Synopsis: Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo Marx are at their very best in the political satire Duck Soup which is often regarded as the comedy legends’ funniest and most popular film. After being appointed dictator of Freedonia, Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) proceeds to bring the mythical nation to a halt by showing up late and insulting everyone at his inauguration. Hoping to oust the unfit new leader, two spies (Harpo and Chico) are sent from the neighboring Sylvania. Soon enough, war is declared between the two nations with outrageous results. Recognized on the AFI’s 100 Years…100 Laughs list and selected for the National Film Registry, this comedy classic features some of the most hilarious sequences ever filmed, including the famous mirror sequence and final battle scene, and remains as entertaining and relevant today as it did when it was first released in 1933.
Duck Soup 7.5
eyelights: Groucho. its political satire.
eyesores: the simplicity of the politics. the quick wrap-up.
“Oh, your Excellency!” “You’re not so bad yourself.”
The first time I ever saw a Marx Brothers picture it was ‘Duck Soup’. I knew it was supposed to be a classic, but had no idea what to expect. I was woefully unprepared for their mixture of silly wordplays, outrageous puns, slapstick routines and musical numbers. And… ahem… politics?
In a total departure, having thus far avoided any heavier issues, the Marx Brothers’ 1933 effort pokes fun at war and politics. However, unlike Charlie Chaplin (who became political at the same time), Groucho claimed to have no such intention: “We were just four Jews trying to get a laugh.”
In any event, I had no idea what to make of it; I only remember being bored and not understanding what the whole fuss around the Marx Brothers was. It closed that door permanently, and it took years of exposure to Woody Allen (a fan of theirs) and others to change my mind.
The picture takes us to Freedonia, some sort of Bavarian country that is deep in debt. Its government feels obligated to borrow money from a wealthy donor yet again, so that they may lower taxes, but this time she makes a demand in exchange: she wants a change of leadership.
Her choice of leader: Rufus T. Firefly (played by Groucho, naturellement).
No sooner has he taken up the post that he has to contend with trouble from neighbouring Sylvania, whose ambassador is trying to fan the flames of revolution in Freedonia. To help make this happen, he’s sent in a couple of spies (played by Chico and Harpo) to gather intelligence on Firefly.
Inevitably, this leads to all sorts of ridiculous gags and routines, but it also propels the picture to a finale that involves days of military conflict (albeit mostly off-screen) and a large-scale musical number. ‘Duck Soup’ is without a doubt the most elaborate of all the Marx Brothers picture to that point.
And yet, it was a disappointment upon release; it would end up being the last picture the comedy legends would make with Paramount Pictures. It has since been reassessed and is considered one of their best (if not their greatest) and was selected for the U.S. National Film Registry in 1990.
There are a few things that I find interesting about this picture, beyond its deep cynicism with respect to war and politics, starting with Chico and Harpo’s shticks, which haven’t evolved much since the first picture: Chico continues with the bad puns and Harpo with the goofy mute slapstick.
The only difference here is that there are no harp or piano solos wedged into the picture – despite also being a musical (in fact, the opening number introducing Firefly is one of their most extravagant, set in a massive palace with soldiers and flower girls). So why break with tradition now?
Perhaps it was not considered funny and, thus, was cut? That wouldn’t be surprising: Groucho was taking a lot more room. He even nagged Zeppo for being the weak link of the brothers, resulting in this being his final film with the other three – he’d had enough of the ribbing by then.
And yet their other bits are some of the highlights of the film, with this pretty decent routine between Harpo, a lemonade vendor, and Chico as Harpo switches their hats. It’s not especially funny, but it’s impressive to see the choreography done as well as it is here. I very much liked it.
I was also quite tickled to see a gag that was reused in the Pink Panther movies a few times, wherein Groucho gets into a motorcycle that is waiting for him, instructs Harpo to drive but winds up being left behind in the sidecar. It was fascinating to see the origins of one of my favourite routines.
Similarly, the guerilla safecrackers routine in ‘The Pink Panther‘ is certainly inspired by the mirror routine in ‘Duck Soup’ in which Harpo, dressed as Groucho pretends to be the latter’s reflection in what he thinks is a mirror. It’s such a complex sequence and yet the pair manage to pull it off rather well.
Conversely, I’ve found Groucho’s repartee less witty in these last few pictures. I adore the character he plays, and his performances are stellar (he’s by far my favourite of each film), but his monologues and one-liners lack the cleverness of some of the earlier pictures. A real shame.
Ultimately, some 15-20 years later, I can now safely say that I am a fan of ‘Duck Soup’. I don’t find it especially hilarious, and some of the routines are a stretch, but it’s interesting and entertaining anyway and it holds up better as a whole than their earlier efforts; there’s obvious craft involved in its making.
I can’t wait to see what will come next.
Date of viewing: May 31, 2015