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Box of Visions: The Music of Tom Russell

by John Bloner, Jr.

"Come gather 'round me children, a story I will tell . . ."

With these words, Texas singer-songwriter Tom Russell draws us near for his stories-in-song of his ancient kin, immigrants from Ireland and Norway, in "The Man From God Knows Where" (1999 HighTone Records).

Family characters in the song cycle of this recording introduce themselves: "My name is Mary Clare Malloy, I was born in County Cork," starts one song. "My name is Anna Olsen, leaving Norway was so hard. I watch my nearest neighbors now, planting fruit trees in their yard," begins another. The effect feels as intimate as if you were on the front porch with Mary Clare and Anna, thumbing through a family album while learning of their loves, hardships and dreams.

Russell provides lead vocals on many songs in his ragged baritone voice, while turning over the microphone on other pieces to some of the finest Irish and American folk and traditional artists: Dolores Keane, Iris DeMent, Dave Van Ronk, among them.

"The Man From God Knows Where" was my first exposure to Russell. Through this record and his other music, I discovered that the Great American Novel exists; it's just not in the pages of a book.  Instead, it's contained in the songs and stories of Tom Russell, who's shared them over the years on trains along the Rio Grande and through the Canadian wilderness, in cheap hotels and Skid Row dives with their snake acts and topless and bottomless bars, and once at four in the morning as a New York cab driver, traveling through Rockaway Park, whose fare was Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. During the drive, Russell told Hunter that he was a songwriter, too.

"Yeah, sure you are. Sing me one of your songs," Hunter said.

Russell sang him his song about rooster-fighting, "Gallo del Cielo", and sung it again and again at Hunter's insistence while the meter turned and read $300.

A year later, Hunter called Russell onto the red brick stage of the Bitter End in NYC to sing the chicken song and several more before five hundred Dead Heads.

There was no going back to the taxi garage for Tom.

Like the stories-in-song on "The Man From God Knows Where", Russell relates Mickey Mantle's life in first-person, evoking a time of triumph for the baseball hero and regret that is also the stuff of legends.  All Music Guide has called "The Kid from Spavinaw", "the greatest song that has thus far, and probably ever will be, written about Mickey Mantle."

Tom Russell pays thanks to many other of his heroes on his records and, in the process, paints a portraits of America over the past sixty years. You can find an ode to environmental activist and author Edward Abbey; a song about Muhammad Ali; a tribute to the High Priestess of Soul, Nina Simone; and a portrait of Panamanian boxer Roberto Duran.  In doing so, he's reclaiming the narrative of this country from the politicians and advertising corporations.

"America...I always thought it was our America, as much as anybody else's, you know. Circus people and carnival freaks, prisoners and music makers, musicians, troubadours, minstrels, hobos, poets and such. We can't let the goddamn country go down to politicians and corporate madmen and college professors and media people, run it over and ruin it all. It's ours...it's our goddamn country!"  Circus midget Little Jack Horton on Tom Russell's record, "Hotwalker."

On "Hotwalker", Russell looks at a vanishing America, a country we knew before strip malls, 24-hour television, Facebook and the always-on-call culture of cell phones. He populates the story with stories and voices of bygone times, illustrating what we're losing as a society as we get faster and bypass the backroads of our towns and minds.

He speaks in his own voice and through a persona, Little Jack Horton, circus midget and friend to poet Charles Bukowski, while sounding like "Ukulele Ike on laughing gas". He assembles the music and stories of the people who have colored this "Gone America", offering us their great stories and songs.

Dave Van Ronk was the so-called Mayor of MacDougal Street and Pope of Greenwich Village, a respected figure of folk and blues music when Bob Dylan was still playing the baskethouses.  The most touching moment on the "Hotwalker" record and a high mark in all of Russell's recordings is his tribute to Van Ronk, leading off with Fats Kaplin on the fiddle.

