people try to talk about comedy as if a show or character holds a consistent position that one can argue for or against, or find faulty, or generally try to buff and shine and cut away from the whipped-cream-pie-on-everyone’s-face, bursted mirror, semen-as-hair-gel mess of comedy itself.
Roger Ebert takes us to school (in the review linked above):
Although they were not taken as seriously, they were as surrealist as Dali, as shocking as Stravinsky, as verbally outrageous as Gertrude Stein, as alienated as Kafka. Because they worked the genres of slapstick and screwball, they did not get the same kind of attention, but their effect on the popular mind was probably more influential.
Check it out:
Foxy, rich political widow Mrs. Teasdale convinces the Freedonian cabinet to oust the current ruler and instate Rufus. T. Firefly.
Rufus. T. Firefly.
Seriously? Rufus T. Firefly?
Yes. That’s his name.
Now, when a grown-up Jewish person watches this stuff, the first thing she may notice is: holy crap, the Marx Brothers are SHORTER THAN EVERYONE ELSE ON SCREEN. So when they execute their bits like freakin Olympians, or rather, like Bolshoi ballerinos, they’re doing it while looking up at the fall guys (or gals.)
And they look up in an exaggerated way, Groucho developing this stooped stance into a full blown persona.
Oh, just go ahead and watch the whole thing. The famous song spoofing all governments ever. Hail Freedonia!
So once I started thinking about how they use their heights to make the visual gags gaggier, it occurred to me that while it’s obvious that they grew up in Yiddish theater and brought this manic style and heritage to film, etc., that it goes even deeper. Their personas actually spoof Jewish stereotypes.
Groucho’s stealthy verbal wit (don’t trust him!), and his hairy hairy hairy face. But it’s painted on.
Harpo’s silence, his strangeness, his inability to meld with the Anglo dudes, his baggy layered clothes, his curly curly hair. But his hair’s platinum blond! He’s the blondest one on screen!
Chico’s Italian schtick. The other white ethnicity in NYC with funny accents and garlicy food.
And Zeppo’s straight man. With the arms. Which is the obvious foil for the freaky-deaky schticks of his brothers. But is also a little slap in the face, like hey, we are foxy too, Mr. Jones.
And plus, it turns out that Zeppo was the funniest. He was the youngest, so he had to be. I get it.
So with these personas zipped up into the public imagination, they can pull off the craziest political spoof possible. Freedonia versus Sylvania, going to war over nothing but a few slaps in the face. Or, you know, who wants more to marry Mrs. Teasdale’s inheritance. And it’s a serious, serious war. With houses exploding and Harpo Revere getting a little from a lonely housewife AND his horse, on a break from summoning Freedonian men to war. And Secretaries of War switching sides faster than Groucho can even joke about it. Which is fast.
They don’t take the time to make their point about governments being dumb. They’re too busy with the bits and gags. There almost is no point, except the gags themselves.
But underneath it all, you get a bunch of classically trained short guys making fun of so much about our country so busily that they’d seem a little desperate if they weren’t so damn good at it.