If anyone could kick the bejessus out of WAR, it was the Marx Brothers. Their classic farce Duck Soup was arguably the best anti-war film prior to Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, and on the same qualitative level as Charlie Chaplin’s stinging The Great Dictator. Comedy is not always the best way to combat evil (Richard Lester’s How I Won the War didn’t quite do the job). But in the right hands it can be explosive. Indeed, where are the satiric anti-war and anti-dictatorship films now? Dinner for Schmucks is what passes for comedy today?
Roy Blount jr. probably feels the same paucity of powerful comedic political and social satire – and farce – since he’s written a book that looks back at the Marx Brothers’ gem, Duck Soup. “Hail, Hail, Euphoria! Presenting the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup, the Greatest War Movie Ever Made” (It Books, $19.99). He notes that Duck Soup was a box office disappointment when it was released in 1933, but the film about a mythical country called Freedonia going to war has never been surpassed for its insanity or acuity. Blount provides a running commentary as he watches the movie. An ABC critic notes: “It’s not really film criticism. This slim book has a more modest goal of being a witty, idiosyncratic companion to people watching the movie.” I think in DVD circles they call this “additional commentary.”
I will not provide any more additional commentary, Blount does an excellent job, so get the book it won’t take long to read. Yet for your edification, here is one of the many brilliant exchanges between Groucho and son frere:
The Setup: Chicolini (Chico) has been employed by Trentino (Louis Calhern, ambassador from Sylvania), along with Pinky (Harpo) to spy on Firefly (Groucho, leader of Freedonia). Posing as a peanut vendor, Chicolini gains the attention of Firefly, who calls him into his office:
Firefly: Hey! (Chicolini tosses him a bag of peanuts, which he catches) Do you wanna be a public nuisance?
Chicolini: Sure. How much does the job pay?
Firefly: I’ve got a good mind to join a club and beat you over the head with it.
Chicolini: Peanuts…to you!
Firefly: Have you got a license?
Chicolini: License? No, butta my dog, he’s gotta millions of ’em. Believe me, he’s some smart dog. You know he went with Admiral Byrd to the Pole?
Firefly: I’ll bet the dog got to the Pole first.
Chicolini: You win.
Firefly: C’mon up here…I wanna scare the cabinet.
(Chicolini comes up to Firefly’s office. The phone rings and Chicolini answers)
Chicolini: Hello? Hello? No. No, he’s not in. Alright, I tell ‘im. Good bye. (Hangs up phone) That was for you.
Firefly: I’m sorry I’m not in. I wanted to have a long talk with you. Now listen here…You give up that silly peanut stand, and I’ll give you a soft government job. Now, let’s see…How would you like a job in the mint?
Chicolini: Mint? Ah, no. I no like-a mint. Ah, what other flavor you got? (Phone rings and Chicolini answers) Hello? No, not yet. Alright, I tell ‘im. Good bye. Thank you. (Hangs up phone) That was for you again.
Firefly: I wonder whatever became of me? I should’ve been back here a long time ago. Now listen here…I’ve got a swell job for you, but first I’ll have to ask you a couple of important questions…Now what is it that has four pair of pants, lives in Philadelphia, and it never rains but it pours?
Chicolini: At’sa good one, I give you three guesses.
Firefly: (Thinks) Now lemme see…Has four pair of pants, lives in Philadelphia…Is it male of female?
Chicolini: No, I no think so.
Firefly: Is he dead?
Firefly: I don’t know…I give up.
Chicolini: I give up too. Now, I ask you another one…What is it got big blacka mustache, smokes a big black cigar, and he’s a big pain in the neck?
Firefly: Now don’t tell me…Has a big black mustache…Smokes a big black cigar…And is a big pain in the…(pauses) Does he wear glasses?
Chicolini: At’s right. You guess it quick!
Firefly: Just for that, you don’t get the job I was gonna give you!
Chicolini: What job?
Firefly: Secretary of War.
Chicolini: Alright, I take it!
(Editor’s Note: Even Groucho would tell you to check out yesterday’s Nightly Daily Heller here.)