A bunch of us were trying to watch Duck Soup last night as a guy provided unsolicited Marxist subtextual analysis. It was quite illuminating. For example, I had never realized that Edgar Kennedy, selling his lemonade, represented Capital while Harpo, the peanut vendor (or El Manicero, badly whistled), was Labor. Their struggle was represented brilliantly by the metaphor of the burning straw hat and even more so by Edgar Kennedy pushing over the peanut vendor’s cart and then Harpo dancing in his lemonade. It’s so obvious, he said, which made me feel so clueless as I’d always thought it was just really funny.. The mirror scene was also a metaphor of class struggle. And the whole motorcycle and sidecar thing. I bet you never knew this. The primary theme of the film, however, was how Big Capital and the duped American working class embraced isolationism instead of entering WW2. When Groucho tricked Ambassador Trentino into calling him an upstart and declaring war he was trying to tell the American public that it was time to confront their anti-Semitism and enter the struggle against Hitler. All this was particularly prescient in that WW2 was not happening at the time, nor, indeed, was Hitler even in power when the screenplay was written. This was pointed out and while the narrator agreed that such was the case, it only proved his point.
It all got a little over my head during the Freedonia’s Going To War song and dance bit. Apparently when the Marx Brothers lapse into the minstrel show routine what they are really saying is that not only is America unwilling to overcome its own anti-Semitism and enter the struggle in Europe but it refuses to liberate the people within its own borders. There was more to it but I think that was the gist of it. And you thought it was just tacky.
I wish I could repeat the entire lecture but I wasn’t taking notes. This is just a tiny fraction of what was explained to us, and we didn’t even get to the final war scenes, because someone turned the television off.
Still, even the most astute deconstructionist has to admit that some of Duck Soup is just funny.. Groucho is writing a note with a big quill pen. Harpo sneaks up behind him with a big pair of shears and snips off the quill. We all laugh. Classic early twentieth century American absurdism our critic declares, and laughs alone.
College can be a terrible thing.