I saw Van Ronk in concert once in a nearly-empty hall on Oakland Avenue in Milwaukee, WI. He was near the end of his days and played a short set, but afterward he greeted every person who came to the show, signed autographs and made small talk. He asked me about a hat shop he used to visit, but I was too stunned, too much in awe of the man to answer. (Besides, I had no idea about the hat shop).  He signed a copy of his "Somebody Else, Not Me" record for me anyway.

I've sat in the front row twice when Tom Russell made stops years ago at Gil's Cafe on Milwaukee's east side (see above), where I talked about cowboy poets and Edward Abbey before Tom put on his Stetson and moved toward the microphone.  Owner Gil Rasmussen championed folk and the blues there, loved the flavor of sounds from the Southwest America, and turned the upstairs of his restaurant into Music Mecca, made heavenly by the hardwood floors and by the intimate atmosphere where I felt like I could reach out and fret Russell's Martin guitar if he needed a hand and I could actually play.

Like all good things, Gil's Cafe came to an end. Rasmussen closed to spend more time with his family. Some other restaurant moved in, minus the music. I can still play the movie in my mind, however, of Russell and his guitarist Andrew Hardin unable to leave the stage at the end of their set at Gil's because of the crush of people upstairs, or of the sight of the strong, beautiful, freckled faces and russet hair of the Irish girls who sat along one wall of the Cream City brick interior, while Russell and Hardin serenaded with the song, "When Irish Girls Grow Up."

"I believe in the ability of true art to heal and move people into a little timeless corridor for a few moments and save them from the rages of boredom and soul-corrosion."  1

"I feel a full record of well-written songs is a revolutionary act in these days. That sort of collection will stand out in the era of single song downloading." 2

"Why can't we create new composers along the lines of the greats like Bach and Beethoven? Because classical music now comes out funded from the university and does not come from the street. So hip-hop is more relevant." 3

"They locked me up as a hopeless psycho in a dilapidated dry-out hospital in the desert. I had not slept for a year. I broke out once, and five huge Mexicans ran after me and stomped me into the parking lot." 4

"Go get a job in a bar and learn ten Hank Williams songs. Get lost in Mexico. Songwriting is about building on your roots then finding out who you are...and writing down to the blood and bones." 5

"I've always felt on the outside, looking in. I never felt comfortable in a group. Maybe that's why I got a degree in Criminology, to find out why I felt so weird in this society." 6

"I just want to hear a song that makes me pull my truck over to the side of the road and listen, and then shiver." 7

"If a man can't piss in his own front yard, he's living too close to town." From the song, "The Ballad of Edward Abbey". Watch Russell perform this number in the video below.

One of my favorite songs, tunes or compositions, rock, folk, classical, jazz or otherwise, is "Box of Visions". Russell writes that its inspiration came from a photo, "Caja de Visiones", by the great Mexican photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo.

I have listened to "Box of Visions" a thousand times or more, but the last two lines of the chorus still destroy me.

Wait a while and you'll grow stronger
Never mind what the sad folks say
Just keep an angel on your shoulder
And never throw your dreams away
For they may save your life one day.

Russell recorded "Box of Visions" in the studio for a 1992 release, but my favorite version arrived five years later in a live duet with songbird Iris Dement.

If you'd like to learn more about Tom Russell, click HERE for his Website. You may also view a one-hour documentary on Russell as he and his friends take a musical journey across Canada on a film presented at Vimeo.com.  Click HERE to view this film.


Brigitta Richter

by Lisa Adamowicz Kless

Warmth.  It emanates from visual artist Brigitta Richter’s work, and from the artist herself.  It’s hard to articulate exactly what draws me to her pieces, but part of it is the use of color (I’m not a fan of a neutral palette, in art or everyday life), the fluidity, and, well, what I mentioned at the very beginning--the warmth.

