28 November 2012

Threads of Revolution: Clothing and Costume in Duck Soup

Style of dress can connote many different ideas about the wearer to the observer, both demographic (e.g. socio-economic status, occupation, age, and gender) and psychographic (e.g. attitude, sense of style, and personality).  The association of particular apparel with these characteristics has arisen largely arbitrarily over time.  Complicating these associations, one generally self-selects one’s clothing based on a perceived self-image or an image that he or she wishes to project, rather than as a true indication of these qualities.  In Duck Soup (dir. Leo McCarey, 1933), the Marx Brothers and the film’s writers seem to have been aware of the absurdity of the superficial links between clothing and humanity.  These artists deliberately chose dress as one of their many loci of revolution in the film.
            The filmmakers challenged audience expectations by sudden interventions in common, everyday use of dress.  From the very first screen appearance of Groucho Marx as Rufus T. Firefly, one becomes aware that a realistic depiction of the use of clothes and how they operate will not be relied upon in the film:  Firefly emerges from bed in a nightshirt and quickly strips it off to reveal a dark suit.  Such ease of transformation in physical appearance is generally not possible in reality, but this filmic act reinforces traditional ideas about certain dress being expected for certain occasions.  In this case, it is how Firefly shifts between modes of dress that subverts expectations, not the clothes themselves or their on-screen functionality.

            In other scenes, however, the Marx Brothers severed the ties between articles of clothing and their established uses, in effect divorcing signifiers from that which they once signified.  In a lengthy barrage of sight gags, Pinkie (Harpo Marx) and Chicolini (Chico Marx) make ridiculous the scheming ambassador from Sylvania, who has hired them to spy on Firefly.  These bodily “attacks” on the ambassador include Pinkie cutting off the official’s coattails with a giant pair of shears and spreading paste on the seat of his pants.  The official’s uniform of formal dress, indicative of his station and occupation, becomes one of several locations of playful dissidence and insubordination.
            Hats, too, served as the props of many of the Marx Brothers’ sight gags and, in tandem, targets in their battle against convention.  In one scene, Chicolini and Pinkie get into a fight with a man operating a lemonade stand and in the course of the fight a rapid-fire series of hat changes between the three occurs.  Pinkie, at one point wearing a dunce cap in the shuffle, eventually destroys the lemonade salesman’s hat by setting it afire inside Chicolini’s peanut cart.  Hats may serve the practical purpose of protection against weather, but typically they are worn as social convention.  Here, the destruction of the hat provides yet another image of the overturning of social convention, using the commonplace in an unusual way.

            In one sequence, both Chicolini and Pinkie dress in a nightshirt and nightcap to impersonate Firefly.  Three characters have exactly the same outward appearance and two of those characters engage in a lengthy mimicry of one another, which is comedic, and yet strangely unsettling.  The two imposters are incapable of sustaining the ruse for very long and eventually shed their disguises and return to their former physical appearances.  This use of doubling and mirroring draws attention to the ways in which we use clothing to conceal aspects of our personality or physical form and also how we use it to assume properties or characteristics that are not inherent.

            Perhaps the most complex and ridiculous use of costume in the film comes near the end, during the battle scenes between Freedonia and Sylvania.  Firefly assumes military uniform, as befitting the battle, however it changes constantly, completely subverting the general continuity of the other elements of the film.  In one shot he wears a Civil War uniform, in another a Revolutionary War uniform, in another a coonskin cap and leather gear, and so on.  In this scene from Duck Soup, and those already mentioned, the Marx Brothers ruthlessly ridiculed the costumes and accoutrements of war, and in doing so war itself becomes ridiculous.  They were revolutionaries, but their battles were fought in movie theatres, rather than conventional theatres of war.


Matt Bennett said...

This was prompted by a lecture by Kim Paice on the "reversible connecting factor" and her brilliant pedagogical exercise of screening the Marx Brothers' film in class. It worked as a sort of zen koan, shaking the foundations of what I thought I understood as art history.

Kim Paice said...

Aw Matt, you're amazing. I learn everything I know from getting to be around students like YOU. Thanks for making something so wonderful of the the Marx Brothers and Greil Marcus! I AM HONORED to be in such good company. Kim

Matt Bennett said...

You're a rock star, Kim! I'm still playing open mic nights. :D Hope all is well with you.