Harpo’s Tattoos

By Andreas

The Marx Brothers’ masterpiece Duck Soup has many moments of utter, off-the-wall, WTF-inspiring surrealism, but this one tops them all. How could any other visual gag, no matter how inspired, ever compete with the sublime madness of a real-live dog poking its head out of Harpo’s chest? Yes, the scene where Harpo hides fully dressed in a bathtub underneath an unsuspecting, naked Edgar Kennedy is pretty weird, and so is Harpo callously hacking up Kennedy’s clothes with a pair of scissors. (Noticing a trend here?)

But come on: it’s a dog emerging from a tattoo in the middle of Harpo’s chest and barking in Groucho’s face. That’s an absolutely baffling non sequitur on the order of the “Large Marge” scene in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, the kind that leaves you reeling for a couple minutes afterward. The kind that lets you know that the rules are no longer in effect—that you are not watching a “normal” movie. In both these examples, it’s because inventive camera techniques have been used to subvert “reality,” letting us know that we’re entering a realm where literally anything is possible. If they can dream it, they can film it.

This scene has another very strange, unexpected dimension: it’s slightly homoerotic (and therefore incestuous). After all, we get a few solid minutes of Harpo showing off his body to an inquisitive Groucho, starting with his tattooed arms and his hip (see above), which bears a phone number. Harpo eagerly bares his chest while maintaining that maniacal grin, then Groucho puts his mouth right next to the tattoo and meows. “Weird” doesn’t really begin to cover it. The barking dog is really just the icing on the cake—and while most movies would showcase the dog’s appearance as audaciously avant-garde, in Duck Soup it’s just one more punchline, delivered with little fanfare.

In fact, we get one more bizarre, quasi-sexual joke as Groucho declares, “I’ll betcha haven’t got a picture of my grandfather,” and Harpo leaps to take off his pants and expose his ass before Groucho stops him. This scene’s ambiguous sexual tension is very understated, but unmistakable: Harpo is communicating through a surreal, bit-by-bit striptease while his brother marvels at his strange body, getting closer and closer. So both the formal and sexual aspects of this scene are further proof that in the world of Duck Soup, all bets are off. Nothing is off the table. If you didn’t learn that during the film’s first half-hour, you have now!

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