Duck Soup

PLOT (spoiler alert!!!):

The wealthy Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) insists that Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) be appointed leader of the small, bankrupt country of Freedonia before she will continue to provide much-needed financial backing. Meanwhile, neighboring Sylvania is attempting to take over the country. Sylvanian ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern) tries to foment a revolution, woos Mrs. Teasdale, and attempts to dig up dirt on Firefly by sending in spies Chicolini (Chico Marx) and Pinky (Harpo Marx).

After failing to collect worthwhile information about Firefly, Chicolini and Pinky infiltrate the government when Chicolini is appointed Secretary of War after Firefly sees him on the street selling peanuts. Meanwhile, Firefly’s personal assistant, Bob Roland (Zeppo Marx) suspects Trentino’s questionable motives, and counsels Firefly to “get rid of that man at once” by saying “something to make him mad, and he’ll strike you, and we’ll force him to leave the country.” Firefly agrees to the plan, but after a series of personal insults exchanged between Firefly and Trentino, the plan backfires and Firefly slaps Trentino instead. As a result, the two countries reach the brink of war. Adding to the international friction is the fact that Firefly is also wooing Mrs. Teasdale, and likewise hoping to get his hands on her late husband’s wealth.

Trentino learns that Freedonia’s war plans are in Mrs. Teasdale’s possession and orders Chicolini and Pinky to steal them. Chicolini is caught by Firefly and put on trial, during which war is officially declared, and everyone is overcome by war frenzy, breaking into song and dance. The trial put aside, Chicolini and Pinky join Firefly and Bob Roland in anarchic battle, resulting in general mayhem.

The end of the film finds Trentino caught in makeshift stocks, with the Brothers pelting him with fruit. Trentino surrenders, but Firefly tells him to wait until they run out of fruit. Mrs. Teasdale begins singing the Freedonia national anthem in her operatic voice and the Brothers begin hurling fruit at her instead.

REVIEW:

A while back, I was asked why I hadn’t reviewed any Marx Brothers films. The answer is I just never got around to them, not that I have anything against these comedic geniuses. One of the films Netflix has been trying to get me to watch for the past year is Duck Soup, so today I finally caved.

What is this about?

Thanks to the patronage of well-heeled widow Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont), Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) becomes dictator of the tiny country of Freedonia. But when the ambassador of the bordering nation of Sylvania declares his love for Mrs. Teasdale, Firefly declares war. The Marx Brothers are at their sidesplitting best in this raucous political satire, in which Chico, Harpo and Zeppo co-star as spies and counterspies.

What did I like?

Comedy. There was a time in the not so distant past that I knew nothing about classic films and actually thought they were a waste of time. The old comedies were anything but funny to me, if you can believe that. Then I actually sat down and watched a few and it all changed. The comedic stylings of this films would have definitely been a game changer for me had I watched this as my first classic comedy. Watching it now, though, I really can appreciate the natural way that the comedy seems to flow. It almost feels like the director turned the cameras on and just let them go. Sometimes that works, as can be seen here.

Satire. The whole film is basically a big “F— you!” more or less to the whole political system. True, politics were nowhere near as bad as it is these days, you wish something like this would be released as wake up call to the powers that be. They did such a good job with skewering the system that Benito Mussolini actually banned this film upon its release. You know you’re doing something right when you’ve been banned!

Mirror scene. I’m sure we’ve all seen somewhere or another the famous mirror scene where two people, in this case Groucho and Harpo, mirror each other in hilarious ways. There are certain things that belong in the comedy hall of fame. For me, I would say the Abbot & Costello “Who’s on First Routine”, Andy Griffith’s “Football Story”, and then this mirror scene. Harpo actually recreates with Lucille Ball in one of the Hollywood episodes of I Love Lucy, but the audience’s laughter doesn’t allow for it to be as effective as the silence used here.

What didn’t I like?

Ad-lib. As I said earlier, this film feels as if the director just turned the cameras on and let the cast just go at it. For the most part, this is a good thing, and part of the reason this is such a memorable picture. On the other hand, though, there are places here and there where it just isn’t as smooth as before and the jokes don’t work as well. A minor thing, to be sure, but still something to be noted.

When the dust clears, Duck Soup is one of the gems on classic comedy, despite the fact that it was one of the lowest earning films of the Marx Brothers’ careers (keeping in mind this was released during the Great Depression). There is very little negative I have to say about this film, but I can’t say that I liked it well enough to say you just have to see it before you die. I highly recommend it, however, especially if you’re a fan of classic comedy! So, give it a shot sometime!

4 out of 5 stars

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