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
Duck Soup
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.
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.

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 maintenance.

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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