Roy Blount Jr.: Hail, Hail, Euphoria!: Presenting the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup, the Greatest War Movie Ever Made, Harper Collins, 2010, ISBN 9788-0-060-180816-6, l45 pages, hardcover.
(Swans - February 14, 2011) When I was sixteen my sister took me to the local cinema to see the Marx Brothers film Duck Soup. I had never before seen a movie audience laugh out loud or boisterously talk back to the screen. The hysteria was deafening and before long I was joining the madcap crowd and slightly losing my sanity over the events taking place on the screen. I had been initiated into some lunatic club where madness held sway and would forever after cherish the four mad men who had bestowed such thunderous hilarity upon me.
I mention this to confess that I am profoundly attached to Groucho, Chico, and Harpo, and yes, even Zeppo, and so, in regard to Roy Blount Jr.'s book Hail, Hail, Euphoria -- a tribute to the brothers' masterpiece Duck Soup -- rather than recuse myself, I will try to be as objective as a biased fan can be.
What Blount has done is to literally recreate every moment of the film with in-depth analysis of its origins and influences. It also throws a bright light on its director Leo McCarey, who was weaned on comedy in the era of the silents with performers like Charlie Chase and Laurel and Hardy and whose influence is often scanted when the work of the Marx brothers is evaluated.
Blount also fills in the social context behind the comedy; the fact that it came out in 1933 when the Great Depression was really kicking in and war clouds were gathering in Europe. "This is not so much a movie about how nations go to war" Blount writes, "but something deeper -- the way brothers fight compulsively because they can't help it. As they grow over each other they grow over against each other. They get in each other's way, they pick on each other, they put each other down, they look for excuses to regard each as threats -- Brothers usually, don't quite kill each other, but they do know each other perhaps better than either would like."
All of which reminds us that apart from four comedians, we are also watching four brothers who were brought up by a strong-headed mother who plunged them into show business while others of their ilk were going from high school into college and not subject to maternal tyranny.
Blount is fastidious in describing every moment of every scene that occurs in Duck Soup -- sometimes to its detriment. His description of the scene in which Harpo and Chico outwit Edgar Kennedy, the peanut merchant, with Harpo winding up treading water in his pushcart is punctilious in every detail but cannot recreate the comedy of that scene no matter how detailed the description. Blount's determination to verbally describe the outlandish comedy of the brothers, while it whets the appetites of those who remember the sketch, must exasperate those who have never seen it.
Blount has a free-wheeling and gently humorous style that is intimate and cozy. It's like being carried around in a sight-seeing bus that is manned by a witty tour guide who points out salient aspects of the countryside as they trundle by. He is obviously ga-ga about the film and his enthusiasm is frequently laced with pertinent facts about backstage stuff we never knew viz. Leo McCarey's anti-Semitism; Harpo's thwarted pursuit of glamorous Peggy Hopkins Joyce who seduced him, only to read to him from comic books then news clippings about herself -- at which point Harpo (no doubt giving his horn a good honk) went home.
What makes the Marx brothers unique is that in overthrowing conventions they obliterate the accepted customs of social intercourse. In being Peck's Bad Boys, they demolish the rules by which that social intercourse takes place. Instead they raise insolence into a fine art.
The brothers are constantly trying to outdo one another. Groucho demolishes good manners and destroys social politeness. Chico is forever trying to con Groucho into one maniacal plan after another. Through all this swindling, Harpo floats above the fray and demonstrates the futility of all these shenanigans by raising himself to a higher plane, especially when his harp comes into play and the silent one becomes ethereal.
Together, the brothers project a desire to dismantle the status quo. Their victims are always stuffy upper-class foils like Louis Calhern and Margaret Dumont who project good manners and sophistication -- just the kind of targets the brothers feed on.
Duck Soup is a comedic gem -- but rarely in other films does its lunacy reach similar heights. The Coconuts, their first film, falls flat and so does Horse Feathers, while A Night at the Opera and Animal Crackers retain the inspired anarchy of Duck Soup. Although the film output is uneven the manic insolence appears in all of them.
To the fans, Blount's detailed analysis of Duck Soup will come as a fond reminder of why we all treat the film with such admiration and honor the madmen who brought it to life.
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