Brigitta Richter (photo credit: Joe Barr)
Visiting her at Mudhaus Studio one chilly autumn afternoon, that warmth radiated out again as Richter welcomed me in and offered me a hot cup of tea.  Mudhaus is a combination studio, teaching space and retail area that Richter opened with friend and fellow artist Vince Gedgaudas three years ago.  Formerly the home of a plaster mold manufacturing company, Mudhaus carries on the tradition in some fashion, with kilns in the lower level and some of the old plaster molds still on the shelves and partially used for embellishments on clay items.  The former owner of the plaster business rents the space to Richter and Gedgaudas, and she says it makes her happy when the children and grandchildren of the former owner come to Mudhaus and say that they feel at home and can reminisce on great  memories there.  Along with special events for adults and children, Richter hosts monthly “painting parties”, where anyone--with previous painting experience or not--can come in and complete a painting within a few hours.  Richter gives step by step instruction and guidance, patiently encouraging participants.  Mudhaus also serves as a sort of “drop in” work space; both Richter and Gedgaudas work on pieces there during open hours, and welcome other artists to bring in projects-in-progress too.

Some of the paintings that Richter teaches how to create during "painting parties"
Quickly getting engrossed in our conversation that fall day, I was surprised to find out that Richter hasn’t always been an artist.  She seems so at ease when she’s in front of a canvas, and her work has a depth and detail to it that makes it seem as if she’s been doing this for most of her life.

Richter was born in Munich, Germany, and has lived in Kenosha, Wisconsin for ten years.  She trained as a dental technician early in her career, something she credits as helping her in her work today.  The connection to her current work in clay, acrylic and oil paints and ink, she explained, is that the dental training she got helped to fine tune her spatial and technical abilities.  Having to create molds for dental work gave her the experience of working with pliable mediums, and having to pay close attention to sometimes minute details has aided her as well.

A sculpture the artist had just begun on the day I visited Mudhaus
Richter began her work as an artist largely while she was a stay at home mom.  She says that she’s the type of person who enjoys new experiences and trying new things, so she took up painting when her children were young and she had some time to devote to dabbling in it.  After moving to Kenosha, she joined the Kenosha Art Association (where she met Gedgaudas), and soon began exploring other media.  Painting is still a favorite, but the walls of Mudhaus are lined with mugs and other vessels that she’s created too.

Also a Reiki practitioner, Richter has made a series of ceramic chakra angel necklaces, each with the purpose of balancing energy in a specific area of the body.

Encaustic painting is the latest thing that Richter is trying her hand at.  This is generally done with raw pigment mixed with molten beeswax.  A heat source has to be passed over the surface after applying the mixture, and that melts the wax a second time and fuses it with the pigment.  Richter says that engrossing herself in the process has helped her to adjust to her daughter going off to college.  She explained that, with encaustic painting, there’s an element of having to just let the finished product come out however it will; you can only control the wax to a certain degree, and then, it’s left up to chance.

An encaustic painting in progress
Richter exhibits and has items for sale at Mudhaus Studio and the Pollard Gallery in Kenosha, and has entered pieces in shows and exhibits at other galleries as well.  But, she says, for her the enjoyment is in just creating, whether or not anything sells.  Her face practically beaming the entire time that we talked about art, creativity, and life in general, she verbalized what anyone who perceives the joyfulness in her work may have already guessed: “I feel so blessed to be doing what I do.”

To find out more about Mudhaus Studio and see more examples of Richter's work, visit the Facebook page at www.facebook.com/Mudhaus.



by Dave Best

Writing these articles and trying to find the adequate words to eloquently put across what makes a cherished film special to me whilst encouraging you to check it out can sometimes be challenging. This, however, is not one of those times because Richard Franklin’s Link (1986), sells itself: it’s an 80s horror film about a murderous butler stalking and harassing Elizabeth Shue in an isolated country house.  Oh, and the butler also happens to be a chimpanzee. If, after reading that sentence, your interest is not piqued then chances are this probably isn’t the film for you. Thanks for coming, please check out the rest of the site and I’m sure you’ll find something more up your alley. Those of you still reading however (yes, both of you) need to track down a copy of this film, fill your fridge with snacks and beer, get a few friends round and just enjoy the hell out of this movie.

