Eighty years ago today Duck Soup was released. It is, in my opinion, the best Marx Brothers movie, as well as being one of the best comedies of all time. It disappointed at the box office, though, and it was the last of a certain type of film for them.
What differentiated the early Marx films from the later films was the structure. Basically, Duck Soup didn’t have one. It’s rather slender plot involves the nation of Freedonia. The wealthy Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) will only loan the country 20 million if they appoint Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) leader. They agree, and the scheming ambassador from Sylvania (Louis Calhern) endeavors to marry Mrs. Teasdale so there can be a takeover. Inevitably, the countries go to war.
What didn’t catch on, even with the brothers themselves, was the subversive anti-war message that resonates even more in the post-Vietnam era. This is exemplified by two scenes. The first is when war is declared. It’s because Calhern has called Firefly an “upstart” (worm and swine are okay). This interrupts a trial (Chico was on trial for treason) and the entire company breaks into a celebratory musical number, as if war were the greatest thing ever (it is this scene that Woody Allen’s character is watching in Hannah and Her Sisters that gives him the will to live).
Secondly, the movie ends with a ten minute sequence of the war itself, which is rich comic genius. No less a figure than literary critic Harold Bloom calls it one of the great achievements in 20th Century American art. The brothers are battened down in a building (it changes from scene to scene) doing battle with the enemy. Groucho’s outfit changes from scene to scene, always in some kind of military gear–from Confederate army to Napoleonic to a coonskin cap. The lines fly fast and furious, such as:
Zeppo: General Smith reports a gas attack. He wants to know what to do.
Groucho: Tell him to take a teaspoonful of bicarbonate of soda and a half a glass of water.
Or when Groucho says of Mrs. Teasdale, “Remember, you’re fighting for this woman’s honour, which is probably more than she ever did.”
Harpo adds in by strolling the battlefield, wearing a recruiting sandwich board that reads, “Join the Army and see the Navy.”
I think my favorite line is when Groucho says, “This is Rufus T. Firefly coming to you through the courtesy of the enemy. We’re in a mess folks, we’re in a mess. Rush to Freedonia! Three men and one woman are trapped in a building! Send help at once! If you can’t send help, send two more women!” Harpo enters and holds up three fingers. “Send three more women!”
This was a trend at the time to parody the patriotic fervor of the Great War (as it was known then, World War I now). It also parodied Benito Mussolini, and ended up getting banned in Italy.
There are plenty of sight gags in Duck Soup, as well. Most famous is the mirror scene, with Groucho and Harpo both dressed in nightshirts, cap, and floppy socks. A mirror is broken and Harpo, trying to avoid being detected, apes Groucho as if he were a mirror image. Marx Brothers fans may know that during their vaudeville days the brothers would sometimes take each other’s place, and the audience wouldn’t know the difference. Another scene has Chico and Harpo tormenting lemonade stand vendor Edgar Kennedy, most memorably in an exchange of hats, or when Harpo sticks his feet in Kennedy’s lemonade.
The film was the last the Marx Brothers would make for Paramount, and the last appearance by Zeppo, who played bland characters and didn’t add anything to the act, anyway. The story goes that when they signed with MGM, Irving Thalberg told them that audiences had nothing to root for in their movies, and that they need a love story. Thus we got the next film, A Night at the Opera, with a sappy love story, but it was a great hit.
Today, critics regard Duck Soup as a masterpiece. The anarchy that left audiences bewildered in the ’30s is now seen as ahead of its time. The cynicism about politics fit right in today, though, such as Groucho’s song: “The last man nearly ruined this place, he didn’t know what to do with it. If you think this country’s bad off now, just wait till I get through with it! The country’s taxes must be fixed, and I know what to do with it. If you think you’re paying too much now, just wait till I get through with it!” The dazzling wordplay and surreal images are astounding.
I close with this account by Chico, relating how he tried to spy on Groucho to Calhern: “Monday we watch-a Firefly’s house, but he no come–he wasn’t home. Tuesday we go to the ball game, but he fool us: he no show up. Wednesday HE go to the ball game, but we fool him, WE no show up. Thursday it was a double-header, nobody show up. Friday it rained all day, there was no ball game, so we stayed home, we listen to it over the radio”