(Welcome to Movies for the Resistance, a weekly column intended to showcase films with particular pertinence for 2017. One of the fundamental purposes of art in general, and movies in particular, is to serve as a spiritual armory: bringing hope, timely lessons and shared experiences when times are dark. They can move us to positive political action, lend insight to the inexplicable, and sometimes just give us a moment to remember that we’re not alone. I’m hoping to embrace as many genres and subjects as possible here: nothing is out of bounds and the plan is to vary the content as much as I can from week to week. But all of them are chosen for the same basic purpose: to support, comfort and inspire as we enter a troubling new phase in our nation’s history. We’ll showcase a new film every Tuesday.)
Comedy always makes a fantastic way to comment on serious issues of the time. Classic comedy finds a way to transcend the current zeitgeist and make comments that can apply to similar issues old and new. The Marx Brothers remain something of an acquired taste in part because their vaudevillian brand of humor no longer feels pertinent in this day and age (as well as including seriously problematic material such as minstrel shows). Yet it endures in part because their sheer anarchic joy of never grows old… and because they still carry some powerful social punches underneath the zany mayhem and verbal zingers.
Duck Soup remains one of their uncontested masterpieces in part because its subject matter hasn’t grown old. It details the rise of disruptive idiot Rufus P. Firefly (Groucho, natch) to lead the small country of Freedonia, currently being menaced by its neighbor Sylvania. His antics – and those of a pair of Sylvanian spies (Harpo and Chico) who successfully infiltrate his government – send both sides on a collision course that ends in war.
The parallels to Trump’s nightmarish baiting of North Korea – won top of a host of other developments that would send any rational mind reeling – are shocking, both in the seeming nonsensical nature of the provocation and the misplaced glee at the results. The brothers, of course, were perfectly aware of what they were doing, and understood how the onscreen mayhem reflected the real-life blunders and missteps that often lead nations into terrible conflict. They simply remove the veil of rationality from it all: denying the onscreen leaders the false dignity and deluded self-importance used to cover up the screaming madness they’re unleashing.
Of course, as pure comedy, Duck Soup is a scream: reveling in the sharp banter and acrobatic sight gags that made the brothers comedy legends, and producing such one-shot masterpieces as the famous mirror scene or the lemonade vendor sequence.
But that largely served as cover for the movie’s real target, one which the filmmakers were doubtless aware of as they did their work. Duck Soup opened in late 1933, a few months after Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. Stalin held uncontested power in Russia and Mussolini had already facilitated the genocidal “pacification” of Libya. The Marx Brothers were no dummies. They could see the writing on the wall, and understood the real horrors their slapstick comedy was trying to reveal. (They were also dealing with a host of more pressing personal issues, such as the death of their father and some very pointed negotiations with Paramount).
That remains the real target of the humor: not just authority figures (whom the Brothers happily destroyed every chance they got), but the often monstrous decisions that such figures made. The universal pratfalls and wordplay placed the darker madness of war and power into sharp relief. Firefly and his adversaries demonstrate no more rationality than their real-world counterparts. The ensuing mayhem is uproarious and absurd, but as a window into the actual leaps of logic and doublethink gyrations required to launch an ill-conceived war, it carries troubling implications.
That insanity revealed itself again with Trump’s now-standard-issue casualness: a cryptic statement about “the calm before the storm” surrounded by his generals and left utterly without explanation. His might be trolling us. He might be getting ready to turn Pyongyang into a slag heap. He might think he’s doing one when in fact he’s doing the other. There is literally no way to tell.
And it comes amid similar anarchic bits of madness both trivial and dire. Puerto Rico drowns while he tosses paper towels. He admonishes NFL players to honor the veterans he ridiculed and mocked on the campaign trail. (Presumably, he just means white veterans… or those who “didn’t get caught.”) He muses about comparing IQs with a Secretary of State who seems to be in open revolt, while savaging Bob Corker with playground insults about his height… knowing full well it may burn what’s left of his legislative agenda to the ground.
It’s hard not to watch Groucho and think we’re living through the same thing. It’s hard to gaze at Duck Soup and not understand exactly, precisely what they’re satirizing. It’s a savage takedown, far more cutting than it might appear at first glance.
Then again, I’m pretty sure even Groucho would balk at our current situation. Some things are just too goddamn crazy.