Shue stars as Jane, a student who gets a job as a research assistant with Dr. Steven Phillip (Terrence Stamp), an expert in chimpanzee behaviour who lives in a secluded country house with three pet apes. One of his apes, the eponymous Link, also acts as a butler of sorts and quickly seems to bond with Jane. Inevitably, it’s not long before things go awry as Dr. Phil goes missing, leaving Jane alone with the animals; worse yet, Link starts showing some increasingly threatening behaviour, leaving Jane fearing for her life and on the run. 

Before we proceed any further, let’s just deal with the ape-shaped elephant in the room; Link is supposed to be a chimpanzee despite the fact that, for reasons known only to the production team, he is clearly played by an orangutan. He is never directly named as a chimp (or orangutan, for that matter) but it is heavily implied in dialogue. Couple this with the fact that his owner is a chimp expert, the other animals he lives with are chimps and his fur has been dyed black (orangutans normally being a reddish colour), and we are left only two options: 1) Link is supposed to be a chimp, and 2) Link is supposed to be a goth orangutan. I’d love to give the benefit of the doubt and go with option number two, but goths rarely make good villains, as they are more likely to hurt themselves than anyone else. It seems bizarre that the script wasn’t changed to incorporate the fact that the central focus of the film is a different species altogether, but it was the 80s; everyone was too busy sniffing lines off their coffee-table-sized cell phones to sweat the small stuff. So, with that in mind, let’s just accept that in the world of the film, Link is a chimp, and the orangutan that plays him is an amazing actor.... 

I know he's a naughty boy but....just look at him, you can't stay mad at that face.
....no seriously, he is! Shue does a solid job and deserves extra credit for owning a role in which she spends 70% of her screen time opposite apes, and Terrence Stamp holds up his end just fine, but the whole reason this film is so watchable is Link himself. Sure he is cute and frequently laugh out loud comical but he is also quite unnerving and incredibly creepy at times (check out the scene where he interrupts Jane trying to take a bath and tell me it doesn’t freak you out!). Whatever he does though, it is hard to take your eyes off Link when he is on screen; he’s charismatic, expressive, and let’s not forget he’s wearing an adorable little suit. For reasons I won’t go into (at the risk of revealing spoilers) he is also a fairly sympathetic character, you don’t exactly root for him but you can totally understand where he’s coming from.  In that regard Link becomes a little bit like Falling Down (1993), but with a bloody great big ape losing his shit instead of Michael Douglas.

Had the filmmakers gone down the far-too-often trodden path of putting a guy in an ape suit to play Link it would have been a very different film, because no matter how good a performer he is and no matter how realistic the suit is, a guy in an ape suit will always look like a guy in an ape suit (that includes CGI ape suits; sorry, Andy Serkis). Take the 1961 film Konga by John Lamont, a film which isn’t a million miles away from Link in terms of premise. In it, a scientist uses a specially created serum to turn a chimp into a gorilla which he then hypnotizes and sends out to do his murderous bidding. Setting aside for a second the fact that had the scientist simply acquired a gorilla instead of a chimp in the first instance he could have saved himself a lot of trouble, the main problem with this film is that no matter how much tension it tries to build, or how much menace it tries to attribute to the titular character, it always falls completely flat when Konga makes his appearance (see below). Admittedly, Konga is a very different film to Link in terms of style and tone but even though its premise is silly from the outset and it’s all a bit tongue in cheek, the second you see a man lolloping about the screen in a gorilla suit it goes from being enchantingly camp to flat out ridiculous. The whole preoccupation with apes in horror is down to their genetic proximity and physical similarity to man; they are a primitive reflection of us which touches a raw nerve. This is an effect which can be used to great effect in the right hands, so it only stands to reason that the effect is diminished when you substitute a real ape for any artificial substitute. I’m sure it wasn’t easy training the animals that appear in Link, but the end result is worth it and gives credibility to the rest of the film.

