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Duck Soup for the Depressed Soul

March 22, 2009


“The last man nearly ruined this place
He didn’t know what to do with it
If you think this country’s bad off now
Just wait ’til I get through with it
The country’s taxes must be fixed
And I know what to do with it
If you think you’re paying too much now
Just wait ’til I get through with it…”

Groucho Marx as Rufus T. Firefly, Duck Soup (1933)


When you’re feeling down and out, I have the perfect prescription. Just take a hot, steaming bowl of Duck Soup, (not the kind from the New Mandarin Garden,) savor it, and call me in the morning.

            If you’re desperate for a tonic to escape the blithering talking heads discussing ruined financial institutions mixed with massive amounts of government intervention sprinkled with a touch of two ongoing wars and covered with worries about new batches of terrorism, you don’t need a prescription of Zanax, Proloft, or Cymbalta. Instead, you need a medicine cup of laughter, the kind that Harpo, Chico, Zeppo, and Groucho supply in large dosages.

            And that’s exactly what I needed when I found the DVD on Blockbuster Online as part of a Marx Brothers series which included other good tonics like Horse Feathers and Animal Crackers.  I think Duck Soup is the funniest movie ever made and that includes such classics as the Marx Brothers’ Night at the Opera or more modern classics like Woody’s Take the Money and Run; it’s the perfect movie for tough times, an absurdist, frenetic, satire about the stupidity of government and war.

            The teaser for the DVD says, “In this 1933 Marx Brother’s film, the mythical country of Freedonia is broke and on the verge of revolution. Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont), Freedonia’s principal benefactress, will lend the country 20 million dollars if the president withdraws and places the government in the hands of the ‘fearless progressive,’ Rufus T. Firefly.” Duck Soup was not appreciated when it was made in the midst of the Great Depression. As Tim Dirks wrote in, “The outrageous film was both a critical and commercial failure at the time of its release – audiences were taken aback by such preposterous political disrespect, buffoonery and cynicism at a time of political and economic crisis, with Roosevelt’s struggle against Depression in the US amidst the rising power of Hitler in Germany.”

            The movie, eventually, started becoming popular in the 60s, watched by college students in revival film festivals and museum showings. My friends and I became Marx Brothers fanatics when their movies played at the 8 Mile Road Cabaret Theatre. Rob, Rick, Steve, Scott, and I were lucky then to see most of their classic movies. We didn’t care if the theatre was old and rickety and the sound quality poor. I don’t remember how many people usually attended the movies. I just recall that we would laugh like wild hyenas often and loudly and it didn’t matter to us if anyone could hear the lines amidst our laughter. We just loved convulsing in serious fits of laughter.

            When we were young, we didn’t know that laughter produces endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers, increases activated T cells, decreases stress hormones, and increases gamma interferon which activates the immune system. We didn’t think much about health or worry alot about Nixon, Watergate, a stagnant stock market, Ford, Carter, or high inflation. We didn’t think a lot about the deeper meanings of Duck Soup; how it satirized high society, manners, government, war, the court system, marriage, and wealth. We just liked to laugh at the delightfully hilarious moments, gags, fast-moving acts, comedy routines, puns, pure silliness, zany improvisations, and insult-spewed lines of dialogue. The crazier it was, the more we laughed. We laughed at absurd scenes like this one, set in the federal courtroom, when the Minister of Finance interrupts the trial of Chicolini (Chico Marx) for treason:

Minister of Finance: Something must be done! War would mean a prohibitive increase in our taxes.
Chicolini: Hey, I got an uncle lives in Taxes.
Minister of Finance: No, I’m talking about taxes – money, dollars.
Chicolini: Dollars! There’s-a where my uncle lives! Dollars, Taxes!
Minister of Finance: Aww!

Aww, there’s a lot of stuff in Duck Soup that might cause grimaces and eye rolls, but there’s a lot more that can really make you chuckle out loud.

I had seen Duck Soup a half dozen times over the years but I was up again to seeing Harpo resting with his horse in bed after dressing like Paul Revere and warning the town about the coming war. I was ready to listen to the hilarious “Laws of My Administration” and “The Country’s Going To War” musical number which includes the Negro spiritual “All God’s Chillun Got Guns.” I was ready to smile at Chico mirroring Groucho in the mirror pantomine scene, and laugh again at the large white flower vase stuck on Groucho’s head in the final war scene, the one with Groucho’s face and moustache on it. And it never grows old, the moment at the end of the film, when Mrs. Teasdale starts belting the national anthem of Freedonia, “Hail, hail Freedonia, land of the brave…” and is pelted by the four Marx Brothers with tomatoes, apples, and oranges.

If you like to cry when you watch a country that’s broke but deep in the muck of warfare, watch CNN, Fox, or MSNBC. If you’re depressed but would rather laugh as you watch a country that’s broke become absurdly entangled in war, check out Duck Soup.

And why is the movie about the mismanagement of government and the craziness of war called Duck Soup? Is it because it refers to “gullible suckers?” Not according to Groucho. He reportedly provided the following recipe to explain the title: “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.”


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