“ Genre: Comedy / Theatrical Release: 1933 / Universal, suitable for all / Director: Leo McCarey / Actors: Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx, Zeppo Marx, Margaret Dumont ... / DVD released 2006-10-02 at Universal Pictures UK / Features of the DVD: Black & White, PAL „
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When a film gets recognised for preservation by the National Film Registry, it signifies that there's something great about it. Duck Soup is now widely regarded as the best of all Marx Brothers films, with its clever anarchic look at conflict and the free state, brought to life by the magical comedy of the Marx brothers: Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo.
The film sees Groucho as Rufus T Firefly, undoubtedly the leader of the brothers throughout the films, appointed as the head of Freedonia, a bankrupt country in need of the financial support of Mrs Teasdale (Margaret Dumont). Groucho is frenetic and frantic as the nonsensical Firefly, who must thwart the efforts of ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern) of neighbouring Sylvania to overthrow and gain control of Freedonia. The brilliant comedy of this comes in when Trentino's two spies are sent in, played by Harpo and Chico.
There are a few things at work here. The first thing to note is that this is by far a more intricate and wordy film than most of the other Marx brothers films. Off screen conflicts and ambitious scriptwriters no doubt caused some of the trickier and clever scenes, while Groucho inimitable timing and delivery is once again the main focus of the film. It's a shame to see that Harpo and Chico don't give us their usual musical renditions with harp and piano respectively, but the clever twisting plot and the way the whole thing develops managed to distract me from this right until the end when I realised the credits were rolling and we still hadn't had this part of the proceedings.
But you don't really need it, as the brothers are used in different ways. Incidentally, it was to be the last Marx brothers film to feature Zeppo, who took no further part once the brothers parted company with Paramount. Even so, Zeppo plays a small part in this, and doesn't really feature much, perhaps a sign of what was to happen. The combination and placement of the other three brothers is very clever though, with their performances being far better when they're all on screen together. One particular scene sees all three of them dressed in nightshirts and hats, Chico and Harpo donning fake moustaches and glasses in an effort to look like Firefly, leading to the much copied mirror scene where there is no mirror, only two identically dressed men mirroring each other.
My 6 year old son absolutely loved watching this. He doesn't get the whole dialogue thing, as there are a lot of clever plays on words that went straight over his head, but the visual side of it had him in stitches, and he appreciated the level of skill involved with the occasional 'Wow, that's clever!' As for me, I love this film. I wouldn't say it's my favourite, as I do so love some of the smoother films such as A Night At The Opera, where Harpo shines, and the ones where Harpo and Chico have brilliant interactive scenes between them. But you can't get away from the genius behind Duck Soup, and it's easy to see why it's considered the best of their attempts. It combines politics with pride, comedy with serious war, and manages to make a mockery of pretty much everything it involves. Classic comedy, and well worth a watch. Recommended.
note: also appears in part on Flixster and The Student Room
The Marx Brothers are absolutely screen legends, and possibly their best known and most beloved film is Duck Soup, a rousing comedy from 1933 that has stood the test of time rather well, for it still demonstrates now as it did then the quick-fire wit of the brother, with a decidedly political slant on things.
The film revolves around Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) an old woman who insists that Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) be appointed the new leader of Freedonia, a tiny and rather poor country, before she will levy further financial aid. While this is going on, however, a neighbouring c country named Sylvania is plotting to take over Freedonia, led by the wily ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern), who sends in two men, Chicolini (Chico Marx) and Pinky (Harpo Marx), to spy on Firefly.
As farce and as straight dead-pan comedy, this film really works well and hasn't shown as much indication of wear and tear as you'd reasonably anticipate. It is very famous for its immaculately performed mirror scene, in which the brothers perform some primitive visual trickery that is still very impressive and funny. Even cynical or aloof young viewers will probably find something to take away from this wacky and rather off-kilter comedy; the likes of the Coens probably owe a lot to this idiosyncratic sense of humour, which is surely an acquired taste, but balanced out by some more accessible sight gags.
