Duck Soup (1934)

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By Scott Ross

The Marx Bros.’ daffiest movie is also (pace Pauline Kael) their best. Groucho is Rufus T. Firefly, the president of Freedonia; Zeppo his loyal second-in-command; Harpo and Chico a pair of slyly inept spies; the great Margaret Dumont the country’s most prominent aristo; and Louis Calhern Groucho’s political rival. This is the one in which Groucho declares of Dumont, “We’re fighting for this woman’s honor, which is more than she ever did.”

It has everything for which the brothers became the darlings of their intellectual and absurdist followers; none of it makes any sense (would you appoint Groucho the President of anything?) and it’s full of unmotivated gags, a classic silent bit (Groucho and Harpo and the shattered mirror) and an insane production number celebrating the advent of war seems, in this post-Operation Enduring Freedom era, only slightly exaggerated. (A Pre-Code project, the movie also contains the jaw-dropping marriage pun Groucho makes to Dumont: “All I can offer you is a Rufus over your head.”)

The movie was a dud, and the brothers (sans Zeppo) ended up at MGM, where no such unmotivated insanity would be allowed. Pity. Leo McCarey directed, and both the script and the delicious satirical songs were written by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

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Declaration of Principles

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I regard criticism as an art, and if in this country and in this age it is practiced with honesty, it is no more remunerative than the work of an avant-garde film artist. My dear anonymous letter writers, if you think it is so easy to be a critic, so difficult to be a poet or a painter or film experimenter, may I suggest you try both? You may discover why there are so few critics, so many poets. — Pauline Kael, “Replying to Listeners,” KPFA. January 1963

By Scott Ross

Although I think of myself primarily as a playwright, I’ve spent a large part of my creative energies over the years in criticism of various kinds: Literary, musical, theatrical and cinematic. It doesn’t make one wealthy, but it puts a few bucks in the kitty… or used to, before the advent of wire-service copy as ubiquitous substitute for the local critic. It can also, when one isn’t forced to sit through too much brain-rotting garbage, be a useful intellectual exercise that, if properly performed and with the requisite seriousness of purpose, improves the writer’s mind and, possibly, his innate talents in other literary areas. If any.

While I don’t regard criticism itself, as Kael did, as an art-form (or, as does John Simon, as an important branch of literature) there are few pursuits quite so pleasurable to me as reading — or even better, writing — a cogent, perceptive review that calls forth everything of value from its author. In this vein, I esteem Pauline Kael, for all her flaws, as ideal. Woody Allen famously said of her that she had everything a great critic needs, except judgment. There may be some truth to that, in the aggregate. At her best, however, there was no American movie critic more engaged, and engaging, than Kael even if, or when, you found yourself arguing with her vociferously. Because her interests were so varied and intelligent, she brought a great deal more to bear on her movie writing than merely a passion for the medium. Kael’s love for, and interest in, opera, philosophy, theatre, literature, music, social thought and political theory informed every critique she wrote. As wrong as you might have thought her, she was never dull, and seldom less than intellectually bracing.

Apropos Kael’s remark, above, which gives my blog its title, James Agee is the only major American movie critic who was also a poet… and a minor one.

That’s something in my case about which you need never concern yourself.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross