Duck Soup (1933)
Directed by Leo McCarey
A Night at the Opera (1935)
Directed by Sam Wood
Beginning with a flash of NRA’s eagle that progressively gets more ironic, Duck Soup’s debauched satire of petty warfare and monied politics has a potent resonance equaling its vaudevillian absurdity. In everycountry Freedonia, self-proclaimed “Land of the Free,” wiseacre Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) is installed as dictator, his two-bit cigar, greasepainted mug, and endless one-liners met with obliging seriousness from empowered stuffed shirts. Equally unqualified are the spies (faux-Italian Chico and mute Harpo) tailing him, best suited for ruining the snack carts outside, providing the film’s best physical comedy. That is, until they ape Groucho’s appearance for a nighttime pantomime sesh; his mirror destroyed, Groucho takes a rare physical turn trying to outmaneuver his false reflection in Chico. Soon, war is declared under childish pretenses (are there others?), mostly to play dress-up in revolutionary and civil war garb, leading into an endless barrage of food upon enemies. Sorry, but no ducks or soups are flung.
Continuing this double-bill of anti-society anarchy is A Night at the Opera, with Groucho again quippy (and middle-initial endowed) as Otis B. Driftwood, tasked with elevating recurring straight-woman Margaret Dumont into the New York Opera Company. This, naturally, is upended by working-class singer Allan Jones flanked by vocal coach Chico and unemployed dresser Harpo. Following Duck Soup’s expansive production and financial failure, Opera’s decidedly stagier, especially in the non-opera scenes. The pauses/set pieces were rehearsed in a theatrical tour; the crowded state room and bed-swapping sequences age wondrously. Though Jones’ and Kitty Carlisle’s musical numbers lag, those involving the Marxes soar; the celebrations aboard steerage pump Opera’s groundling-favoring heart. Once the big opera finally arrives, the place is nearly—and gleefully—ripped to shreds. The Marxes may have been clean, but they dismantled elitism every chance they got. We’re all richer for it. Max Kyburz (At Film Forum’s “The Marx Brothers and the Golden Age of Vaudeville”; September 24, as a double feature with 2-for-1 admission all day; encores of Duck Soup September 27, 29, 10pm and A Night at the Opera September 29, 12:30pm)