I wonder whether Roy Blount Jr. is fully aware of what an important service he’s rendering with Hail, Hail, Euphoria!.
Well, of course he does. He wrote the book, didn’t he?
In this slim book about the 1933 Marx Brothers film Duck Soup, Blount appreciates the brothers’ inspired silliness, narrates the story of the film’s making, and gives a scene-by-scene commentary. In so doing, he gives the film its due place in our cultural history — rightly, a very high place, as one of the world’s foremost pieces of anarchic comic art.
His main point is that, whether its makers and clowns meant to or not, or knew it or not, Duck Soup confronts the human love of war and rips it to tatters.
It does so with riotous, naughty, funny, uncontrollable, uncatchupable humor, a universal solvent to our pretentious insistence on cloaking our murderous instincts in socially acceptable glory.
I’m glad somebody finally wrote this book. It’s a book I’ve dreamed of writing myself. Maybe I still will.
I’d go as far as Blount does — then hold my nose and cannonball right off the table. If Aristophanes’ The Clouds and Lysistrata are artworks ... if The Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night are ... if Tom Jones, The Importance of Being Earnest and Catch-22 are ... and all of them are, then surely this exquisite mindful of screwballitas is.
Each one steps out of its time and place and takes on a voice for forever, singing for all souls. Each said something to its times and something about its times. Each called on beholders to laugh, but also to see how nuts the whole setup was. Society itself, I mean, in Greece, in Elizabethan England, in the United States of 1930, 1960, 2011. Each has a robust will to undermine, to test, to oppose.
And so with Duck Soup. The premise of the title, to quote Blount, is this: “... (T)aking over the helm of a bankrupt nation, if you go about it cynically and irresponsibly enough, is a breeze.” Ring a bell? Hmm?
Let’s remember how often Duck Soup was referred to as of 2002-03, when the country was debating war in Iraq. Whatever one thinks of the war, or of how it was sold to a confused public, one thing is clear: A lot of folks were just jazzed. Testosterone crowed in the veins of millions. That’s what happens when vast numbers of people mull attacking vast numbers of others: The great pump of happy, purposeful bloodthirst imparts to us a lightfooted, intoxicating righteousness.
Thus, on all sides, pro and con, in 2002-03 some of the emptiest, dumbest nonsense ever spoken gushed from human mouths.
Same during the Spanish-American War. Very much the same in the run-up to World War I (still much in memory when Duck Soup was filmed).
Blount puts it perfectly when he writes that in Duck Soup the denizens of Freedonia “are writhing in the ecstasy of anticipating war” (italics Blount’s). They sing, “At last we’re going to war”! At last! Hail, euphoria!
Blount is at his best with the great, celebrated war number, with the brothers playing the helmets of soldiers like marimba keys, chortling, “To war! To war! To war we’re gonna go! Sing hidey-hidey-hidey-hidey-hidey-hidey-ho!” In a whirl of satire, racism, class warfare, naughty stuff, and just plain mad glee, the scene grows wilder and wilder until it collapses into a hand-held camera stagger through a crowd rushing around the set — we’re seeing both therapeutic laughter and trenchant commentary. We’re seeing how anarchy can challenge and cleanse.
That scene came up a lot in 2002-03. It nailed the essence of war-love. It was often paired with Lysistrata, that other great, agonized, hilarious protest.
There’s more, though. There’s sex. Groucho’s double entendres as he orbits Margaret Dumont like a malign satellite. All the gay mugging. All the symbolic feeling up, gelding and goosing. Harpo scissors the tuxedo tails off overbearing ambassador Trentino, lops feathers off hats, cuts hats in half. We like to stick out; Harpo cuts off what sticks out.
Fingers in naughty places. Destruction of privacy and dignity. Leveling of the rich and powerful with “us”. Undoing what’s done up. Unlacing the corset of social pretense. And seeing what flops out!
Ah, Harpo’s sublime, insane Paul Revere ride. He gallops off to tell Freedonia of war, stops to dally with a cute girl, hides under a tub when her man comes home, and, when he leaves, hops into bed with the girl — and his horse.
Critics used to complain, “But what was it all aimed at?” That misses the point. It was aimed at everything — including the Marxes themselves. (Groucho: “We just liked throwing things.”) When Freedonia improbably wins the war it so heedlessly starts, and Margaret Dumont starts to sing, “Hail, Freedonia,” the Marxes start pelting her with fruit, undermining their own cause. Just to make sure everyone gets it.
But there was trouble in the wind in 1933, and Blount thinks it shows. I once ate lunch with Maxine Marx, daughter of Chico. She would have been about 25 when Duck Soup was being filmed. She said she recalled seeing her father and his brothers, during a break on set, listening to a radio account of a Hitler speech. “They were mad,” she said. And Blount recalls the tale that Mussolini, seeing a personal insult in Duck Soup, apoplectically banned it. He should have.
The point is: Even if Duck Soup was aimed nowhere at all, it scores, it scores. Its crazy-fool abandon corrects anyone who takes seriousness too seriously.
Blount revisits (and makes some fun of) the moment in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters when main character Mickey Sachs, wracked by existential doubt, goes into a theater, sees Duck Soup, and is released from his demons: “And I’m thinking to myself, geez, I should stop ruining my life… searching for answers I’m never gonna get, and just enjoy it while it lasts… I started to sit back, and I actually began to enjoy myself.” It’s one of the few times in all art (another is Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale) that an artwork is shown saving someone.
Blount is probably right to see that moment as itself a tick too serious. Still, Mickey discovers what many have: that Duck Soup‘s harsh, healthful high spirits can, as all good art can, change us and our way of seeing things. While it can’t end war, Duck Soup will forever stand against it, show it for what it is, even at its best: a stupid waste of a perfectly good life.
To start off 2011, Turner Classic Movies showed the six best Marx films. Guess what their first full movie of this year was? For your homework, world, get a DVD of Duck Soup watch it, and read Blount’s great little book alongside. Then, three times, read this book’s title aloud, at the top of your voice.