The prolific Roy Blount Jr., one of America’s preeminent humorists, believes that the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup is “the greatest war movie ever made.” He said as much on the cover of his new book, Hail, Hail, Euphoria!: Presenting the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup, The Greatest War Movie Ever Made (Harper Collins). Blount will be appearing at the Mark Twain House on Jan. 26, at 6:30 p.m. to defend that euphoric claim from the wily probing of WNPR host Colin McEnroe as well as sign copies of his book and take questions; afterward Duck Soup will be screened so the audience can decide for themselves.
Whether Duck Soup is even a “war movie” is itself up for debate. Though not the Marx Brothers’ most popular or critically acclaimed at the time of its release, the anarchistic tale of tiny Freedonia’s war with neighboring Sylvania became a favorite of the antiwar student audiences in the 1960s, largely due to such nuggets from Groucho (Freedonia’s leader Rufus T. Firefly) as “You’re a brave man. Go and break through the lines. And remember, while you’re out there risking your life and limb through shot and shell, we’ll be in here thinking what a sucker you are.” With the endless war in Afghanistan serving as the backdrop to a sour economy, today’s audiences might take to the film like, ahem, ducks to water.
“The Marx Brothers were not just mocking war, they were mocking everything,” said Blount in a phone interview from his Western Massachusetts home. “They didn’t have any one target in mind. If the producers had known they had some blatant political agenda they wouldn’t have let them get away with it. When Groucho was asked about the political significance of Duck Soup, he said ‘What significance? We were just four Jews trying to get a laugh.’”
Still, it bears mentioning that when the film was released in November 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt had just been elected to the first of four terms as president and the nation was in the deepest throes of the Great Depression.
“The world and the U.S. was in the dumps, a really dire period,” said Blount, who believes Duck Soup to be the Marx Brothers’ high-water mark “because of the film’s comic purity. There was no romantic subplot, just nonstop craziness with no concessions to respectability.”
Duck Soup features the peerless anarchy of four Marx Brothers — Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo. (A fifth brother, Gummo, appeared in the stage act, not in the films). Firefly’s bantam rooster strutting and weird proclamations (e.g., “If any form of pleasure is exhibited, report to me and it will be prohibited!”) evoked images of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini (Hitler had only assumed power in Germany that year). Indeed, Il Duce was said to have banned the film in Italy, though Blount could find no firsthand evidence of this. “It was probably a publicist trying to drum up interest in the film,” he said.
Duck Soup went through several scripts and directors before lighting on the veteran Leo McCarey, who took it over begrudgingly.
“One reason I wanted to do the book was to learn about McCarey, who worked with every great comic actor of his time, including Harold Lloyd, Mae West, Laurel and Hardy,” said Blount. “And he reshaped this film, holing up in his Malibu beach house with the brothers and coming up with the now famous mirror scene.”
Just as the film’s name elicits double takes — neither ducks nor soup play any part in it — Blount’s book title requires an explanation.
“It’s a play on the lyrics of Freedonia’s national anthem [Hail, hail, Freedonia”] but it derives from something Gummo Marx said,” explains Blount. “Gummo would occasionally sit in with the Algonquin Round Table, who played a game in which a person selected a word and used it in a sentence [most famously, Dorothy Parker used “horticulture” to come up with “You can drag a ‘horticulture,’ but you can’t make her think”]. Gummo selected ‘euphoria’ and said that when their mother asked her boys to go outside and play, they would ask, ‘which ones?’ and she would say, ‘euphoria.’”
This will not be Blount’s first trip to the Twain House. A longtime devotee of Mr. Clemens — he edited a Library of America edition of Twain’s work — Blount took part in a live broadcast of Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” from the house in 1990.
His fondest memory of that occasion? “We got to play pool on Twain’s table,” he says, unable to disguise his euphoria.