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Smooth operator: Groucho Marx makes a policy move on Raquel Torres in
Smooth operator: Groucho Marx makes a policy move on Raquel Torres in Duck Soup. Archive Photos/Getty Images
His Excellency Rufus T. Firefly: Groucho gavels a cabinet meeting to order.
His Excellency Rufus T. Firefly: Groucho gavels a cabinet meeting to order. Universal Pictures
The Marx Brothers and Karl Marx have very little in common except that last name. Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo promoted comic anarchy, not the political kind.
But at least one Marx Brothers movie — Duck Soup — skates through some economic territory their Marxist namesake would recognize. And this week, that territory feels pretty familiar: I hadn't remembered until I saw it again that Duck Soup, made in 1933 at the height of the Great Depression, begins with talk of an economic bailout.
Margaret Dumont, playing Mrs. Teasdale, a wealthy widow who has already lent money to the fictional republic of Freedonia, is being hit up again for an additional $20 million. (That would be more than $330 million in today's dollars.) And why? Because the deeply unpopular government of Freedonia wants to cut taxes.
Mrs. Teasdale insists on regime change before she'll help. Her candidate? A guy with a painted-on mustache named Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx).
Now, Firefly's programs are a little dicey. Told that workers want shorter hours, he suggests shortening their lunch hours to 20 minutes. He tries to borrow $20 million from a foreign leader; rebuffed, he's willing to settle for $12.
But despite all that — and a promise to raise taxes — he proves hugely popular.
Once in office, of course, he isn't all that clear on how an economy works. "A 4-year-old child could understand this," he says of a treasury report. (And then, in an aside to his private secretary: "Run out and find me a 4-year-old child; I can't make head or tail out of it.")
An Audience That Was In On The Joke
The Depression-era writers of Duck Soup could joke about this stuff because after three years of economic crisis, every member of the audience would get the joke. And later audiences confronting similar situations have gotten it too.
In late-'70s Argentina, for instance, a military dictatorship wrecked the country's economy, deregulating banks and industry, watching living standards decline, and borrowing at high interest rates to create a record foreign debt. Finance ministers, as you might expect, came and went rapidly.
And every time a new one got sworn in, long lines would form at one particular movie theater in Buenos Aires. The management of the Lorca Cine, you see, had a well-worn print of Duck Soup, and they'd cancel whatever else they were showing so people weary of groaning about real economic woes — and the stumblebums who had caused them — could laugh at the ones onscreen.
These days, movie theaters don't keep house prints of Marx Brothers movies on hand, so American audiences aren't likely to see Duck Soup at the multiplex. But happily, it's rentable — and if your name's not Bernanke, you might well find the laughs comforting when Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show are in reruns.