Whilst much of its hilarity is tame by today's standards, Duck Soup is nonetheless hilarious, and the Marx Brothers' at times dead-pan delivery is wonderful. Short and sweet, not a minute longer than it needs to be.
The Marx Brothers films can be clearly divided up into two eras. There is the Paramount era and then there is the MGM/United Artists era. The most famous films of the Paramount Pictures series all seem to have an animalistic title and the MGM/United Artists era mainly have "At" in the title. Marx fans are divided over which era was best. Personally I have favourites in both eras for different reasons, but Duck Soup stands out as Marx Brothers' finest work.
Duck Soup obviously comes from the Paramount era. In fact, it was the last they made for Paramount due a variety of problems back stage. Amazingly it didn't do as well at the box office as the Brothers' previous entries. It had a mixed critical response as well that didn't change for a while. Today many consider it to be a masterpiece and I can see why. Its predecessors may be undeniable classics, but on reflection they seemed to be evolving to the anarchic cinematic comedy that is Duck Soup. Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers were adaptations of the Marx Brothers' Broadway musicals, severely limiting the action to a few rooms. Monkey Business set everything on a boat and Horse Feathers expanded the anarchy in and around a college. Here Groucho gets to run an entire country, giving the potential for chaos on an ambitiously large scale. Scenes vary from offices to inside a palace, out on the street and on the battlefield.
This is also significant in that it is the last film to feature Zeppo. This is understandable, given the "straight" brother's come down from the romantic lead role he portrayed in Horse Feathers, but sadly it was never him that the Marx fans came to see. Here we have Groucho, Chico and Harpo all on top form exhibiting some of their greatest gags both visually and verbally. There is little point discussing the plot of this film. No Marx Brothers feature was ever remembered for its storyline, a point that severely dates some of the MGM/UA entries, where matters like love interests just get in the way. All the Marx Brothers films can be measured on the way they serve as a vehicle for the utter mad humour of these great performers.
I rest my case by quoting one of Groucho's legendary insults to his greatest foil, the irreplaceable Margaret Dumont, from Duck Soup - "Well, that covers a lot of ground. Say, you cover a lot of ground yourself. You better beat it - I hear they're going to tear you down and put up an office building where you're standing. You can leave in a taxi. If you can't get a taxi, you can leave in a huff. If that's too soon, you can leave in a minute and a huff. You know, you haven't stopped talking since I came here? You must have been vaccinated with a phonograph needle".
Duck Soup is a classic Marx Brothers comedy from 1933 directed by Leo McCarey. Although the film was not widely acclaimed or a roaring success at the time it has subsequently established itself as arguably their very best picture and one of the greatest - and most enjoyable - comedies ever made, rated fifth on the all time comedy list by the American Film Institute. Duck Soup is set in the mythical republic of Freedonia - a struggling state which has a fierce rivalry with the nearby country of Sylvania. Mrs Teasdale (Margaret Dumont), the richest woman in Freedonia, agrees to loan the country 20 million dollars but only on condition that Rufus T Firefly (Groucho Marx) is appointed the new president. "The most able statesman in all Freedonia," declares Mrs Teasdale. "That covers a lot of ground," replies Groucho. "You cover a lot of ground yourself. I hear they're going to tear you down and put up an office block where you're standing."
Cue 70 or so minutes of vintage Marxian nonsense with Groucho in charge of Freedonia, Chico and Harpo as spies, and Edgar Kennedy as a bad-tempered lemonade vendor...
The best thing about Duck Soup is that it is undiluted Marx Brothers without any large degree of plot or musical guest stars shoehorned into proceedings. Duck Soup is very tight, very inventive and, in my opinion, just about as much fun as a film can be. It was the last of their Paramount pictures and captures the wonderful nonconformity and energy of their work with the studio that resulted in films like this, Horse Feathers and Monkey Business. A Night at the Opera began the process of imposing some order and plot, a move that ultimately resulted in the law of diminishing returns, but Duck Soup is the Marx Brothers at the height of their powers and supplies more jokes, fun and joy than most films can only dream of.
