Reviews, Vintage Vault — April 18, 2013 at 3:14 pm

CLASSIC COLUMN: DUCK SOUP (1933)

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ducksoupDespite writing about Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton on the Classic Columb, I haven’t managed to truly explore the Marx Brothers. Guest writer Todd Liebenow from Forgotten Films though has managed to write a short article on a classic Marx Brothers film Duck Soup

Introduction

My earliest exposure to classic film came in the form of comedies. Every summer in Chicago, Channel 32 would show a block of Three Stooges and Little Rascals (Our Gang) shorts each afternoon. I loved those movies, and my interest in them led to me investigating other classic comedians…Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello, and others. But there was nothing that could compare with The Marx Brothers.

Many often label their act as slapstick. There are certainly elements of that style of comedy in their films, but there is so much more to it. I admit, their anarchic style of comedy is not everyone’s cup of tea, but to me, the brothers have always represented comedy at its most creative. There is perhaps no better example of this than 1933’s Duck Soup.

For the unenlightened, the brothers are Groucho (glasses, moustache, cigar), Chico (Italian accent), Harpo (curly hair, top hat, doesn’t talk), and Zeppo (the straight-man). Duck Soup would be the last film the brothers made at Paramount as well as the last outing before Zeppo left the team.

Story? I Think Not.

Now, when it comes to a Marx Brothers film, the story doesn’t really matter that much. It’s just there to hold all the gags together. In this case, the film takes place in the fictional country of Fredonia, which, in a situation way too much like our world today, is on the verge of bankruptcy. A wealthy citizen, Mrs. Teasdale (frequent Marx movie leading lady Margaret Dumont) has agreed to give money to keep the government going, but only if she can choose the new leader. Her selection is Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho).

ducksoup2Meanwhile, the neighboring country of Sylvania wants to take over Fredonia, and their crafty ambassador (Louis Calhern) is plotting ways to do just that. He hires two spies, Chicolini (Chico) and Pinky (Harpo) to dig up dirt on Firefly. At the same time, Firefly’s assistant, Roland (Zeppo) has his own suspicions about Sylvania and works with Firefly to plot a way to get rid of the ambassador. But as plans backfire, tempers flare, and eventually the two countries go to war! I know, I know, it doesn’t sound all that funny. But, like I said, the story is not the most important thing here…it’s the gags. In the case of Duck Soup, the gags come so quickly it’s almost impossible to catch them all with just one viewing. To try and describe them is an exercise in futility, but I’m awful glad I live in the time of the rewind button.

Iconic Scenes

One of the most famous scenes in the film is the classic mirror sequence in which Harpo, dressed as Groucho, mimics his moustachioed brother’s movements as if he is looking at himself in a mirror. In a film filled with so much complex, rapid-fire comedic dialogue, this short throwback to the days of silent film comedy is quite magical.

The brothers are simply a joy to watch. They display an amazing grasp of comic timing; honed on the vaudeville circuit, yet feeling completely spontaneous. The supporting cast is incredibly skilled as well. Dumont, who Groucho himself called “the fifth Marx Brother,” is the perfect comic foil, and the king of the “slow-burn,” Edgar Kennedy, also has some fantastic scenes with Chico and Harpo.

Now, at this point I could say that Duck Soup is a biting satire on the idiocy of politicians and the stupidity of war. The movie can certainly be looked at in that way, but were I to say such a thing, I’d feel like I was trying to make excuses for enjoying something that is best described as “silly.” There’s nothing wrong with silly! The Marx Brothers were all about the laughs, and trying to turn what they did into something deep and meaningful would have probably struck them as hilarious.

Read more of Todd’s work on Forgotten Films at http://forgottenfilmcast.wordpress.com/

4 Comments

  • I dunno, Todd, a lot of the fun from Duck Soup comes from how ruthlessly they skewer war and the foolishness that comes with national pride and aggression. The ones where they go after an institution– like Night at the Opera or Horse Feathers– fare a lot better than when they’re just wandering around and making jokes– as in Monkey Business or anything after Night at the Opera.

  • I love that mirror sequence. And really, I love everything about this movie.

    The brothers working together were a perfect orchestra of comedy, each offering their own unique styles.

  • I’m going to agree with Danny on this one – one of the things that makes Duck Soup a great movie is its political undercurrent. They attack the entirety of government (run by idiot politicians, bankrolled by the rich and led into war because of an insult). By the time you get to ‘Fredonia’s Going To War’ (“At last the country’s going to war!”), it’s an overtly political film.

    The final war sequence takes us through every single war America was involved in, has a president shooting down his own men, and concludes with a food fight. That is silly, and it is also relentlessly sarcastic about war.

    The brothers were not just silly comedians like The Three Stooges – they had strong sensibilities about class, ethnicity and politics and they used that, sometimes viciously, in their comedy. That political angle made Duck Soup very unpopular at the time, given world events.

  • I’m not saying there isn’t political undercurrent. People who are much smarter than I am could write volumes on it, I’m sure. That’s just not where my enjoyment of the film comes from. But Harpo sitting in a vat of lemonade…I’m all over that!

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