Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inauguration Special: Je suis marxiste, comme Groucho ...

The last guy nearly ruined this place, he didn't know what to do with it.
If you think this country's bad off now, just wait till I get through with it.
-- Groucho Marx, Duck Soup

The last film featuring all four Marx Brothers, Duck Soup, was exactly what most Americans didn't want to see in 1933. Reveling in the inauguration of a dynamic new president who offered a new hope (and copious government assistance) to a depressed nation, the last thing audiences wanted to see was the larger-than-life sneer of Groucho Marx, offering a New Deal of his own to the virtuous, civic-minded and perpetually clueless Margaret Dumont:

Groucho: Never mind that stuff. Take a card.
Dumont: Card? What do I do with the card?
Groucho: You can keep it. I've got fifty-one left. Now what were you saying?

Meet the New Deal, same as the Old Deal. Only worse.

In Duck Soup, Groucho is Rufus T. Firefly, the new prime minister of Freedonia. Alas, Freedonia is beset by some awfully familiar problems: The economy has hit rock bottom, the government is so deeply in debt that domestic manufacturers of black ink are practically out of business, citizens grumble over labor issues, and the nation teeters on the brink of war. Naturally, Freedonia responds by throwing a lavish inauguration party for its new leader, during which Groucho announces the rules of his new administration, in song.

Like any good politician, Rufus Firefly begins by addressing morality and social issues. He promises that generally harmless if obnoxious behavior -- such as smoking and off-color humor -- will be regulated by the new administration, with draconian punishments for those who fail to comply. Even trivial offenders will feel the wrath of the almighty state:

If chewing gum is chewed
The chewer is pursued
And in the hoosegow hidden

After delivering these lines, the prime minister saunters across the elaborate inaugural hall, pretending to chew an obnoxiously large wad of gum. As Firefly knows full well, the government tends to enforce such regulations selectively, and the wealthy and powerful need not worry about them. Groucho, still singing, cuts to the heart of nanny-state prohibitions with these lines:

If any form of pleasure is exhibited
Report to me and it will be prohibited
I'll put my foot down. So shall it be.
This is the land of the free.

Meanwhile, Firefly surveys a line of women, promptly embracing -- and dipping -- the most attractive of the lot in a fashion which, had it occurred sixty years later, could almost be described as Clintonesque. The object of his attention is obviously taken aback (in more ways than one), but manages to be a good sport about it; she even forces a smile as the prime minister's roaming fingers find their target. (The Marx Brothers were notorious for subjecting innocent bystanders to these unscripted assaults, ranging from lascivious gropes to a hard whack on the noggin -- both of which can be seen in Duck Soup. More than one critic has quipped that the extras should have demanded hazard pay for what they must have endured.)

Unlike Groucho's other characters -- a college president, a horse doctor, an explorer of darkest Africa (eek!), and other cons and chiselers -- Rufus T. Firefly has the coercive power of government behind him, and that gives his trademark humor a truly malevolent edge here. In the course of Duck Soup, Firefly will appoint foreign spies to cabinet positions, turn a petty personal grievance into a justification for all-out war, respond to workers' demands for shorter hours by "shortening their lunch hour to twenty minutes," and top even these proceedings by massacring his own troops (who obligingly die offscreen). But his casual disdain for the country he ostensibly leads is apparent from day one, when he explains the most important way that his administration will differ from the "last guy" -- the one who "nearly ruined this place" and "didn't know what to do with it." Firefly tells us that he knows exactly what to do. He's going to raise taxes:

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.

The phrase "Wait till I get through with it" is practically Firefly's refrain here, when he discusses the future of Freedonia. For Depression-era audiences, this would have been easy enough to recognize: It's FDR's message of messianic hope, turned inside out and revealed as an utter sham. Groucho Marx's perverse iteration of the New Deal won't solve the nation's problems, or lead the people gradually toward a socialist utopia. From now on, Firefly warns his unsuspecting listeners, things are going to get much worse. Indeed, once the minister is finally "through" with Freedonia at film's end, the land has been devastated not only by its still-unresolved economic woes, but also by a war with its neighbor Sylvania (in an early draft of the script, Sylvania was known as Amnesia). Unlike the elaborate inaugural ceremony that marks the film's opening, Freedonia's victory comes with neither pomp nor pride. In the film's final shot, Dumont's attempt to warble Freedonia's national anthem merely inspires the Marx Brothers to throw fruit at her. What triumph there is feels enervated and perfunctory, and for all we know, Dumont and the Marx Brothers may be the only Freedonians still alive.

To Americans newly intoxicated on rhetoric of the New Deal, Duck Soup must have seemed about as welcome as a bucket of ice water. (At the time it was a notorious box-office flop.) Although in later years Groucho Marx denied the film had any political intentions, the political stance of Duck Soup -- if it is coherent enough to qualify as a stance -- is profoundly pessimistic. America, said Franklin Delano Roosevelt, had nothing to fear but fear itself; the Marx Brothers suggested, none too subtly, that we might want to start by fearing our leaders. Roosevelt promised a swift return to national prosperity; the Marx Brothers cautioned against another world war. Roosevelt urged Americans to put their faith in government; the Marx Brothers' apostasy was absolute. And in case anyone might have missed the point, the bitterly ironic Freedonian national anthem -- "Hail, hail Freedonia / Land of the brave and free" -- plays over the then-obligatory opening title card touting studio participation in FDR's National Recovery Act -- "We do our part."

Duck Soup presents government as a font of corruption and incompetence, in which leaders run amok blithely steer the populace into one calamity after another. There is no question about efficient or inefficient government in this world view; any government has the potential to degenerate into tyranny and oppression, and the difference between them might well be that an efficient government might simply accomplish the feat more quickly and thoroughly. Small wonder, then, that this bleakest of anti-government satires found a more receptive audience during the 1960s, primarily in Europe (where performance-driven American comedy enjoyed something of a renaissance). Certainly Duck Soup qualifies as one of the great anti-war, anti-government films. Not until Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove would the cinema produce anything remotely like it.

Today, of course, Duck Soup is seen as something of a relic, assuming it is seen at all. The film turned seventy-five last year, making it even older than John McCain. It could perhaps be dismissed as a harmless or irrelevant diversion. Yet that fellow standing on the podium, "due to take his station / Beginning his new administration" -- what exactly is he promising us over the next four years? What does he want from us in return? Should we "just wait till he gets through with it"? Do we have a choice? After all, most of us agree that the last guy nearly ruined this place -- he didn't know what to do with it. If you think this country's bad off now ....

Granted, it may be unwise, or at the very least impolitic, to consider these matters at such an auspicious, historical moment. If the inaugural festivities have taught us anything at all -- and they seem grimly resolved to teach us something -- surely they have taught us that we are the change we've been looking for, and more important, that We Are One. (I can't help wondering, one what, exactly?) It's all lovely, to be sure, and some of it might even be true. But amid the general celebration, one might be forgiven for hearing a small, sardonic voice: "Never mind that stuff. Take a card."

Monday, January 19, 2009

Mohandas and Me

In honor of this year's Martin Luther King Day, I'm posting a new link to an old essay, "Mohandas and Me," in which I confront the folly and shame of my left-wing past.

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