A Marx Brothers Analysis of America’s War Craziness

11 Sep
I grew up watching Groucho Marx on his “You Bet Your Life” television show. My father assured me that the Marx Brothers films were the funniest ever. But I didn’t get to see any of them until I went to The Johns Hopkins University, which had an excellent film series curated by Richard Macksey.
Then I saw at least some of their feature films and laughed myself silly. My favorite, and certainly one of their best, is Duck Soup (1933). It’s about war between two minor nations, Freedonia and Sylvania, with the four brothers playing both sides of the conflict against the muddle.
Groucho plays Rufus T. Firefly, who is installed as head of Freedonia by Mrs. Gloria Teasdale, played by Margaret Dumont, Groucho’s foil in several films. I won’t go into the absurd intricacies of the clap-trap plot as I’m interest in only one scene, the scene where war is finally declared between Freedonia and Sylvania.
duck soup 1 chico in the dock
Chicolini (Chico Marx) is on trial in Freedonia for spying. Firefly has, for whatever reason, decided to act as his defense council, though he’s the one who caught Chicolini. This that and the other happens and the news comes that Sylvania troops are at the Freedonia’s border. This causes some distress as “war would mean a prohibitive increase in our taxes”—maybe back then, but not now; now we cut taxes and spend even more money on undeclared war. There’s some wordplay on “taxes” and “dollars” = “Dallas, Dallas, Texas.” It’s eerie, you’d think those guys were reading the future.
Then Mrs. Teasdale enters, to a fanfare – lots of fanfares in this movie. Here’s a clip of the scene:
Here’s a transcription of the dialog, with a few screen shots.
duck soup 2 teasdale enters
TEASDALE: Your Excellency.
FIREFLY: What’s on your mind, babe?
duck soup 3 babe
TEASDALE: In behalf of the women of Freedonia, I have taken it upon myself to make one final effort to prevent war.
FIREFLY: No kidding?
TEASDALE: I’ve talked to Ambassador Trentino. And he says Sylvania doesn’t want war either. [Pronounced “eye-ther”]
FIREFLY: “Either.” [“Eee-ther”]
TEASDALE: Doesn’t want war “either.” [“Eee-ther”]
FIREFLY: “Either.” [“Eye-ther”]
Teasdale looks exasperated.
FIREFLY: Skip it.
TEASDALE: I’ve taken the liberty of asking the ambassador to come over here. Because we both felt a friendly conference would settle everything peacefully.
He’ll be here any moment.
This next speech, by Firefly, is what I’m after. Firefly imagines his initial conversation with the Sylvanian ambassador. He imagines a bad response to his gesture of good will and then immediately reifies that imagined response, as though he’d received a real, not imagined, insult. Thus, when the ambassador finally arrives, presumably on the mission of peace that Mrs. Teasdale had arranged, Firefly himself (preemptively?) declares war, not verbally, but by slapping Trentino with a glove. It’s a marvelous performance.
FIREFLY: Mrs. Teasdale, you did a noble deed. I’d be unworthy of the high trust that’s been placed in me… if I didn’t do everything within my power to keep our beloved Freedonia at peace with the world.
I’d be only too happy to meet Ambassador Trentino and offer him on behalf of my country the right hand of good fellowship.
duck soup 4 right hand
And I feel sure he will accept this gesture in the spirit in which it is offered.
But suppose he doesn’t. A fine thing that’ll be. I hold out my hand and he refuses to accept it. That’ll add a lot to my prestige, won’t it?
Me, the head of a country, snubbed by a foreign ambassador! Who does he think he is that he can come here… and make a sap out of me in front of my people?
duck soup 5 hyena
Think of it. I hold out my hand… and that hyena refuses to accept it. Why, the cheap four-flushing swine! He’ll never get away with it, I tell you !
duck soup 6 finger waving
TEASDALE: oh, please !
duck soup 7 faces Trentino
FIREFLY: So, you refuse to shake hands with me, eh? [slaps Trentino]
duck soup 8 slap
TRENTINO: Mrs. Teasdale, this is the last straw! There’s no turning back now! This means war!
FIREFLY: Then it’s war! Then it’s war! Gather the forces. On with the horses. Then it’s war!
duck soup 9 war
We then have an elaborate production number which takes the Broadway musical back to its roots in 19th Century minstrelsy.
Note: The dialog is slightly revised from a transcript at Drew’s Script-O-Rama.

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