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Marx Brothers: Duck Soup

"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!"

Not horror, sci-fi, or fantasy of course, but an excellent movie and my favorite Marx Brothers film to boot.

You don’t hear about this comedy team much these days, but their old movies were on TV quite often in the 70s, and while I haven’t seen all of them yet, as their play rotation was irregular, Duck Soup represents this team of brothers better than any other. 

The setting is the imaginary nation of Freedonia, and things aren’t great. There are tensions with nearby Sylvania, the government is a mess, and the treasury depleted. Margaret Dumont’s Gloria Teasdale informs the current government that she’ll loan them the money her rich husband left her, but only if the current leader abdicates for Rufus T. Firefly, played by Groucho Marx. Firefly takes over quite early in the film, and much hilarity ensues, although hilarity with a deeper message.

With Groucho as the new leader, Zeppo as his assistant, and Harpo and Chico as the hapless spies hired by Trentino, the conniving ambassador of Sylvania (played by Louis Calhern), Freedonia is in for a rough ride. But for the audience it’s a fun ride that has a great mix of slapstick, puns, and visual humor. Groucho’s sarcastic wit, Harpo’s silent silliness, and Chico’s comedic buffoonery make such a great combination. The movie is a breezy 70 minutes long, and it fills that brisk playtime to great effect, with nary a dull or sluggish moment. In fact it feels frenetic in pace at times, with the gags coming fast and furious.

The only way to travel.

The movie is a wondrous comedy to be sure, but it’s also a biting satire of the idea of a single, dictatorial leader, which in the 30s was a serious problem (and something we worry about today as well to be sure), so the film can be very cynical at times. Even as a kid, not knowing some of the underlying message here, I found the film a ton of fun. I find it both fun and an interesting look at a very dire subject as an adult, and this insight into how deep a subject this comedic film is about actually increased my enjoyment of the film.

Even Firefly's entrance shows this off. The country is struggling financially, and yet here is a lavish gala celebration for their new leader? With all the panoply on display, we can guess where a large portion of the country's drained coffers went, but we spare no expense for our glorious leader!

He then breaks into song, a key part of which is put into the introduction of this review, in which he touts freedom, but then explains all the behavior he won't allow, and how he refers to firing squads as 'Pop! Goes the weasel!'. On the surface the song is humorous and light, but it has a very dark undertone if you dig into the lyrics.

The final war scenes even reflect this cynical outlook when Firefly pulls out a Tommy gun and proceeds to fire out of the bunker with glee, and isn't chastened by this fact when he finally acknowledges his assistant who has been trying to point out that he's shooting his own men.

From the previously mentioned initial opulence of Firefly’s humorous entrance, the running gag with ‘His Excellency’s car!’, the very upset lemonade vendor, the courtroom scene, the beloved genius of the mirror scene, the government meeting tomfoolery, and all the way to the final scenes on the battlefield, it’s an excellent film that keeps us laughing while also taking a long look at a serious subject, and it deserves the love it's earned since its initial release 90 years ago.

'Fancy meeting me here.'


--Their perennial co-star, Margaret Dumont, is also brilliant and she deserves a lot of praise for how good she is in general, and here specifically. Groucho called Margaret ‘The fifth Marx Brother’ in later interviews. Her ability to play the straight woman so well, even during the most outlandish scenes, is a testament to her skill.

-- I did a bit of reading on this one, and it was not well loved when it was released in 1933. It takes a more realistic and cynical look at politics and lampoons it mercilessly, which didn’t always sit well at the time. Modern audiences and critics tend to enjoy it more, and I certainly do.

-- The mirror gag with Groucho, Chico, and Harpo wasn’t invented by them; it appears to have been a Vaudeville gag before this movie. But this movie is the first I can find that put it on the silver screen. It’s been used many times since then, and for good reason; it’s highly amusing when done well, but none better than here.

-- Mussolini banned Duck Soup in Italy since he felt it was a personal insult. Apparently, the Marx Brothers were happy to hear that.

-- The song ‘All God’s Children Got Guns’ is a spoof of an African American spiritual hymn. Not sure what to make of this to be honest, but it’s something to make note of.

-- In the final bunker scenes, Groucho changes his uniform every time we see him. We see Napoleonic gear, American Civil War (both sides), a Boy Scout uniform, and a few others.

Four running sidecar gags out of four.

Morella is a Gen Xer who likes strange things a bit too much.

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