Book Marx

Hail, Hail, Euphoria! Presenting the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup, The Greatest War Movie Ever Made

By Roy Blount Jr. !t Books (HarperCollins) 2010. A mere 145 pages. $19.99.

Any book on the Marx Brothers is a joy, but if there’s one warning that should applied to all such endeavors, it’s: NEVER TRY TO WRITE YOUR OWN MARX BROTHERS ONE-LINERS. DON’T TRY TO BE ONE OF THE BROTHERS.

Roy Blount Jr. should know better. He’s a clever chap—I greatly admired the cryptic crosswords he used to set for Spy Magazine. But this extended essay on Duck Soup—constructed as a sort of DVD commentary in text for, free-associating on the film as it unspools—is undone by his distracting attempts to insert his own jokes, which he annoying puts into the Marx’s mouths as if they were reading over his shoulder. The only time  that method has worked is when Arthur Marx added footnoted rejoinders, in his father’s voice, for Life With Groucho. Writing about the Marx Brothers in a supposed Marx Brothers style has undone other worthwhile books before Blount’s: Joey Adamson’s Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo—A Celebration of the Marx Brothers and Simon Louvish’s Monkey Business, two of the very best books about the brothers, lapse occasionally into egregious puns and silly descriptions, but those are 500 page books and Blount beats both in such indulgences.

Here’s one of his unwarranted interruptions:

But all is not well with the commonweal. Its economy is dowager-based, and you know how that goes—you get $20 million from a dowager and you’ve got to have more, you’re addicted, you’ve got a dowager jones.

CHICO: Watch-a the puns. Before you know it, you got a punsy scheme.

Blount’s casual writing style is plenty entertaining without having to compete with the witticisms of his hallowed subjects. But he doesn’t stop with his own wince-worthy wordplay. He goes through Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby’s original script for Duck Soup (originally entitled Firecrackers, and available on the Marxology website) and continually excoriates gags which didn’t make the final cut. This seems deeply unfair to Kalmar & Ruby, longtime Marx associates who clearly knew the brothers working style—a loose method which would be further loosened, as Blount helpfully illustrates, by the direction of Leo McCarey—and probably had no expectation that all their jokes would get in. Many of the unfilmed lines Blount sniffs at seem like first-draft placeholders. What’s more bothersome is how Blount bends out backwards to justify odd moments that are in the movie, while professing that these errant moments from the early script were all wrong for the characters.

Still, Blount is a genuine fan of this film and its makers. His passion is what propels Hail, Hail, Euphoria! The book’s very title is a rarely related factoid which validates the least-celebrated Marx Brother, Gummo. The book is full of details and insights drawn from the best-known Marx books, but Blount’s enthusiasm and his focus on just this one film make them stand out all the stronger.

Sometimes that enthusiasm gets the better of him. Blount’s research is commendable, but like a lot of Marx biographers he wants to believe the wildest version of any anecdote, or the pithiest rendition of any quote. And without an index or bibliography or scholarly footnotes (which are usually good ways to pad out books as short as this), it’s hard to double-check his research.

At one point Blount writes “George S. Kaufman, who found [Margaret] Dumont for the Marxes, wrote of her in his autobiography…” This is a revelation, since Kaufman never wrote such a book. The quote is actually from the autobiography of Kaufman’s collaborator Morrie Ryskind.

Mostly, such trivia is not so much sloppy as offhand. That’s the real pleasure of this book. There’s a lot of original scholarship clearly done out of love and an abiding fascination with this film. Blount has Googled every member of the cast he could, down to uncredited players and rumors of future stars who appeared in crowd scenes. He’s made a point of seeing a lot of movies which pertain to Duck Soup—earlier and later works of director McCarey, dramatic turns by some of the supporting players. It’s this sense of studiousness that prevails, not the puns.

Hail, Hail, Euphoria! is in a long line of “appreciations” of great motion pictures. Such books were common in the mid-20th century, when the films themselves were not as accessible. This made such text tributes valuable, but the limited access extended to the scholarship as well and such books could be full of misremembrances, misquotes and other mistakes. Roy Blount Jr. has revived this faded format and has the advantage of being able to surf oodles of scholarship, freeze-frame DVDs and consult shelvesfull of biographies.

It’s brisk and brash, yes, but adds quite a bit to an already well-studied film. Blount’s blunt punny interpolations will quickly be forgotten, but his fresh factual tidbits and insights are bound to inform my own frequent rewatchings of Duck Soup for years to come.