Duck Soup was the first Marx Brothers movie I ever saw and although I had heard of them and seen one or two clips, I really had no idea what to expect. To my delight, what I got was not only a brilliant political satire, but quite simply the funniest movie I had (and still have) ever seen. It is far from a perfect movie—the editing alone is enough to make the average filmgoer cringe—but as far as wacky comedies go, it is a masterpiece.
Duck Soup takes place in the imaginary country of Freedonia, where the unconventional (to say the least) Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) has just been appointed leader. Firefly was the personal selection of Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont), a woman who donates enough money to her country that she gets to choose its leader. Pursuing the hand of the recently widowed Mrs. Teasdale is Trentino (Louis Calhern), the Ambassador for the neighboring country of Sylvania. Trentino’s plans of marriage aren’t exactly genuine. He wants to marry Mrs. Teasdale for her money and in hopes of taking over Freedonia. To help him do this, Trentino hires Chicolini (Chico Marx) and Pinky (Harpo Marx), two very inept agents to spy on Firefly.
I really don’t know why I’m trying to give you a plot summary, because Marx Brothers movies are less about story and more about individual scenes, comic bits, word games and goofy musical numbers. Their movies are the direct inspiration for Airplane, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Blazing Saddles, Dumb and Dumber and others.
Much of the Marx Brothers humor comes from playing with dialogue. They will take any pun, metaphor, simile or cliché and completely turn it around (“My partner’s got a nose just like a blood hound. And the rest of his face don’t look so good either.”) It wasn’t necessarily the jokes themselves that were funny, but the way they delivered them. This is particularly true of Groucho, who had a pattern of speech all this own.
One of the verbal highpoints of the film is the courtroom sequence. Chico has been arrested and charged with treason and is being questioned by Freedonia’s lawyers. “Chicolini, when were you born?” “I don’t remember, I was just a little baby.” Even Groucho gets into the act: “Gentleman, Chicolini here may look like an idiot and talk like an idiot, but don’t let that fool you, he really is an idiot.
Word games aren’t all the Marx brothers play however, and there is also some brilliant silent comedy. There is a hilarious sequence between Harpo, Chico and a lemonade vendor played by Edgar Kennedy. Harpo and Chico play a marvelous game of keep away with Kennedy’s hat, eventually setting it on fire. Harpo and Kennedy would have another funny confrontation later in the film when Harpo hides in Kennedy’s bathtub (you have to see it to believe it).
Harpo was a completely silent character with the exception of the many musical horns he carries around in his belt. There is a hilarious scene when Harpo answers Groucho’s telephone, using the horns to express his dialogue. Another great moment comes right after that when Groucho asks him his name and he pulls up his sleeve to reveal a tattoo of his face. As his name would suggest, Harpo was a talented Harp player, but his signature instrument fails to make an appearance in this film.
One of the greatest comic moments in any movie comes when Harpo has disguised himself as Groucho and accidentally broken a mirror in Mrs. Teasdale’s house. When the real Groucho comes downstairs, Harpo must stand in the frame and mirror Groucho’s every move. The sequence is a brilliant example of timing and when Harpo makes his fake turn to mimic Groucho’s real one I fell off my chair in laughter.
Duck Soup is also a hilarious parody of war (“I will do anything to avoid this war.” “It’s too late, I already paid a month’s rent in the battlefield.”). The final battle sequence is hilarious, with Groucho changing into just about every army uniform from every battle ever fought. There is a great moment when Groucho calls on the radio for help: “there are three men and one woman trapped in a house; if you can’t send help send two more women.” Groucho never was one to miss a romantic opportunity.
It’s a shame that two many of today’s youth will write this movie off immediately because it is not in color (or even just because they have never heard of it) because it the world of Adam Sandler, Rob Schneider and the Farrelly brothers, the Marx Brothers should be right at home. For pure hilarity, I still haven’t found its equal. Duck Soup is a classic; I give it an A+.