When I was a teenager, I had to learn the “to be or not to be” speech for honors English. I had two weeks to commit Willie “The Bard” Shakespeare’s words to memory and on the day I was called to recite, I choked like I had TB, or not TB, that was congestion. I think I finished with the George Carlin “spare hair is fair” poem and slunk back to my desk.
I didn’t think I had a problem with my memory. When I was nine, I could toss off Rufus T. Firefly’s preface to the big finale of Duck Soup on command. And this was in the days before video tape. It was easier to remember because it is the best monologue ever performed in theater or film.
Groucho Marx once said “humor is reason gone mad” and Nina Hagen once sang, “There’s nothing wrong with the music, there’s something wrong with you.” Call me an upstart, but it wasn’t me that was defective, it was Shakespeare. His much-heralded harangue isn’t the greatest soliloquy ever written, but Groucho’s political U-turn is. It is the greatest monologue ever written and the most effectively delivered. The words cover more ground. The emotions span the full spectrum of human possibilities.
I may look like an idiot, and write and act like an idiot, but don’t let that fool you, I am an idiot. That doesn’t make me wrong. Audacious, of course, and not without plausible deniability, but that is my conclusion and if you don’t like it, I can come up with something else you won’t like either.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet, son of of Winnie the Pooh’s King Piglet, took on the question of life or death. He agonized over vengeance and suicide, with the veins or across the veins, for two to four minutes. But in the end he chooses to do nothing. Groucho makes a complete turn and goes into action. There is no political or philosophical waffling. Oh, and when Groucho himself pondered death and dying he said he intended to live forever, or die trying and concluded that death would be the last thing he’d do.
Groucho’s aside to the babe, Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont), tells the story of fascism and the fashion faux pas of brown shirts and tails. It lays bare the inner workings of a despotic mind and does it with wit and not a shred of preachiness. Groucho had indulged in strange interludes before. He happily hacked up Eugene O’Neill and riffed on Aristophanes. He and his brothers may have been uneducated, but that didn’t make them unschooled. His Excellency’s journey through those words traverse worlds.
“Mrs. Teasdale, you did a noble deed. I’d be unworthy of the high trust that’s been placed in me if I didn’t do everything within my power to keep our beloved Freedonia at peace with the world.
I’d be only too happy to meet Ambassador Trentino, and offer him on behalf of my country the right hand of good fellowship. And I feel sure he will accept this gesture in the spirit in which it is offered.
But suppose he doesn’t. A fine thing that’ll be. I hold out my hand and he refuses to accept it. That’ll add a lot to my prestige, won’t it? Me, the head of a country, snubbed by a foreign ambassador. Who does he think he is, that he can come here, and make a sap out of me in front of all my people?
Think of it – I hold out my hand and that hyena refuses to accept it. Why, the cheap four flushing swine, he’ll never get away with it I tell you, he’ll never get away with it!”
So, you refuse to shake hands with me, eh?
Duck Soup is well known as the classic satirical spin on the rising fascism. It was prescient, it wasn’t preachy, and the bad guys won. Anarchy ruled the day and the nights were a free for all in Freedonia – but who am I to quibble with perfection? His Excellency, Rufus T. Firefly, has taken over a country overloaded with imperfections because of the rich widow Mrs. Teasdale, who takes up enough ground to be a superpac.
The aside opens with a heartfelt expression of gratitude. Mrs. Teasdale may have cut through months of diplomatic channels in stopping whatever the harm was started by the usurping use of the word “upstart.” Firefly is intent on keeping peace, absolutely assured that this is a righteous path and resolutely committed to seeing it through. A mere supposition changes everything. We see the inner Marxian machinations at work feeding nagging doubts of unworthiness, selfishness, and paranoia.
Groucho punctuates the words by envisioning the humiliation he will personally endure. He will be a laughingstock among his people. He sees his place as a great ruler on an international stage crumble. Firefly sees all the slights he endured at the hand of this man, both personally and politically. He was the butt of a joke to a man who will laugh at anything. He is cheapened by a man who won’t even consider giving his country a loan. The quick rise of the leader of the great land of Freedonia is being slowed by a man who can’t finish what he starts, who can’t close a deal.
Let’s compare it to some notable solos.
In Patton, George C. Scott stays on an even plane during his rousing speech. He is terrifying, blunt, reasonable, and ever-patriotic, but he does not have a journey. In A Few Good Men, Jack Nicholson is badgered into an admission. His arc is interesting, but his inner character does not move. He only admits. We all knew he was covering something up, and we knew he knew. It was pretty much an open secret, especially if you didn’t show up on opening weekend and heard all about it.
Scarlett O’Hara travels a great distance in her monologue in Gone with the Wind. Vivian Leigh goes from shattered to reborn through the fires of Atlanta. The audience knows Scarlett will be alright in the end if she has to will it that way. She could do it. Leigh allows us into Scarlett’s damaged soul to watch as her inner strength is sparked. As monumental a transformation as it is, it is this great because it fulfills the emotional need the audience has for this character to be a survivor.
We don’t care what it costs. Just don’t let her go down like that. She doesn’t.
But Humphrey Bogart does. In The Caine Mutiny, Lieutenant Commander Phillip Queeg is battered on the witness stand. His every decision labeled wrong, when he knew from years of experience that he was acting exactly as situations merited. Queeg had always relied on a crew that was oil-slick to the point of having a kind of seamen’s psychic connection. He’d worked his way up with crew who knew his intents before he had to say them.
Cast adrift with an inexperienced staff of privileged minesweepers, he had to reconstruct his own way of communicating and then of thinking. On that witness stand, we see a seasoned officer, who knows when to attack and when to demur in any battle – land, sea or courtroom – question the very premise of his duty, and find it incompatible with the core of his being.
Bogart is a marvel. We see it all play out on his face. He captures the animal nature of understanding. He tries to set a course out of some kind of astral darkness but he is just a dog paddling to shore. Bogart subverts the breakdown, downplays it to the whimper of a mutt wanting to share its last bone. It is a spiritual defeat, but it is singular.
Groucho casts a global arc and uses the speech to justify the means to his ends. Firefly comes on the scene as a tyrant, tramping down on his citizens’ rights with his first edicts. “No one’s allowed to smoke, or tell a dirty joke, and whistling is forbidden. … If any form of pleasure is exhibited, report to me, and it shall be prohibited … this is the land of the free,” he sings, and we could envision Nurse Bloomberg’s hearing aide dancing behind him with Mao’s little red book in her hand.
Dictator Firefly raises taxes, but promises to crack down on political shakedowns, swearing that if he doesn’t get his share of the graft, he would stand them “up against the wall and pop goes the weasel.” He forces the country to his moral will. He deals with adultery by letting the wife decide which lover fits her needs, while the other one’s weasel is popped.
Little Hitler Firefly was looking for a reason to start a war because it would be good for the economy. Freedonia was overworked and underpaid. The work force demanded shorter hours and the Labor Department cut their lunch hour to twenty minutes. The country of Sylvania, which was about to get flush with TV tube money, was a good target, being a close neighbor and having already turned down a request for a $20,000,000 loan, or at least $12 dollars until payday.
Freedonia didn’t have a standing army and needed a pretense to mobilize a war-time economy. Trentino, though plotting to sow internal strife in his ambadassorship, does not want war, but Firefly already put the down-payment on the battlefield. It wasn’t national pride, but his personal feelings that had been hurt. Trentino considered the fledgling Mussolini an upstart, an insult that a Firefly could never forget. His ancestors would rise from their graves and he would have to bury them again.
The leader of Freedonia takes that personal injury and uses it as an excuse to inflict collateral damage to two countries, with god on his side, because all god’s children are entitled to guns.
Duck Soup’s screenplay was written by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. Arthur Sheekman and Nat Perrin threw in extra dialog and Groucho also adlibbed. So it is difficult to know who exactly came up with the monologue. The film was directed by Leo McCarey and also featured Raquel Torres, Louis Calhern, and Edgar Kennedy. This was the last time the four Marx Brothers, Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo, worked together and the last movie they made with Paramount.
Though not a flop, Duck Soup didn’t do well at the box office. How could it? They were Vaudevillians making social commentary on a problem the world was still learning about. It was noble. As international artists they felt they should do whatever they could to ensure peace in the world. They were assured their gesture captured the spirit of their time.
But sometimes jokes fail. People don’t get it. Things get lost in translation. People take things the wrong way. Jesse Owen expects a handshake after winning an Olympic medal in Germany. Things like that on top of movies like this hurt the fascists’ pride and might have contributed to the death and destruction of World War II. And for what? A bunch of Hollywood clowns drop their pants and expect us to kiss up to it like its high art or something? It’s not even two minutes long. This monologue sucks.
In the end, art is art and any interpretation or interpolation will be met with criticism, that’s why there’s an add comment button below this. Still, water is water and east is east and west is west and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does. Now tell me what you know.