Last week at Seattle's Admiral Theater, I joined more than 100 other ticket-buyers in line on a warm and spring-like Wednesday evening. There we were, each of us choosing to miss that night's TV lineup of Big Brother, America's Next Top Model, American Idol, and Wife Swap to see what? Not the adjacent screen's I Am Legend with Will Smith, which our film outsold. Instead, the masses had gathered for Duck Soup, the 1933 comedy classic starring the Marx Brothers.
How is it that all other entertainment options were trumped by a Depression-era farce that exists only in black-and-white, from a print that's raggedly edited and could use a digital restoration, and that stars four brothers who died years before anyone in the audience had heard the names Farrelly, Wayans, or Coen? With 2008 marking the film's 75th anniversary, we were there to celebrate a movie that, in the vernacular of our time, puts bros before woes.
This all-stops-out farce so joyously lampoons war and those who monger it that in the 1960s Duck Soup became a favorite with film-festival and college audiences, for whom it might have been Gilbert & Sullivan on acid. The targets getting cream pies in the kisser include politics, nationalism, and war fever. Near the climax, during the raucous "To War!" musical number, a side trip into the ditty "All God's Chillun Got Guns" pushes several transgressive buttons at once, and is now more sardonically current than ever before.
But politics, shmolitics. Meaning, shmeaning. As Groucho put it when asked, "What significance? We were just four Jews trying to get a laugh." That's the important part: Duck Soup is awesomely funny.
Inside the theater, a quick look across the audience picked out families with young kids, clusters of college students, pairs of 30-somethings, middle-aged couples shaking up their Wednesday night routine, and on upward into the old folks who probably remembered when Groucho's You Bet Your Life was must-see TV in the '50s. The decades represented spanned the Space Age to the MySpace Age, vacuum tube radios to iPods, Casablanca to Ratatouille, Frank Sinatra to Hannah Montana. The atmosphere was festive and even more communal than a typical night at the movies. We were a big room full of strangers bonding through shared fannish enthusiasm, exchanging Marx Brothers trivia, asking each other "what's your favorite of their movies?" and showing off our not-bad Groucho impressions.
At 7:00 the house lights dimmed and Frank Ferrante stood in front of the crowd. For over 20 years Ferrante has done for Groucho Marx what Hal Holbrook has done for Mark Twain -- keeping him "live and in person" via a touring one-man show. Calling Ferrante a Groucho "impersonator" doesn't quite cover it. He has become practically a member of the Marx family, having been discovered by Groucho's son Arthur while Ferrante was just a college student. Groucho's daughter Miriam spends Christmases with Ferrante. His touring schedule brought his show, An Evening With Groucho, to the Seattle area, and he had accepted the invitation to introduce Duck Soup at the Admiral.
During his intro he mentioned that he became a Marx Brothers fan as a nine-year-old boy -- somewhere in the back, a modern nine-year-old boy cheered at this revelation -- taught by a strict battalion of nuns for whom order and obedience were the only ways any nine-year-old boy could avoid a life of ruination. What the nuns didn't count on, or could counter even if they had, was a chance showing of A Day at the Races on TV. Watching disorderly and disobedient Groucho, Harpo, and Chico stick their collective thumb in the eye of nun-like rectitude everywhere, well, it rewrote Ferrante's inner hard drive forever.
For a longtime Marx Brothers fan like myself, during the movie it was soul-satisfying to hear the group of four kids to my left, their ages ranging from about eight to 15 or so, laughing out loud at Groucho's wisecracks and expressively mobile fake-mustache countenance (few faces in movie history are as iconic), and at Chico's "whatsamattayou" mock Italian and punning wordplay, and especially at Harpo's speechless, wide-eyed, horn-honking, otherworldly zaniness.
Less endearing were the university students behind me who quoted the movie's best lines out loud as they were spoken onscreen -- or sometimes an extra-irritating half-second before they were spoken onscreen. (There's room for forgiveness here, as that's the age I became a Marxist and would have done the same thing to prove the point to all around me.)
And it's always a pleasure to find a movie that entire families can enjoy together, especially one that doesn't star the latest interchangeable pop princess bendy doll, doesn't come larded up with pop-schlock formula "breakout hit" songs, and that doesn't try to spoon some "wholesome" message past our uvulas.