What looks more unrealistic, Konga or that dangerously pointy rack?
With the exception of King Kong (1933)--which is pretty much untouchable due to its effect and legacy--I’d put a claim to Link being the best ape/monkey horror made to date (feel free to disagree in the comments section). This is no small feat when you consider that the horror genre has been quietly obsessed with apes and monkeys for a peculiarly long time. I’d also put a case forward for it being one of the better films in the slasher sub-genre too, the primary reason being the effective pacing. Link starts quite slowly, not only establishing the characters but also taking the time to disseminate information about the often violent nature of chimps and the damage they can do to a human. This was especially necessary for a 1986 audience as a lot of this information was only just being discovered. It helps to gradually build the impending peril and establish the chimps as believable potential villains. The film then focuses on constructing a feeling of isolation and abandonment for Jane and the audience, all the time still increasing the tension/expectation before smoothly transitioning into the final third of the film as the action becomes much more frantic and reaches its climax. It doesn’t try to milk it for too long, as can often be the case in slasher films when they try and sustain that high octane level for an entire film; there’s only so long that you can watch someone running in hysterics before you are dulled to it, and Link times its final act to perfection.

Terrence Stamp and Elisabeth Shue
It’s easy to scare people with a serial killer, the supernatural or a predatory animal but it’s much more of a challenge to do it with something as un-menacing as a chimp/orangutan butler. Link is not a particularly violent film, it isn’t disturbing, it won’t give you bad dreams and even though it will make you jump it will also make you laugh. It’s a horror film to enjoy, not endure. A solid, well executed genre piece with a simple formula which is easy to consume. In fact, the only downside to this film is that it’s turned one of my most beloved Simpsons quotes into a chilling warning:

Ralph: “How many monkey butlers will there be?”

Bart: “One at first....but he’ll train others” 

For more information about Link please check out IMDb: http://uk.imdb.com/title/tt0091415


Duck Soup

by Dave Gourdoux

"To war, to war, Freedonia's going to war"
Well, it’s November, and in a couple of days, our long national nightmare will be behind us.  After years of half truths, distorted facts, and bald faced lies, after the endless prognostications and pontifications of windbag analysts, after thousands of messages being approved by an endless parade of clowns, our election season will finally be over. Righty or Lefty, Democrat or Republican, I have the same recommendation - after you’ve cast your vote and settle in for the night, my advice would be to turn off those depressing election returns and instead put on the movie Duck Soup, starring the great Marx Brothers.

The last man nearly ruined this place
He didn't know what to do with it
If you think this country's bad off now,
Just wait 'til I get through with it

The country's taxes must be fixed
And I know what to do with it
If you think you're paying too much now
Just wait till I get through with it

                        - from “The Laws of My Administration” from Duck Soup

It seems that every election cycle now lasts longer, is more divisive, and the candidates are, frankly, either more incompetent or more insane than before. The whole political process has become an exercise in escalating absurdity.  This is where Duck Soup is such a pleasant contrast –at least Groucho, Chico and Harpo are intentionally absurd, and the republics of Freedonia and Sylvania are hilariously fictional. Turn off MSNBC or Fox News and put off until morning the depressing truth that the surreal and zany world we wake up to each day is sadly real.

Watching Duck Soup, it occurs to me I have seen it more times than I can count, more times than any other movie, and it still makes me laugh out loud. The Marx Brothers, for me, have always been the best anitodote for that heavy, bloated and sad feeling you get from too much reality.

My discovery of the Marx Brothers was a happy accident.  A little bit of background information that reveals how ancient I am: I grew up before the internet, before DVDs, before VCRs, before cable television, even before remote controls.   All the television we had was three networks, PBS, and a couple of fuzzy UHF channels. There were no movie rentals, no Netflix or Blockbusters or Best Buys. Egads, how primitive!

So it was that at some point (I was probably twelve or thirteen years old), I stumbled upon a late show airing of A Night at the Opera. There was this goofy fast talking guy with a big black moustache smoking a cigar, another guy with a cheesy Italian accent and a funny hat, and finally a guy with a blonde wig who never talked but seemed to carry anything and everything in his overcoat. I watched the mayhem and pandemonium unfold as they destroyed the opera, and I was stunned and amazed. I'd seen Laurel and Hardy and W.C.Fields before but I'd never seen anything like this. The Marx Brothers broke all the rules. They were manic, frenetic, insane, and funny - exhilaratingly and intelligently funny. The idea that things didn't have to make sense--that, in fact, things somehow made more sense when they didn't make any sense--was a revelation to me.

