'Duck Soup': Take One Fiscal Crisis, Boil Merrily Depression-era comedy sends the Marx Brothers skating through economic territory their namesake Karl would recognize — and it begins with talk of bailouts, tax breaks and other things that Bob Mondello says you'll find familiar, too.
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'Duck Soup': Take One Fiscal Crisis, Boil Merrily

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'Duck Soup': Take One Fiscal Crisis, Boil Merrily

'Duck Soup': Take One Fiscal Crisis, Boil Merrily

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The Marx Brothers and Karl Marx have little in common except their last name. Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo promoted comic anarchy, not socialism. But according to critic Bob Mondello, one of their greatest films does skate through some economic territory.

BOB MONDELLO: Duck Soup, the Marx Brothers comedy made in 1933 at the height of the Great Depression begins with an economic bailout.

Ms. MARGARET DUMONT: (As Mrs. Teasdale) Gentlemen, I've already loaned Fidel Young more than half the fortune my husband left me. I consider that money lost and now, you're asking for another $20 million.

MONDELLO: That's Margaret Dumont as Mrs. Teasdale, a wealthy widow who's been approached by the extremely unpopular government of Freedonia for a reason.

Unidentified Man: With $20 million in the Treasury we can announce an immediate reduction of the taxes. That's all the people are asking for.

MONDELLO: That's right. The government's prescription for the economic crisis is a tax break. Mrs. Teasdale insists on regime change first, and her candidate? A guy with a painted-on mustache named Rufus T. Firefly.

Mr. GROUCHO MARX (As Rufus T. Firefly): The last man, Nellie ruined this place. He didn't know what to do with it. If you think this country is bad off, I'm not just going to like it doing it.

MONDELLO: Groucho Marx proving hugely popular though his tax reforms probably wouldn't be.

Mr. MARX: The country's taxes must be fixed and I know what to do with it. If you think you're paying too much now just wait till I get through with it.

MONDELLO: As you might imagine, Rufus T. Firefly isn't all that clear on how an economy works which doesn't stop him from proposing solutions. His first thought is to try borrowing from foreign governments.

Mr. MARX: Now, how about lending this country $20 million, you old skinflint.

Unidentified Man: Twenty million dollars is a lot of money. I spent to take that up with my minister of finance.

Mr. MARX: Well, in the meantime, could you let me have $12 until payday?

Unidentified Man: Twelve dollars?

Mr. MARX: Don't be scared, you'll get it back. I'll give you my personal note for 90 days. If it isn't paid by then, you can keep the note.

MONDELLO: Understandably, no one will lend him money so he calls a cabinet meeting to examine other options.

Unidentified Man: Here's the Treasury Department support. I hope you'll find it clear.

Mr. MARX: Clear? My four-year-old child can understand this report. Run out and find me a four-year-old child. I can't make a head or tail out of it.

MONDELLO: 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 Argentina, for instance, when a military dictatorship wrecked the country's economy after a coup in 1976, they deregulated banks and industry, watched living standards decline, and borrowed at high interest rates creating a record foreign debt. Finance ministers, as you might expect, came and went rapidly.

Mr. MARX: We've got to start looking for a new treasurer.

Unidentified Man: But you appointed one last week.

Mr. MARX: That's the one I'm looking for.

MONDELLO: And trickingly, every time a new Argentine finance minister got sworn in, long lines would form at a movie theater in downtown Buenos Aires. The management of the Lorca Cine had a well-worn print of Duck Soup, and they would 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.

Mr. MARX: You give up that silly peanut stand and I'll get you a soft government job. How would you like a job in the mint?

Unidentified Man: Mint? No, no. I don't like a mint. What other flavor you got?

MONDELLO: These days multiplexes don't have house prints of Marx Brothers movies but Saturday Night Live and the Daily Show fill the gap and Duck Soup is always rentable if you want to be reminded that folks were still cracking wise about '30s financiers even after their stock market had plunged 89 percent. If your name's not Bernanke, you may well find that comforting. I'm Bob Mondello.

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