DUCK SOUP (1933)

(tubi/VOD) I immerse myself in a lot of media but, despite how long I’ve been doing so, I’m surprisingly bad at it. I often watch movie series completely out-of-order. (Worst example: THE BEFORE TRILOGY.) I accidentally read lesser works by an author before cracking open their acclaimed works. (I ate up J.G. Ballard’s HELLO AMERICA, but have yet to read CRASH or EMPIRE OF THE SUN). Lastly, I all too often neglect to read the novels that inspired the works I’m currently reading. (I’ve read two novels this year where the authors have explicitly stated they were inspired by Donna Tartt’s THE SECRET HISTORY. I’ve only read THE GOLDFINCH and, while I was reading THE GOLDFINCH in a bar roughly two years ago, the bartender told me: ‘You should really read THE SECRET HISTORY’ and they were obviously correct, and I have yet to rectify that.)

One of the most egregious oversights I’ve made in my media consumption is that of the Marx Brothers. When I was in my early teens, I loved the indie comic CEREBUS by Dave Sim. (Dave Sim is now best known as being a rampant misogynist, not to mention being homophobic and transphobic, and — to be clear — I do not endorse CEREBUS or Sim — I’m simply relaying some youthful thoughts and anecdotes.) The comic started as a parody of CONAN THE BARBARIAN featuring an aardvark as the barbarian, then became political satire, then it became a commentary on religion, and then it spiraled.

I didn’t care for the aardvark, but I was fascinated by the loquacious character named Lord Julius and the political absurdity in HIGH SOCIETY, the second volume of the series. I met Dave Sim at a comic book convention many, many years ago and he drew a head sketch of Lord Julius in my dogeared copy of my HIGH SOCIETY ‘phone book’ (the label ascribed to the over-stuffed CEREBUS trade paperbacks) which, for a short while, was a prized possession.

What I didn’t realize until I went to college and started binging classic film was how nakedly he riffed on the Marx Brothers; how Lord Julius was an excuse for Sims to write Groucho-esque jokes, and how HIGH SOCIETY was simply Sim’s version of DUCK SOUP. All you have to do is look at this page of art and see: yup, lifting Marx Brothers for his own purposes. Once you know, you know, but when I was younger, when the interwebs didn’t fully exist? I didn’t know.

This has been a very long-winded way of saying that, even when I didn’t know it, my mind was being shaped by the sharp, vaudevillian wit of Groucho and his brothers, and DUCK SOUP is the epitome of their film career. It’s anarchic absurdity that happens to be politically evergreen, but it’s all in service of savvy jokes, circular logic, brilliant physical set-pieces, the glorious straight-faced work of Margaret Dumont, and some lyrical downtime to allow us to enjoy Harpo’s musical skills. In other words, it’s an immaculately constructed classic that holds up far better than CEREBUS has and, while it took me a while to get around to it, I’m happy I did.


A playlist of highlights: