Odd duck

Sunday, January 2, 2011 at 10:05pm
By Michael Ray Taylor, Chapter16.org
Blount.jpg
Roy Blount Jr.

At first glance, Vanderbilt graduate Roy Blount Jr.’s Hail, Hail, Euphoria! Presenting the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup, the Greatest War Movie Ever Made appears to be an essay, perhaps for Entertainment Weekly, that got out of hand. It is 145 pages long, including photos and a page of photo credits, and they aren’t very big pages at that, barely registering 8-by-5 inches. The title is almost longer than the book. The book is barely longer than the script of the 1933 farce it celebrates. But dip into the pages of all things Fredonia, and you realize you are in the presence of a profoundly gifted (Groucho) Marxist delivering his greatest lecture on (Groucho) Marxism.

(Well, not just Groucho, but Chico, Harpo and Zeppo, too — he like-a dem all universal, ’cept it’s a Paramount picture. Ba-dump-bump.) 

The tidbits and trivia Blount shares in Hail, Hail, Euphoria!, amid careful scene-by-scene review and commentary of the movie, are delivered, as often as not, with Chico-like puns that elicit alternating groans and guffaws. It’s the sort of book that needs a little electronic chip to go “ba-dump-bump” every time you turn the page. 

Of the Duck Soup scene, for example, during which Harpo is repaid for a series of pranks involving a lemonade stand by having a quantity of the liquid shot down his pants, Blount writes, “Harpo, standing in a big puddle, screws up his face … and minces off camera, shaking each leg in turn, moist by his own petard.” 

Hail, Hail, Euphoria! is not so much the DVD commentary to Duck Soup that Blount wishes he had recorded as it is an evening spent with Blount, remote control in hand. He plays a few frames of the film, then hits pause and lectures a bit on Groucho’s childhood relationship with Harpo. Then he dribbles out a few more frames, hits pause, explains what was going on in the studio that day, and slips in a groaner, perhaps following it up in the voice of Chico: “Watch-a the puns. Before you know it, you got a punsy scheme.” 

To note that Blount reviews only a few frames between pauses is no exaggeration. He writes three pages on the National Recovery Act eagle that flashes across the screen before the opening credits, then four pages of speculation as to why the next words are “A Paramount Presents Picture,” as opposed to the much more common “A Paramount Picture.” Once the action actually starts, with the bankrupt government of Fredonia seeking a bailout from a millionaire heiress, the commentary begins in earnest. This reviewer has in fact attempted to educate certain teenage offspring regarding classic American films in a similar pause-and-commentary manner with, it must be admitted, less than satisfactory results. But Blount is so truly funny in how he goes about the same task that even a teenager might enjoy his asides. 

He opens the book with the description of a recent viewing of Duck Soup in a Manhattan theater full of children, where he worried that its humor wouldn’t resonate with kids born seven decades after the movie was made. Yet the audience is soon transfixed. “Duck Soup was getting family laughs, but edgy,” he writes. “Vintage laughs, but fresh. Even the parents seemed to have come unprepared for this movie.” 

The same might be said of Blount’s book. He writes about Duck Soup like a fifth Marx brother born too late, celebrating the film’s seriousness and silliness in a manner that is at once farcical and profound. “Two wheels, you got a bicycle. Three wheels, you got a tricycle. Four wheels, you got a farcical.” 

Ba-dump-bump.

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