Though I’ve already written about the Marx Brothers’ 1935 film Duck Soup, I was re-watching it last week, and realized that, of all the Marx Brothers films, this one might be the closest they came to celluloid perfection. Though some may point to A Night at the Opera as being the Marx Brothers’ best film – to be sure, it is insanely, hysterically funny – it never feels too far off from Vaudevillian stage traditions. (Indeed, the Marx Brothers perfected Opera by taking it on the road as a stage show. Don’t see much of that these days.)
Throughout the film, the Marx Brothers remain a force of willful chaos directed against the old guard, with Groucho delivering a barrage of one-liners, any one of which could power the USS 30 Rock from here to Timbuktu. The big musical number, “We’re going to War!” would best be described as a cross between yodeling, line-dancing, tongues-speaking, head-standing and xylophone playing, capped off with the four brothers singing the spiritual song “All God’s Children Got Wings,” the lyrics aptly changed to, “All God’s Children Got Guns.”
The seditious mayhem continues, with the Brothers dressed in full powdered wigs and long coats as part of a Revolutionary War tableau vivant. Harpo, on horseback, sets off in a full gallop re-enactment of Paul Revere’s ride, but gets side-tracked when he meets a pretty young blond along the way. One problem: back then, films couldn’t show a man and a woman in bed together. The Marxian solution? The girl sleeps in one bed, while Harpo shares another — with the horse.
Groucho – wearing a beefeater’s uniform, a boy scout’s uniform or a Davey Crocket outfit, depending on when you look – directs this Caucus Race of a war, his cry of “Help is on the way!” cutting to stock footage of a fire brigade, cops on motorcycles, a running race, a rowing race, a swimming race, a stampede of baboons, a stampede of elephants, and a stampeding school of dolphins – in that order. And who can’t help but see some good, old fashioned governmental oversight in Groucho’s wartime declaration, “There isn’t time to dig trenches! We’ll have to buy ‘em ready made!” – he forks over a wad of cash – “Here, run out and get some trenches!”
What four better people to run a country?