One Man Too Many
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At this point, we can begin to move beyond the signs
and search for a more solid understanding of identity. Duck Soup's
famous mirror scene presents us with the most
dramatic moment of self-idenitification in the films of the Marx Brothers.
Upon close examination, we can see how this sequence functions with the
same dynamic present throughout the movies.
Groucho knows something else is physically present because he has heard
its sounds. He begins the mirror scene, then, by looking for something or
someone else, but becomes confused by thinking that he sees himself. His
initial viewing of Harpo starts the disorientation since Harpo has put the
proper signs of identity in place. Their movements match as well; in
fact, when Groucho appears to be introspective, so does his "reflection."
Groucho and Harpo nod at each other, each suggesting that he knows what
the other one is. At this point, though, Groucho reaches his limits of
self-awareness. If what he looks at is his self, then of course his self
knows what he is.
To resolve the problem, Groucho tries a variety of tactics. First, he
lowers his glasses--he relocates a sign. Then, he lowers his body, which
amounts to relocating all of his signs. Next, he performs a series of
walks that do not match his usual gait. He removes this one sign, and
replaces it with others that have the same function, in a sort of
horizontal signification exchange. After a dance fails to be
self-distinguishing, Groucho spins around. For the first time, Harpo
breaks the rules of imitation--he does not spin. However, Groucho faces
the wrong way if he wants to notice this fact. His true self only appears
when Groucho's back is to the mirror. Identity must be realized without
looking at the surface indicators that a mirror reflects. Both Marxes
finish with an identical flourish.
At this moment, Groucho's ontological crisis peaks. He sees a being
that looks and moves like he does; therefore, under the
typical rules of
identification (which Marxes usually resist), that being must be Groucho.
He must be viewing the incarnation of his self, but how can his self be
materially located in a place different from the psycho-physical origins
of the knowledge of that self? The rules of mirroring, then, no longer
apply. The two figures can cross the mirror boundary because they now
represent the conception of only one self.
Chicolini (on phone): No, no. He's not in. All right, I tell him.
(to Firefly): That was for you.
Firefly: I'm sorry I'm not in; I wanted to have a long talk with you.
(a little later the phone rings again)
Chicolini (on phone): Hello, hello. No, not yet. All right, I tell him.
Goodbye. Thank you.
(to Firefly): That was for you again.
Firefly: I wonder whatever became of me.
By this point, Groucho has planned a test relying on a standard
identity sign, the hat (which plays important roles in Monkey
Business and in this film's peanut vendor sequences). Harpo,
apparently, holds the wrong hat, and thus the signs should not match.
Groucho's last, lingering suspicions will be confirmed, and he will be
able to acknowledge his own body as the physical manifestation of his
self. However, Harpo surprises him by putting on the correct hat, and all
sense of self is gone. Their movements no longer match, but that fact
does not matter. By this point, they must be the same self.
When they bow, Harpo drops his hat, but Groucho does not mind.
Instead, he actually picks up Harpo's hat and hands it to him. This
nicety reveals Groucho's attempt to maintain the integrity of the self.
Like so many of his foils, Groucho has accepted as important the
superficial signs of identity, and now, like a machine, must do everything
he can to conform to the proper codes of identity expression and
Chico arrives and the confusion stops suddenly. Groucho believes that
he can look at his self, even if mirror rules do not apply. He cannot,
however, look at two of his selves (there can be only one, regardless of
where it is manifested). Notice, too, that Harpo is once again holding
the black hat--the inappropriate sign. The play finishes, and Chico, as
the one who transgressed the rules of self-identification, is captured and
put on trial for treason.
This scene clearly reveals the tenuous existence of identities
constructed on visual indicators. A look at the childhood picture to the
right shows how closely the Marxes have always looked alike
(Surprisingly, that's actually Groucho on top, with Harpo under him,
followed by Gummo and Lou Levy.) This scene
also reflects Groucho's inability to establish a strong sense of identity
in the films. The following page examines the source of Harpo's and
Chico's identities, and how this central stability gives them power over
Groucho in comedic relations.
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