10 August 2008

"Nobody Calls a Firefly an Upstart!"

"You're a brave man. Now go and break through enemy lines. And remember when you're risking life and limb through shock and shell we'll be thinking what a sucker you are." It sounds like it might have been said by President GW Bush to any of our soldiers in Iraq. But it is actually a line from The Marx Brothers greatest film, Duck Soup (1933). Which is also, by the way, the greatest of all film comedies.

Many also consider Duck Soup the classic folly-of-war comedy. But according to Groucho Marx, "we were jut four Jews trying to get a laugh." And get a laugh they did. Lots of them. For example: Ambassador Trentino:" I am willing to do anything to prevent this war." Rufus T. Firefly: "It's too late. I've already paid a month's rent on the battlefield."

And: Rufus T. Firefly: "I'll see my lawyer about this as soon as he graduates from law school."

And another line that could have been spoken by the current U.S. president: Rufus T. Firefly: [singing]" 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 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 till I get through with it!"

One more: Rufus T. Firefly: Maybe you can suggest something. As a matter of fact, you do suggest something. To me you suggest a baboon. Ambassador Trentino: What?
Rufus T. Firefly: I, uh, I'm sorry I said that; it isn't fair to the rest of the baboons.

And I haven't even gotten to any of Groucho's byplay with Margaret Dumont which includes some of the film's best lines.

So maybe Duck Soup wasn't meant to be a spoof on the politics of war, but as a happy accident it serves that purpose rather nicely. How easily our leaders will plunge a country into war headless of the loss of young lives and the cost to their countries well being. Duck Soup in some respects recalls the origins of World War I. The actual story of how the Great War began sounds like the stuff of comedy. Of course the loss of millions of human beings and other incalculable attendant costs is nothing to yuk yuk about. But playing the politicos' actions for laughs is fair game. Duck Soup does this masterfully.

The story of Duck Soup concerns the fictional country of Fredonia which...really?...seriously? I'm going to give a plot synopsis for Duck Soup? Yeah I don't think so. First of all you've probably seen it and if you're the slightest bit like me (God help you) you've seen many times. If you've never seen it I envy you because you'll enjoy the hilarious mirror scene so much more than us veteran viewers.

Duck Soup is the brothers at their best for three primary reasons. 1) it's got the best lines (see above). 2) It's their most visualizing appealing film. Not just with sight gags but elaborate costumes and sets. 3) It's not bogged down by any sappy love story or non-comic musical numbers. It's wall-to-wall laughs.

Starting with A Night At The Opera (1935) the rest of the Brothers' films would occasionally grind to a halt for romance or a musical interlude.

Hats posthumously off to Duck Soup's director Leo McCarey and the writing team led by Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmar.
But of course when it's a Marx Brothers movie the raves go to Groucho, Harpo, Chico and to a much much lesser extent, Zeppo, who made his last appearance in Duck Soup. And he went out in a classic.

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