Duck Soup

The Marx brothers are known for a certain style of wordplay that shows their verbal dexterity, but it's always been an open question to me whether their movies were well written. On the one hand, the playfulness of it is certainly witty, and while their puns can be corny, they can also be razor sharp. On the other hand, they often use patter in such a way that feels shoehorned in. Characters never feel like characters – they feel like props that are there to incite specific routines. It always bugs me how Groucho fires off a string of zingers while the people who he’s zinging just stand there and take it.

In many ways I think the way that their wordplay would play out better in a song than it does in a movie scene. When rappers are trying to be clever they often use the punchline at the end of a rhyme to pivot to the start of the next line, allowing for a cascade of ideas that moves you miles away from the initial set-up while still being intrinsically linked. (And yes, I do understand that what I just said is the nerdiest thing you can say about a rap song.) When I say that there is a lyrical quality to the Marx Brothers I mean it literally: the way their writing moves sideways makes more sense in a format that doesn’t necessarily require direct progression.

But movies do require some form of direct progression, and the Marxes are terrible at that. A scene will get set up – "this is the scene where Groucho has to woo the rich widow to get her to bankroll the country" or "this is the scene where he has to instigate a war with the pompous foreign ambassador" – but that ambition will get side tracked by their refusal to let the scene play out. It has to get hi-jacked over and over again for shtick, and that grinds what little plot there is to a halt. Yes, their bon mots are truly bon, but I have a hard time saying that a movie was well written if it failed this miserably at executing it’s simple plot.

Then again, it's obvious that the plot wasn't the point of the movie, so that might not be a fair standard to judge the film on. The specific way that the story is constructed makes it seem more like a filmed vaudeville routine than an actual film, but they were also a vaudeville act who happened to be making a movie. Am I just getting mad at an eighty year old movie for being old? Is that ridiculous, or is calling them dated a fair criticism? It's funny, it's been decades since Groucho was alive to flabbergast the squares with his antics, and yet he's still frustrating tight asses like me.

Winner: Draw

Duck Soup on IMDB