I think it would be safe to say that the Marx Brothers had a brand of humor that was uniquely their own. In a variety of ways Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo Marx influenced the comedy genre like no others. Their chaotic and anarchic comedy is centered around rapid-fire quips and ingenious slapstick that’s as well choreographed as any fine dance or ballet. Some of today’s audiences haven’t had the same appreciation for the Marx Brothers and many moviegoers raised by modern cinema may be tempted to dismiss their style of humor. But I stand with the many who believe that the brothers were some of the greatest comic geniuses ever to grace the big screen.
Many believe “Duck Soup” to be the Marx Brothers’ greatest film. While my affection for several of their other movies keeps me from emphatically agreeing, I don’t mind saying that “Duck Soup” is right there in the conversation. The movie features two significant finales for the brothers. This was their last movie to include Zeppo Marx and it was their last production for Paramount Pictures. Many consider the Paramount days to be the best for Marx Brothers movies. But serious contract disputes sunk the relationship between the two sides and after “Duck Soup”, the final movie of a five picture contract, the brothers moved to MGM.
As with most of the Marx Brothers movies, summarizing the plot of “Duck Soup” can be an exercise in futility. There’s no dense or intricate narrative in the film. It’s simply a basic story that allows Groucho, Harpo, and Chico to showcase their comedic chaos. Groucho plays Rufus T. Firefly, the appointed leader of a small country named Freedonia. Freedonia is in a vulnerable position due to economic hardships and poor leadership. Why anyone would expect things to change with Firefly in charge is beyond me! Groucho is exactly as you would expect. He hurls sarcasm and insults at Mach 5 speed and his idiocy when it comes to running a country only makes things worse for Freedonia. But what’s worse for them is hilarious for the audience. Groucho is in top form and its a challenge just to keep up with his humor.
The neighboring rival country of Sylvania sees blood in water and they believe the time to take control of Freedonia has come. Their ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern) sends two spies Chicolini (Chico) and Pinky (Harpo) to infiltrate Firefly’s regime. Another dumb move. Obviously the two numbskulls botch the operation and turn things upside down. Before long the two countries have declared war and things go completely insane. In other words, its exactly what you would expect from an effective Marx Brothers picture.
Zeppo appears as Firefly’s secretary chief, Bob Roland. After playing his usual straight man role in the first five Marx Brothers films, he would quit acting after “Duck Soup” to make his fortune in engineering. Also a Marx Brothers favorite Margaret Dumont plays her familiar wealthy, aristocratic widow role. As always she plays the straight face in the middle of the brothers’ madness and she takes the brunt of Groucho’s jabs and insults. Dumont is certainly a supporting character but her roles are always vital to making much of the comedy work. That’s definitely the case in “Duck Soup”.
The film has several signature scenes none more well known than the mirror sequence. In it Harpo, decked out as Groucho, pretends to be his reflection in a busted out mirror. He matches Groucho’s every movement and expression in a scene featuring some mind-blowing choreography. There’s also a fantastic sequence where Chico and Harpo fight it out with a lemonade vendor battling them for sidewalk business. It’s a sequence that could be construed as Marx Brothers cruelty. In fact I’ve heard that argument but I think that’s taking the scene way to seriously. It’s a hysterical part of the film. Then there is Harpo’s penchant for clipping things with his scissors. Whether it’s tuxedo tales or feathered pens, he clips anything he gets a chance to.
I could go on and on about the numerous funny lines and hilarious gags. “Duck Soup” may have more Marx Brothers zaniness than any of their other pictures. For anyone not familiar with these early comic legends this is a great entry point. Just be prepared. The humor is relentless but it keeps me laughing from the opening to the closing credits. The boys made some fantastic films after “Duck Soup” but here they’re at their peak. And for me this 1933 comedy succeeds where the vast majority of modern attempts fail. It’s incredibly funny and it carves out for itself a spot as a true classic.
VERDICT – 5 STARS