At the risk of making this a too-lengthy piece (lengthy peace, I’ll leave to miracle workers) I am going to blend a very disparate “double feature” into a two-for-the-price-of-one post….for today is not only Memorial Day, when America honors those killed in military service, but it’s the birthday of a man who literally changed the long-term ‘picture’ of the Marx Brothers after their riotous anti-war film, the anarchic classic, DUCK SOUP (1933).
But first, for those who are interested and may be unfamiliar with the 100+ years history of war movies, I highly recommend taking time to check out this link for context: http://www.filmsite.org/warfilms.html (DUCK SOUP is listed under “Black Comedies”)
I don’t necessarily agree with a blogger who wrote, “As we all know, every good war film is [an] anti-war film” — though I think any war picture which doesn’t contain at least an element of “war is madness” (as in BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, below) is, at best, simplistic patriotism (e.g. John Wayne’s GREEN BERETS; I’d add Cagney’s YANKEE DOODLE DANDY, but it’s a rousing glorification of a man’s patriotism, not a war film).
Back to that birthday man (Irving Thalberg), the film producer known as “The Boy Wonder” for becoming head of production at MGM at age 26 and turning it into the most successful studio in Hollywood during his reign (1925 until his death in 1936). Quoting Wikipedia, “He had the ability to combine quality with commercial success, and [to bring] his artistic aspirations in line with the demands of audiences.” Within this framework, we can appreciate this passage from ROGER EBERT’s great book, THE GREAT MOVIES:
The Marx Brothers created a body of work in which individual films are like slices from the whole, but Duck Soup is probably the best. It represents a turning point in their movie work; it was their last film for Paramount. When it was a box office disappointment, they moved over to MGM, where production chief Irving Thalberg ordered their plots to find room for conventional romantic couples.
A Night at the Opera (1935), their first MGM film, contains some of their best work, yes, but [also] sappy interludes involving Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones. In Duck Soup, there are no sequences I can skip; the movie is funny from beginning to end.
This may not be one of the funniest sequences in DUCK SOUP, but it certainly makes for a glorious celebration of war as madness:
As even the longest war must eventually come to an end, so too must this Memorial Day piece (de résistance). Even so, it ain’t over till the DUCK SOUP fat lady sings: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xnec7z_freedonia-at-war-part-3-from-duck-soup-1933_shortfilms
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P.S. The state of Ohio imprints the words ARMED FORCES on driver’s licenses whose bearer is/was a member. The last time I went in to renew my license, the BMV clerk took a look and thanked me for my service, which took me by surprise because my service is ancient history and I’d never been, or expected to be, thanked. I was a 1960 draftee who served during the so-called Cold War, not a volunteer in the Civil War (or whatever hot war my hoary appearance makes me look like I served in). But I realize that a bullet or bomb doesn’t care if you’re a draftee or volunteer when it takes you out, so to those who died in the service of this country and its professed ideals (and who had no choice as to whether or not the war they were in was worthy of their sacrifice), I thank you. You are the ones fate chose to earn this day.