Duck Soup (1933)

DUCK SOUP (1933)
Article #1485 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 4-8-2005
Posting Date: 9-5-2005
Directed by Leo McCarey
Featuring The Marx Brothers, Margaret Dumont, Raquel Torres

Rich dowager Mrs. Gloria Teasdale will only give money to the Freedonian treasury if they make Rufus T. Firefly the leader of the country.

For the longest time I was afraid that my journey through the realms of fantastic cinema would have to bypass any of the movies of my favorite classic comedy team, the Marx Brothers except for their cameos in THE STORY OF MANKIND. After all, they never really ventured into the realm of the fantastic. This was because their shtick would have been out of place in the usual fantastic cinema setpieces; just try imagining the Marx Brothers in a haunted house comedy, and you’ll see what I mean. I can’t tell you how happy I am that one of their movies squeaked by; since this movie takes place in the mythical countries of Freedonia and Sylvania, it nudges just enough into fantasy territory to qualify. Furthermore, this is also one of their very best comedies; though it was a financial flop at the time of release, it was rediscovered during the sixties (when the counterculture embraced their anarchic humor and the satiric thrust of this movie) and now runs neck and neck with A NIGHT AT THE OPERA as their finest hour.

This is also one of their shortest movies; in order to keep the pace at a frenetic level, director Leo McCarey trimmed all the fat away. This means we get no scenes of Chico at the piano or Harpo at the harp. It also means that the plot is quite confusing at times; we get hints of missing scenes and previous encounters between characters all throughout the movie. Still, McCarey knew that the laughs are what mattered here, and once Groucho slides down the fire pole at the five-minute mark, the movie is a nonstop barrage of satirical barbs, insults, non-sequiters, bad puns, naughty jokes and slapstick. The satire itself may be unintentional, but that doesn’t make it any less biting. How else can one interpret the following verse from Groucho’s opening song –

“If any form of pleasure is exhibited,
Report to me and it will be prohibited.
I’ll put my foot down. So shall it be!
This is the land of the free!”

I could go on and on about this one, so let me just list my ten favorite moments.

1) Chicolini and Pinky making a shambles of Ambassodor Trentino and still managing to get a second chance as spies.

2) The classic mirror gag between Groucho and Harpo (who is dressed up like Groucho).

3) The repeated encounters between peanut vendors Harpo and Chico and lemonade vendor Edgar Kennedy.

4) Any scene involving Harpo and his scissors (giving Harpo a pair of scissors is one of the most brilliant comic ideas ever).

5) Groucho’s opening song in which he reveals his plans for the country.

6) Chico’s court martial scene with serial-villain-to-be Charles Middleton as prosecutor. Chico takes this opportunity to make some of the most outrageous puns in his career, my favorite of which involves the words ‘dollars’ and ‘taxes’.

7) Groucho inviting Chico and Harpo up to his office to give them jobs (“I want to scare the cabinet.”)

8) Any scene with Groucho courting Margaret Dumont.

9) Harpo trying desperately to turn off a radio that he has mistaken for a safe.

10) and finally, the whole “We’re Going to War” song, one of the most devastatingly bizarre and surreal musical numbers in the history of cinema. It’s one thing to see the four Marx Brothers performing bizarre dance steps to a big musical number, but it’s another to see a huge crowd of extras imitating these same steps. The end result feels like a Busby Berkeley number as conceived by Salvador Dali.

In short, I love this movie, and it’s one of my all-time favorite comedies. Even Zeppo is occasionally funny in this one. It would also be his last movie with his brothers.

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