"Duck Soup" *** 1\2 (out of ****)
It's war in the Marx Brothers comedy "Duck Soup" (1933) directed by Leo McCarey.
The great comedies are ferocious. They attack society's conventional morals. They aren't afraid to get messy and show society the error of its ways. This is one of the reasons comedy is my favorite genre. Comedies, social satires, believe it or not, tackle important issues. They actually have something to say but because you are laughing you don't realize the subtly of the message. Because you are laughing you don't find the movie threatening for challenging convention.
"Duck Soup" is such a movie. Here is a movie released by Paramount Pictures in 1933 when "war was brewing in Europe". Hitler was already Chancellor of Germany. Many Americans may not have known it at the time but we would be drawn into the conflict too. War is a serious issue. But "Duck Soup" dares to tell us, war is dumb. And, you know what? It's fought over stupid reasons, such as the reason in this movie when one character calls another an "upstart". After that war is declared. One stupid reason is just as good as another stupid reason to start war between countries.
The movie starts off with government officials of the fictitious country Freedonia pleading with its most wealthy backer, Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) to loan them $20 million dollars. But, Mrs. Teasdale will not. She has already loan the country $20 million and now has little faith in the country's current leader. She will only donate the money if leadership is changed. She wants to see Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) put in as the country's new leader. And so it is done.
Here we see two social points being made. One, money dominates politics. If you have money you can buy a government. Secondly, how can leadership change without an election? How can a new person be named the leader of a country? It is called Freedonia after all. Isn't there any freedom? Democracy?
Once Firefly is appointed the new leader he is asked what the public may expect during his administration. He sings his response in a song with lyrics such as "no ones allowed to smoke/or tell a dirty joke" and "if any form of pleasure is exhibited/ report to me and it will be prohibited" but then ends the verse with "this is the land of the free". Thus another comment on society. We say we are living in a free country with independence but there are so many rules, so many laws prohibiting us how can we call ourselves free?
What Firefly doesn't know is there is someone that wants to overthrow the Freedonia government, Ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern) of the neighboring country Sylvania. He wants to lead both countries. His original plan was to start a revolution but soon he believes he can reach his same goal by marrying Mrs. Teasdale, plus he will have her wealth. The only problem is Mrs. Teasdale may have feelings for Firefly.
Events escalate when Trentino calls Firefly an upstart. Outraged Firefly slaps Trentino with a glove across his face and declares "this means war"! And that's the plot to "Duck Soup".
Trentino hires two spies; Chicolini (Chico Marx) and Pinky (Harpo Marx) to try and collect dirt on Firefly. They create a popcorn stand in front up Firefly's mansion but instead of gathering information always find themselves fighting with another vendor selling lemonade (Edgar Kennedy).
What is most impressive about "Duck Soup" is the speed of the jokes. The movie never takes a breather. It is like a machine gun firing off rounds. Jokes just keep coming at you. Think of "Airplane" (1980) but then multiple it by five. Here is one example. An exchange between Firefly and Mrs. Teasdale:
Firefly: Not that I care, but where is your husband?
Mrs. Teasdale: Why, he's dead.
Firefly: I bet he's just using that as an excuse.
Mrs. Teasdale: I was with him to the very end.
Firefly: No wonder he passed away.
Mrs. Teasdale: I held him in my arms and kissed him.
Firefly: Oh, I see, then it was murder. Will you marry me? Did he leave you any money? Answer the second question first.
Did you notice how every bit of dialogue Groucho has is a wise-crack? And it is like that for the entire length of the picture, which is 68 minutes. It is a collection of verbal wise-cracks and visual gags, from Chico and Harpo fighting with the vendor and leading to the famous "mirror" gag where Harpo is dressed as Groucho in a nightgown and is spotted by Groucho. Stuck, Hapro pretends he is a reflection in a mirror. Groucho knows it is no reflection so he tries to fake him out with a serious of wild gestures.
This is actually a famous comedy routine that Abbott & Costello, The Three Stooges and even Charlie Chaplin did. In fact Chaplin may have been the first to put it on-screen in his comedy "The Floorwalker" (1916).
"Duck Soup" has other inspired moments such was when Harpo dresses up as Paul Revere, riding through town to get help, when he notices a pretty blonde undressing, about to take a bath. Naturally Hapro forgets all about the war and chases down the lady. A running gag in the movie involves Harpo as Groucho's driver. Harpo sits on a motorcycle with a side car, which is where Groucho sits. Every time Harpo drives off the side car stays behind.
In the movie's last sequence, a battle scene, we see Groucho change costumes within a scene. One moment he is wearing a Confederate Civil War uniform, the camera cuts away and then he is wearing a British palace guard uniform and this happens a few more times within the sequence. While it is physically impossible thus making it funny it is also serving as a commentary. Through out history there has always been wars even "wars to end all wars" but wars continue to come. The only difference is the costumes.
Although the movie is now a critical and audience favorite, many feel it is the best movie the Marx Brothers were ever in, it was not their most successful film at the box-office. It failed in comparison to their previous movie, "Horse Feathers" (1932). This was also the last movie the brothers made for Paramount Pictures. And finally it is the last movie the four Marx Brothers would appear in together. Zeppo would leave the act feeling there wasn't much for him to do. He was suppose to be the straight man of the team.
I always wonder how much control a director would have had working on a Marx Brothers movie. I can imagine the brothers feeling they don't need a director. They had their routines, they know what was funny and weren't going to have some outsider tell them what to do or what was funny. Their ego would get in the way of having a director direct them.
But with Leo McCarey, the director of this movie, that would be a mistake. McCarey was a funny guy and worked with the best in the business. He got his first major break working for Hal Roach, who had his own comedy studio. McCarey is credited as being the man who brought Laurel & Hardy together, both worked for Hal Roach. He would go on to win two Academy Awards for best director and win an Academy Award for his writing. His other credits include "The Awful Truth" (1937), "Going My Way" (1944), "My Favorite Wife" (1940) and "The Milky Way" (1936) with Harold Lloyd.
It may seem hard to believe for a younger audience watching the movie, but, this picture was considered such a threat Mussolini took the film as a personal insult and banned the movie in Italy.
"Duck Soup" is a classic political satire. It obliterates the political system showing it to be run by a bunch of children who really have no idea what they are doing. What was true in 1933 is still true today.