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Duck Soup

Ochen Kaylan

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Groucho Marx
Duck Soup

The classic Marx Brothers' film Duck Soup -- a movie devoid of ducks and soup - is 75 years old this month. Weekend America producer Ochen Kaylan didn't know much about the film or the man at the center of it, so he chatted with someone who does.


Ochen Kaylan: Did you ever dress up as Groucho for Halloween?

Ari Hoptman: I did. I did. I did dress up as Groucho when I was a teenger, probably soon after I'd seen Duck Soup. The black moustache and the glasses and the eyebrows and my cigar. I said, "Trick or treat." And I remember thinking it was almost a shame I had to carry a bag because Groucho didn't carry a bag. He had a cigar and that was it. So it seemed strange to me that I had to carry something for my candy.

Hoptman: My name is Ari Hoptman. I'm a lecturer at the University of Minnesota. I'm also a Marx Brothers historian. Most Marx Brothers aficionados consider Duck Soup to be the pinnacle, the best and the funniest of the Marx Brothers films.

Kaylan: Why? Why is it considered the funniest?

Hoptman: Mostly just because it's just so, it's just so funny. It has an interesting story. It's a political story. It's about how an incompetent person rises to the top of the government and makes a lot of ridiculous changes and his advice is followed blindly.

Groucho: And now members of the Cabinet, we'll take up old business.

Man: I wish to discuss the tariffs.

Groucho: Sit down. That's new business. No old business? Very well, then we'll take up new business.

Man: Now about that tariff,

Groucho: Too late. That's old business already. Sit down.

Hoptman: Groucho has no respect for authority but he's very much dependent on authority for his survival. So he seeks out these rich widows, usually played by Margaret Dumont, the same woman, and so she has a lot of money. Groucho professes his love to her but insults her at every turn.

Groucho: Can't you see what I'm trying to tell you? I love you. Why don't you marry me?

Widow: Why, marry you?

Groucho: You take me and I'll take a vacation. I'll need a vacation if we're going to get married. Married! I can see you right now in the kitchen, bending over a hot stove, but I can't see the stove.

Hoptman: So his character in a way is a complete contradiction. Someone who needs rich society people but is constantly tearing down the establishment.

Groucho: My name is Spalding. Captain Spalding.
Man: I am Oscar W. Chandler.
Groucho: Well this is a treat. Your treat. How would you like to finance a scientific expedition?
Man: Well, that is a question.
Groucho: Yes that is a question. You certainly know a question when you see it. I congratulate you Mr. Chandler. What is your opinion of art?
Man: I am very glad you asked me.
Groucho: I withdraw the question. This fellow takes things seriously; it isn't safe to ask him a simple question.

Hoptman: That character over time became him. The character overtook the person Groucho Marx.

Kaylan: Oh, off screen you mean?

Hoptman: Off screen. So he became, he became Groucho more or less, well, not 24 hours a day, but he would insult people in public. Sometimes people felt deprived if he didn't insult them. Being insulted by Groucho Marx became a sort of point of honor for some people. He complained that it was very hard for him to give genuine insults because people always thought he was kidding.

Kaylan: That actually sounds pretty unpleasant.

Hoptman: Yeah. Yeah. It was. I think it eventually became difficult for him to know where Julius Marx ended and where Groucho Marx began.

Kaylan: Julius Marx, that's his real name?

Hoptman: That's his real name. Julius Henry Marx.

Groucho: Not that I care, but where is your husband?

Widow: Why, he's dead.

Groucho: I'll bet he's just using that as an excuse.

Widow: I was with him till the very end.

Groucho: No wonder he passed away.

Widow: I held him in my arms and kissed him.

Groucho: Oh. I see. Then it was murder. Will you marry me? Did he leave you any money? Answer the second question first.

Hoptman: Mostly with Groucho, it's just the pleasure of laughter that he brings. Not everything he says is absolutely brilliant or hilarious, but he puts so much out there and he was a very witty person and so you just find yourself laughing a lot. People admire his lack of fear of institutions. It just [that] it doesn't matter. His brother Chico said, "He would insult a king to make a beggar laugh," which I think says it all.


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  • By douglas whiting

    From CA, 11/08/2008

    Thank you for your Groucho story. I had forgotten about Duck Soup. Too bad. We could have used it during the last campaign. Thanks, as always, Douglas

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