Duck Soup takes a few minutes to get going and warm-up as we await the entrance of Firefly - to a musical fanfare - but as soon as Groucho appears and starts insulting Margaret Dumont the film is off and running. Told that her husband is dead ("I'll bet he's just using that as an excuse") Firefly declares "Will you marry me? Did he leave you any money? Answer the second question first." After coyly asking for a lock of Mrs Teasdale's hair Groucho adds - "I'm letting you off easy. I was going to ask for the whole wig." The ever dignified Dumont makes a wonderful straight woman for Groucho although he did, I believe, once suggest that this was possibly because she didn't understand any of his jokes! The satiric elements in the film on war and politics are still fairly relevant although more a by-product than any specific head-on design. "If any form of pleasure is exhibited, report to me and it will be prohibited," sings Groucho in contradictory fashion before adding "This is the land of the free!" There are some nice songs through the film including 'When the Clock on the Wall Strikes Ten' and 'The Country's Goin' to War'. The latter scene famously appears in Hannah and Her Sisters as a screening of Duck Soup persuades Woody Allen's character Mickey that life is worth living afterall.
There is a huge amount to enjoy in Duck Soup and highlights for me must include Harpo working as Groucho's chauffeur. In various modes of transport, Harpo manages to drive away without Groucho every single time. "This is the fifth trip I've made today, and I haven't been anywhere yet," sighs Firefly. On one occasion, left behind once again, Groucho stands up and declares, "Well, back again already!". Groucho's little throwaway lines are an absolute delight in Duck Soup. Some of his very best moments come in his scenes with the somewhat pompous Louis Calhern as Ambassador Trentino of rival Sylvania. Groucho adopts comic outrage in most of his encounters with Trentino despite calling him a "baboon" when they first meet and then apologizing for insulting baboons. "I'd be only too happy to meet with Ambassador Trentino, and offer him on behalf of my country the right hand of good fellowship. And I feel sure he will accept this gesture in the spirit of which it is offered. But suppose he doesn't," says Firefly swiftly changing tact. "A fine thing that'll be. I hold out my hand and he refuses to accept. That'll add a lot to my prestige, won't it? Me, the head of a country, snubbed by a foreign ambassador. Who does he think he is, that he can come here, and make a sap of me in front of all my people?" Groucho's verbal dexterity and ability to switch tone into the absurd is very clever and funny. As ever, he's more than a match for anyone...except for his brothers of course. Incidentally, I just love the moment where Groucho strides purposefully into a garden party and stops to randomly dunk a doughnut in someone's drink!
The most famous sequence in Duck soup is the wonderful mirror scene. Harpo and Chico, as spies Pinky and Chicolini, break into Firefly's house at night in Groucho disguises. Harpo accidently smashes a mirror and is duly spotted by Firefly. He improvises by pretending the mirror is still there and copying each move Groucho makes in a brilliant piece of mime and physical comedy. A suspicious Groucho is clearly in on the deception but - in Marx Brothers universe fashion - plays along anyway in an increasingly elaborate attempt to catch Harpo out and force him to make a mistake. It's a magical scene performed in silence and it has a very funny conclusion when Chico turns up suddenly.
Other great moments include a courtroom scene where Chico displays his ability for terrible puns much to Groucho's dismay and Chico and Harpo's escalating feud with lemonade vendor Edgar Kennedy which has a very memorable conclusion. Groucho's cabinet meetings as Firefly are also great fun. Asked if they can take up the tax Groucho replies that they should take up the carpet first. "Why a four-year-old child could understand this report," says Firefly. "Run out and find me a four-year-old child. I can't make head or tail out of it." The climax of Duck Soup is gloriously silly with Groucho in a different historical costume for each scene as the tensions between Freedonia and Sylvania lead to war. "Remember we're fighting this woman's honour," says Groucho of Mrs Teasdale. "Which is more than she ever did."
Duck Soup is an exceptionally funny and enjoyable film that captures the Marx Brothers at their peak. Their joyous disregard for order, self-importance, and pomposity is timeless.
Very highly recommended.