After the movie, I joined Ferrante at a neighborhood drinking hole, where the staff pushed tables together to accommodate about a dozen others from the audience, including some of Ferrante's performer colleagues from Teatro ZinZanni, the extravagant cabaret-circus-dinner-theater based in Seattle and San Francisco. As drinks arrived, I placed a pocket recorder on the table and asked him a few questions.
Why Duck Soup? Hollywood made lots of movies in 1933, so why should we give this one special attention in 2008?
"I think it's more pertinent than ever," he said without a second's hesitation. "We're in the middle of a war, and the film is a send-up of nationalism and takes pot-shots at self-serving politicians and at the war machine. So it's pertinent, and people were saying that on their way out of the theater tonight. I think it's extremely relevant right now."
I immediately think of Chico's line in the scene when, on trial for treason, he asks, "What has a trunk but no key, weighs 2000 pounds, and lives in a circus?" Barks the prosecutor, "That's irrelevant!" Chico responds, "Irrelevant! Hey, that's the correct answer!"
With so many new films and other media taking our time and attention, is there an audience today for Duck Soup? He indicated the surrounding coterie taking their beers and cocktails from a waitress.
"I don't think the Marx Brothers ever go out of style. Here we are 75 years later and there were over 100 people, you heard them, laughing and applauding after scenes like the classic mirror scene. And Groucho is at his best in this film. They were at the prime of their lives, guys in their mid-40s who had been in show business 30 years prior to this film. Now it's celebrated as one of the greatest comedies of all time."
After doing his Groucho show for so many years, the audience is changing. Does he see this winding down any time soon? "No, I don't. Their original audience is already gone. When I first did my show in the mid-1980s, I thought that only the geriatric set were going to get it. But that's not the case. Here we are in 2008 and people still respond to it. There's times when I'll be in a town and there'll be a thousand people in a house. It's all ages. There was one audience with this 94-year-old woman who had seen the Marx Brothers when Animal Crackers [their second film for Paramount] was still a stage show on Broadway. She was sitting next to a five-year-old boy who had never even heard of the Marx Brothers. I was his introduction to them, and they were laughing at the same jokes and shtick and improv as the rest of the audience. That was very satisfying. How many entertainments can you say that about?"
"And it still has an edge. It doesn't pander. I fell in love with them as a kid, and a lot of my peers in the '70s did too, when Groucho went through a big resurgence. A lot of it had to do with the fact that he said what he wanted to say, did what he wanted to do, and he broke all the rules. He was a complete rule-breaker and a truth-teller. As a child it's exhilarating to experience that kind of comedy and that kind of behavior. The bottom line is his irreverence and we're not allowed to be irreverent. We're all taught to play by the rules and be polite and not to speak up. He did the opposite."
I turned to Zack Llull, a sharp and quick-witted 12-year-old who, with his mother Maria, traveled three hours from Portland, Oregon to see Ferrante's stage show and catch Duck Soup on the big screen. What is about the Marx Brothers that appeals to him?
Zack had an answer ready immediately. "They're just really, really funny, obviously. My mom showed them to me when I was five and I just kind of grew up with them." Which brother is his favorite? This one required a moment's pause to think. "I like all of them, the main three" -- alas, poor Zeppo, the talented straight-man who left the act after Duck Soup -- "and I have two favorite movies: A Night at the Opera and Duck Soup." What is Zack's advice to other 12-year-olds out there? "You're crazy if you haven't seen them."
What is it about the Marx Brothers that appeals to Maria, Zack's mother? "That nonconformity. They knew that it's so boring to say things the way you're 'supposed' to say them. They twist it, flip it around back at the person who's talking to them and leave that person wondering. They can take a boring situation and flip it around." Does she have a favorite movie or a favorite brother? "My favorite movie is Monkey Business, and my favorite brother is Eddie. He lives in New Orleans."
That's the thing about Marxian smart-assery. It's contagious.
Frank Ferrante's website is Grouchoworld.com. Currently the best DVD version of Duck Soup is in The Marx Brothers: Silver Screen Collection. You can find my write-up about this boxed set at
As for the success of the Admiral Theater's screening, the theater's manager, Steve Garrett, told me afterward that he's now planning a whole week of Marx Brothers films.
As they sing in Animal Crackers, hooray hooray hooray!