Fakery in Film #2: Groucho Marx, or the Seductions of an Imposter

1 Nov

Groucho Marx as Rufus T. Firefly in Duck Soup (1933) - Leo McCarey

Cinema has known few imposters as irreverently and anarchically exposed as the ‘characters’ of Groucho Marx. These are ‘characters’ in quotation marks because, as even the most compromised Marx Brothers film reveals, such identities are no more than outrageously transparent pretexts for Groucho’s witty one-liners, lending a veneer of coherence to his implication in the basic plotline. Faking it, but never quite making it, Groucho’s con-artists and parvenus pursue an unvarying regime of playful chaos, quick bucks, cigars and throwaway flirtation, all under the indulgent and disconcerted gaze of the ever-present Margaret Dumont.

The serial seductions of Groucho’s leading lady always hinge on the success or failure of his interloping journey into the mawkish high-society galas and residences where Dumont’s characters are patrons. These are curious seductions, not least by virtue of the fact that Groucho’s verbal courtship is predominately made up of insults and cheap digs at his wealthy admirer, whose alarm is then periodically soothed by bursts of schmaltz. If we acknowledge that the humour of constant one-liners and barbed exchanges are dependent on little more than the constancy of this dynamic, then we can see clearly why the shell narratives of these films offer so little variation on the theme.

On a fuller scale, however, the wonderfully ironic sham of ‘Groucho the imposter’ is that almost every secondary character is required to lie or take on a disguise in order to either debunk or perpetuate his mischievous claims, while the man himself remains entirely conspicuous and unchanged in the same unmistakable garb. Here, I will look at some examples of fake identities, visual gags and mimicry in Duck Soup, a film that arguably marks the high-water mark of the Marx Brothers’ comedic inventiveness, unencumbered as it is by the photogenic love stories and big musical numbers that appear in their subsequent MGM productions.

The preposterous name of Rufus T. Firefly is seen early in the film, atop the newspaper portrait of Freedonia’s soon-to-be President. The wealthy widow of a former statesman, Mrs. Teasdale (Dumont) has threatened to withdraw her offer of a loan to the ailing country if Firefly is not appointed leader. The new President’s gala inauguration is the first sequence in which Groucho appears. Having slid down a fire-pole from a bedroom above the reception hall, Firefly first takes up position as part of the guard of honour that was assembled to greet him (this corpus has already drawn arms ceremonially on three occasions before his late arrival). Firefly imitates the guardsmen by presenting his half-smoked cigar, underlining the incongruity of his presence.

We see this replicated later in the sequence through Firefly’s mimicry of liverymen during his comically exaggerated song about the authoritarian project of his new administration:

This irreverence is all part of the joke that audience is ‘in on:’ the unchangeable Groucho is an insouciant fraud bent on a cushy position that gives license for mayhem.  His rapid-fire insults of Mrs. Teasdale are interrupted to deliver a cheeky aside to the camera, establishing complicity through both banter and the glaring artifice of his moustache and eyebrows.

“Your excellency, haven’t we seen each other somewhere before?” – “I don’t think so: I’m not sure I’m seeing you now, it must be something I ate.”

As ever, the villain in the form of Ambassador Trentino of Sylvania (Louis Calhern) is the counterpoint to this complicity. Trentino has sussed Firefly, yet is himself required to ‘fake’ in order to undermine the new President. We learn of Trentino’s attempts to incite a botched revolution in Freedonia, and witness his liaison with the dancer Vera Marcal (Raquel Torres), who is a Sylvanian spy lodging with Mrs. Teasdale. Following the gala celebration, a sequence in Trentino’s office reveals a further weapon in his arsenal: two ‘professional’ spies, Chicolini (Chico Marx) and Pinky (Harpo Marx)…

…who then appear disguised as bearded, madcap incarnations of their actors’ personas. As we shall see, the theme of self-impersonation is as much a part of the humour of identity gags in Duck Soup as the notion of the costumed (or indeed, costumeless) imposter.

“We fool you good, huh?”

If Groucho’s on-screen interventions are a mix of jokes than interrupt narrative flow and of provocations that nudge it chaotically forward, then Chico and Harpo appear to be agents of a complete subversion of narrative coherence in Duck Soup. Although Trentino enlists them to spy on Firefly and blackmail him, both characters end up being courted for hire by the new President while in the course of their original mission. Inexplicably, this proximity to Firefly does not bring about an opportunity to penetrate into official circles, and neither meeting results in anything but exchanges of cryptic jokes and visual gags between the brothers. Thus, Chicolini and Pinky return to espionage proper, breaking into Mrs. Teasdale’s villa…

… and becoming a ‘fake’ Groucho Marx. First Chicolini (above) brushes off his thick Italian accent…

…before Pinky is shown preparing to have a go…

…only for his mute impersonation to be broken by a revealing ‘honk’ of Harpo’s signature car-horn hidden beneath his nightgown.

Having staged a total disinterest in accurate mimicry for comic effect, the film then delivers a scene in which Firefly tries to outmanoeuvre Pinky’s attempts to precisely imitate the former’s gestures at the place where a now-smashed, floor-to-ceiling mirror once stood. Typically, the illusion remains remarkably well held complete until the characters ‘change sides’ through mirror space, with Pinky then dropping a hat, only for Firefly to pick it up and hand it to him, before  the pair continue their farcical routine.

When Chicolini’s trial for treason is interrupted by the arrival of Trentino and the declaration of war between Freedonia and Sylvania, the film goes on to invert all notions of frenzied war hysteria, turning the scene of assembled citizens into a jamboree sing-along. When the war comes, it does funny things to Groucho’s eternally unchanged garb.

Where the trial-turned-musical can be read as a political satire by ridicule, Groucho’s repeated costume changes during the last five minutes of the film indicate its move into an explosive realm in which the identifiable Groucho persona has no currency. Here, Groucho’s lines become slightly more prosaic and situationally motivated, with the constant changes of his costume signalling his status as an imposter in the uniforms of various military units, from a braided blazer and French-style kepi worn by Union soldiers during the American Civil War…

… to a Confederate commander’s get-up…

…and a Boy Scout leader’s uniform…

… before the eccentric headgear of a fur-trapper and a royal guardsman complete the humorous disintegration of Firefly’s wartime leadership:

Most interestingly, when Firefly’s head becomes trapped in a huge water jug, Pinky revisits the theme of self-impersonation from earlier in the film, drawing Groucho’s likeness on to the vase for the amusement of the audience.

In these examples from Duck Soup, we see how comically faked personas in film can play on a reflexive disinterest in maintaining any coherent illusion of believability. In this instance, plot becomes the object of a suspension of disbelief, a transparent pretext for the sequential organisation of gags and set-pieces that do not require the planting of narrative hooks in order to be appreciated or understood independently from the whole of the film. However, ought we to read these impersonations exclusively as ‘attractions’ in an eccentric subversion of narrative, or do the impersonations also prolong and complicate the humorous theme of Groucho’s precarious administration as an untenable sham? Why does it not matter at all that Harpo and Chico are never really on either side of the conflict at any point in the film? And what can we take from the idea of a seductive, witty imposter who is constantly taking cheap pot-shots at the object of his affection?

AG

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