Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Duck Soup

Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theatre is doing a series on American comedy - Slapstick to Stoners (Cheech and Chong are on the program) - and, well, if you're going to do any kind of series on American comedy you have to include "Duck Soup," the greatest comedy by America's greatest trio of comedians (Zeppo doesn't count). What sets Duck Soup apart is that despite the silliness, there is a satire about war underneath its rickety plot structure that is pretty much sustained throughout. When you add in that it's the only Marx Brothers' comedy omitting the inevitable musical interludes by Harpo on the harp and Chico on the piano, you have a comedy that begins at a breakneck speed and never lets up. Furthermore, it has the original mirror sequence in which two of the brothers - Harpo and Chico - are looking at each other through a broken mirror and must anticipate the other's every movement in order to keep up the illusion that each is looking into a mirror. The premise is ridiculous but the comedy is priceless. This sequence was brilliantly adapted, by the way, by Harpo and Lucille Ball when he was a guest star on "I Love Lucy" sometime in the mid-1950s.

The other outstanding sequences of "Duck Soup" include the hysteria that results, led by the brothers, when Freedonia finally decides to go to war with Sylvania (Yup, I said Sylvania), and the long "combat" sequence that concludes the film, in which just about every joke making fun of war is served up. "Duck Soup" is brilliant insanity, but it is also insanity with a purpose that reminds us, however ridiculously, of the enduring absurdity of war.

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