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Robert A. Mills

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From now on, this weekly Newsletter will be called ROBERT A. MILLS'S OP-ED COLUMN. Access it and enjoy!
Newsletter Dated: 2/4/2012 6:25:42 AM

Subject: SOUP! - week of Feb 4

(Author’s Note: You will notice that quotation marks, apostrophes, dashes, etc. come out square little boxes on my so-called newsletter, except when you read the column as by clicking on the word blogs two lines above the photo at www.authorsden.com/robertmills. This is an anomaly caused by Authors Den, and they can’t seem to fix it. I apologize for the inconvenience.)
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If someone were to ask us who are the funniest men in America (besides Congress,) we would have to say let us go down to the cemetery and count them. Since the question is, who among show business icons are the funniest ever, the answer without an adverse thought is, of course, the Marx brothers.

A close second would be George Carlin.

But unless you grew up and live in a world of totally corrupt ignorance, you probably disagree with me. That is all right. Disagree all you want. It simply means you are wrong.

Humor (and its godchild, Laughter) is overwhelmingly subjective. One man’s belly-chuckle is another man’s grimace. While we are doubled over by the insane nonsense of the Marx brothers, you may well be amused by, say, the observations of Sigmund Freud.

We may find the musings of George Carlin hysterically accurate and psychologically, politically profound, and yet you may see them as nothing more serious than the doodling of a disturbed hippocampus of the limbic system (look it up).

The Mark brothers were even more astutely nationalistic and politically incorrect (but so true) than Carlin. I know it’s hard to believe, but just take a look, for example, at their piece d’resistance, DUCK SOUP.

This 1933 classic starred such notables as a young Louis Calhern and the irascible master of the slow burn, Edgar Kennedy, and it was the last movie in which the fourth Marx brother, Zeppo, was to appear. Margaret Dumont, the eternal second banana, survived forever, thanks to Groucho, who always knew a good thing when he had it.

The title of the movie came from the director, Leo McCary, who had created a 1927 epic of the same name with Laurel and Hardy. Although DUCK SOUP received not a single Oscar nomination, McCary went on to direct such blockbusters as THE AWFUL TRUTH, LOVE AFFAIR, GOING MY WAY, and AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER.

Groucho later explained the title was a recipe for anything but a cliché: “Take two turkeys, one goose, four cabbages—but no duck—and mix them together. After one taste, you’ll duck soup for the rest of your life!”

If it were remade today with, say, Steve Martin, Michael Richards, Seth Meyers, and Hugh Jackman (as Zeppo), it would not be the box-office and critical disappointment it was back in 1933. Produced the height of the Great Depression in the U.S. and Hitler’s rise to power in Europe, it was received as preposterous buffoonery and political disrespect, as illuminated by such cynicism as Groucho’s memorable quote in the film: “And remember, while you’re out there risking life and limb through shot and shell, we’ll be in here thinking what a sucker you are!”

It was this remark more than any other that moved Mussolini to ban the film in his country. The Fascist leaders notwithstanding, the film attained immortal status—although it was the last of the brothers’ films to be produced at Paramount; the next Marx brother feature (without Zeppo) came from MGM, Hollywood's most prestigious studio. It was even produced by Irving Thalberg, and it was the irrepressible A NIGHT AT THE OPERA.

DUCK SOUP is considered satirical, the quintessential anarchic movie that irreverently makes fun of government leaders, especially ours. Groucho as President Firefly points out the absurdity of governmental operations during his Cabinet meeting fiasco. And it doesn’t stop there. There are the scenes where another leader calls Firefly by a silly, harmless epithet, and Firefly says, “This means war!” And it does.

The result is mobilization and an outright war fought over trivial matters of no consequence—even Chico’s legal snafu is satirized when he is tried as, of all things, a spy. The film is full of frenetic and hilarious scenes with machine gun dialogue, fast-moving gags, puns, crazy improvisations, double entendres—and enough comedy to make all past presidents and wannabees, the legislators and the incumbents, blush and feel as foolish as they really are . . . especially today. Watch the movie and see how often Newt Romney appears.

There are, of course, scenes in DUCK SOUP, which not only move the sardonic plot along, but also are classics in their own right. One such is the Mirror Scene. In this bit, Harpo dressed like Groucho, is his brother’s spitting image in the mirror (he should be: Groucho is played by Groucho.) They match each other’s moves to perfection until Chico, also made up as Firefly, gets in the picture and crashes into the others. If you can watch this and not guffaw aloud, you are one sick and deranged puppy.

This gambit has been used many times, even before DUCK SOUP, in films such as Chaplin’s THE FLOORWALKER and Max Linder’s SEVEN YEARS OF BAD LUCK, years before the Marx brothers came along. And often since, as evidenced by the Three Stooges, Gilligan, Bette Midler, the Family Guy, the X-Files, and the Pink Panther with David Niven and Robert Wagner.

We read where Harpo himself once reprised the Mirror Scene on I LOVE LUCY, wearing a trench coat and a hilarious fright wig. Bugs Bunny in HARE TONIC and Mickey Mouse in LONESOME GHOST (1944) also got into the act. A few frames of DUCK SOUP’S finale are used near the end of HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, as Woody Allen’s character contemplates suicide.

One critic has called DUCK SOUP’s battle scenes the “funniest of all of cinema,” especially when Groucho (Firefly) wears a different costume during the fire fight—ranging from Civil War uniforms to a British palace guard outfit to Boy Scout garb to a Davy Crockette coonskin cap. While the GHQ is transformed from a bunker to a wrecked and destroyed fort, Firefly tells his officers that a man is out there “combing the countryside for volunteers.” He has sent Harpo to the front lines donning a sandwich board: “Join the Army and See the Navy.”

In the next scene, Chico tells Groucho that Harpo has “volunteered to carry the message through enemy lines as well.” That’s when Firefly utters his “sucker” line, branding his cynicism toward all things patriotic.

Beyond the political jabs, the Marxes also take a swing at the infamous Hays’ censorship office. Near the end, they show a bedroom with women’s shoes on the floor, along with a man’s shoes and horseshoes. The camera pans up and there is Harpo, sleeping in bed with a horse. The female is in a twin bed next to them.

The phony espionage trial took place earlier in the film.
Prosecutor: isn’t it true you sold state secrets and the war code and plans?
Chico: I coulda sold a code and two pairs o’plans!

Eat your heart out, George Carlin.

Copyright©2012 by Robert A. Mills, all rights reserved


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