I became a devotee. I remember being a sophomore in high school and making friends in my Spanish class with another guy who'd recently discovered the Marx Brothers. I’d take the weekly T.V. listing in the Sunday paper and look for airings of their films. He’d do the same, and on Monday we’d compare notes. “Did you see that channel six is showing Monkey Business at 1:30 on Thursday morning?” I remember staying up and sneaking past my mom’s room to watch it, and the bleary eyed school day that followed, my somnambulistic trance interrupted only by Spanish class, when my friend and I got together to excitedly compare notes, including the customs scene where they all tried to gain entry on an ocean liner by impersonating Maurice Chevalier.

I don’t remember exactly when I saw Duck Soup for the first time, but I know I fell in love with it immediately. I instantly recognized it as the funniest of the Marx brothers movies, and years later, when I started to develop a slightly more sophisticated perspective, my appreciation for what a truly great film it is grew.  I came to consider it my all time favorite comedy.

It’s by far the most cinematic of all of the Marx Brothers movies.  Directed by the great Leo McCarey and released in 1933, Duck Soup was the fifth Marx Brothers film. The four that proceeded it were largely filmed stage performances, with Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers having been produced and performed by the brothers on the stage, and Monkey Business and Horsefeathers following a similar formula. McCarey added strong visuals and elaborately imaginative musical numbers and clever sight gags. A veteran of screen comedy who'd started out in the silent era (developing the film personas of Laurel and Hardy), McCarey highlighted the brilliant physical humor of Chico and Harpo by staging several amazing sequences, including the two peanut vendor scenes with the great straight man Edgar Kennedy (known as the master of the slow burn) and the justifiably famous and often imitated mirror scene, where Groucho tries to outwit his reflection, Harpo.

The movie is paced so that you hardly have time to catch your breath between laughs. There are no lulls; it begins on a high note and never slows down. It's short, clocking in at only seventy minutes. There are no boring romantic sub plots and no pathos – just balls to the wall silliness, absurdity and surrealism.

Margaret Dumont and Groucho
The premise of Duck Soup is that the richest woman in Freedonia, Mrs. Teasdale (played by the brilliant Margaret Dumont), the widow of the country’s previous leader, is responsible for naming her late husband’s successor (imagine, the wealthy choosing the new leader – how unrealistic is that?). She chooses someone named Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho, of course; with a name like "Rufus T. Firefly", who else?). We are given no indication of who he is or what his qualifications are; he simply enters by sliding down a pole in the middle of his inauguration ceremony. After Mrs. Teasdale extends the wishes of every man, woman and child, Firefly responds with the following inspired nonsense:

FIREFLY: Never mind that stuff, pick a card. (presents a deck of cards for Teasdale to choose from)
TEASDALE: A card? What will I do with a card?
FIREFLY: You can keep it, I’ve got 51 left.

This is one of the things I love the most about the Marx Brothers and Duck Soup in particular: no time is wasted explaining why or how things came to be, we just get right into it. We don’t ask why Firefly was chosen any more than we ask why he starts instantly insulting and romancing Teasdale. It’s Groucho and Margaret Dumont, and this is what they do:

FIREFLY: Will you marry me? Did he leave you any money? Answer the second question first.
TEASDALE: He left me his entire fortune.
FIREFLY: Is that so? Can’t you see what I’m trying to tell you, I love you.
TEASDALE: Oh, your excellency!
FIREFLY: You’re not so bad yourself.

