Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Duck Suck or Suck Soup?

With a flawed 21st century viewpoint in mind, dulled by sitcoms, improv comedies, and retroscripting, I find it hard to be objective about the films of the past. I consider myself more of a borrowed Emerson student than a real one---I don't know everything about everything about everything. There are comedies that I've seen that I've liked, jokes and gags that I've laughed at, and cinematic precedents that I took to be original, even if that wasn't historically the case. With that in mind, I'm gonna say that I hated The Marx Brothers 'Duck Soup'.

I understand that the use of one-lines, and comic gags was influential on many contemporaries, including Woody Allen, but I have to say...they did it much better. Mostly, I think it's a problem of flow. Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton invigorated their silent medium with sight gags and one-liners, all the while keeping up a narrative strong enough to hold us stimulated in 'comic suspense.' Woody Allen produces his movies, especially the pseudo-documentaries like 'Zelig' or 'Take the Money and Run', in a consistent rule-of-three format---joke, gag, one-liner, all in a way that complements and propels the narrative. (In his case, the protagonist serves as both the proponent and the ass of the jokes, and therefore us self-deprecating audiences give him a pass.)

It's with Groucho Marx and 'Duck Soup' that styles don't either blend or break. Groucho will continually step out of the narrative to whisper his 'cutting wit' to us and then magically jump back in. And this while, the other characters in the scene freeze and act none the wiser. At least when Woody does it, his compatriots either laugh or deride him. Groucho derides his entire cast, scott-free from revenge, retribution, or any form of structure, logical or otherwise. No big problem, but cutting the fourth wall in this way kills all potential for comic suspense. There's nothing to look forward to. You don't really know if the narrative matters, and it's not straight on character-driven comedy either. Instead you have a comedian telling us how great he is instead of showing us.

But maybe I'm way off base here. Rottentomatoes.com gives 'Duck Soup' a 94% and we all know how it's rated as one of the best comedies of all time. I stumbled around for a little while, and short of all the uncredible whiny 8th grade ranters, this NY Times Review was really the only bad one I could find:

Those mad clowns, the Marx brothers, are now holding forth on the Rivoli screen in their latest concoction, "Duck Soup," a production in which the bludgeon is employed more often than the gimlet. The result is that this production is, for the most part, extremely noisy without being nearly as mirthful as their other films. There are, however, one or two ideas in this sea of puns that are welcome, and Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo reveal their customary zeal in striving to get as much as possible out of these incidents.

And it's not even that bad. So while The Marx Brothers may be inscrutable for their innovations and contributions towards future comedy---such as the verisimilitude presented by all their puns and literally through the mime and mirror scene---I'm still unconvinced. After all, in the 30s, there were better ways to put a film together---give me 'All Quiet on the Western Front', 'City Lights', or 'The Wizard of Oz' any day. And let's not forget 'Bringing Up Baby'.

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