We learn early on that the neighboring country, Sylvania, has designs upon Freedonia, and that the ambassador, Trentino (the perfect foil for Firefly, expertly played by Louis Calhern), is trying to woo Teasdale and bring Freedonia under the Sylvania flag.  Trentino has hired Chicolini and Pinky (Chico and Harpo) to spy on Firefly and dig up some dirt on Freedonia’s new leader. In one of my favorite scenes from any movie ever, they file their report, which includes the following exchange: 

The worst spies ever
TRENTINO: Now, Chicolini, I want a full, detailed report of your investigation.
CHICOLINI: All right, I tell you. Monday we watch-a Firefly's house, but he no come out. He wasn't home. Tuesday we go to the ball game, but he fool us. He no show up. Wednesday he go to the ball game, and we fool him. We no show up. Thursday was a double-header. Nobody show up. Friday it rained all day. There was no ball game, so we stayed home and we listened to it on-a the radio.
TRENTINO (exasperated): Then you didn't shadow Firefly?
CHICOLINI: Oh, sure we shadow Firefly. We shadow him all day.
TRENTINO: But what day was that?
CHICOLINI: Shadowday. Hahaha. That's-a some joke, eh, boss?

Later we are given access to Firefly’s cabinet meeting, where the following exchange is one of many to confirm our suspicions that our leaders are idiots:

DEPUTY OF THE TREASURY: Your Excellency, here’s the Treasury Department’s report. I hope you’ll find it clear.
FIREFLY: Clear? Huh! Why a four-year-old child could understand this report. (To his secretary) Run out and find me a four-year-old child. I can't make head or tail out of it.

Then there are the scenes where Firefly insults Trentino, trying to goad him to going to war:

TEASDALE: I want to present to you ambassador Trentino of Sylvania. Having him with us today is a great pleasure.
TRENTINO: Thank you, but I can’t stay very long.
FIREFLY: That’s an even greater pleasure.

Later on, Firefly crashes a garden party Trentino was throwing for Teasdale:

FIREFLY: I can't give you wealth, but, we can have a little family of our own.
FIREFLY: All I can offer you is a Rufus over your head.
TEASDALE: Your Excellency. I really don't know what to say.
FIREFLY: I wouldn't know what to say either if I was in your place. (To Trentino) Maybe you can suggest something. As a matter of fact, you do suggest something. To me you suggest a baboon.
FIREFLY: I'm sorry I said that. It isn't fair to the rest of the baboons.

Then there is an attempt by Chicolini and Pinky, both pretending to be Firefly, trying to steal the plans of war, followed by Chicolini’s trial, which leads to the declaration of war with Sylvania.  But these are all plot details, and there is nothing in a Marx Brothers movie less important than the plot.

There are no piano or harp solos, momentum killing interludes that are a staple of most Marx Brothers movies, but there are a couple of big musical numbers - and thanks to McCarey’s touch, they work; they don’t slow the film down. The big production number, “Freedonia’s Going to War” is as zany as anything else, and works as devastating satire, laying to waste the fake patriotism and insincere nationalism that are used to whip any country up into going to war.

The war scenes are a masterpiece of corny surrealistic slapstick. At one point Harpo is sent out to sign up new recruits; he wanders the countryside wearing an advertisement that says, “Join the Army and see the Navy.” Broadcasting over the radio, Firefly sends bizarre correspondences from the front, including “Last night the enemy captured hills twenty-seven and twenty-eight, throwing thirteen hillbillies out of work.” Every time the camera cuts to Groucho, he's wearing a different uniform.

It’s hard to believe that Duck Soup is nearly eighty years old.  It's amazing how relevant its satire remains today, and how closely the fictional republics of Freedonia and Sylvania resemble the current landscape. It ranks right up there with Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove as the greatest satires of politics and war ever made, but don’t let that fool you. It is first and foremost brilliantly silly and funny.  Watch it, and for its seventy minutes, just sit back and laugh, and forget about the fact that the things you are laughing at in the movie are the same things that make you want to cry in the real world.

(Random trivia:  Duck Soup was the last Marx Brothers movie to feature the fourth brother, Zeppo, playing Bob Roland, Firefly's loyal secretary)

For more about Duck Soup, check out its IMDB page:  www.imdb.com/title/tt0023969