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Duck Soup, The Marx Brothers' Masterpiece

Updated on August 4, 2015

A Comic Masterpiece

'Duck Soup' is generally regarded as the Marx Brothers' greatest and funniest movie, and that means its very, very good. The brothers created a laugh-out-loud spectacle of politics gone haywire. The movie is crammed with visual and verbal gags, most of which are just as funny today as in 1933.

As with other movies of genius it was both a critical and commercial failure at the time of its release - audiences were not ready for its cynicism at a time of political and economic crisis, with Roosevelt's struggle against Depression in the US and concern over the rising power of Hitler in Germany. Similarly the film received no Academy Award nominations.

The film owes its current preeminence to its rediscovery in the 1960s and to its revival at film festivals since then. As a result, the film has attained cult, practically immortal, status.

Why the 'Duck Soup' Title?

The film's title uses a familiar American phrase that means anything simple or easy, or alternately, a gullible mark or pushover. Under the opening credits, four quacking ducks (the four Marx Brothers) are seen swimming and cooking in a kettle over a fire. Groucho reportedly provided the following recipe to explain the title: "Take two turkeys, one goose, four cabbages, but no duck, and mix them together. After one taste, you'll duck soup for the rest of your life."

Basic Story Line

The storyline is satisfyingly far-fetched and unbelievable, just what you would expect, and hope for, from a Marx Brothers film. It involves Groucho as Rufus T Firefly, the dictator of the small state of Freedonia. His patron is the wealthy Mrs. Teasdale, played with ineffable dignity and grace under pressure by Margaret Dumont, again the perfect outraged foil and the subject of most of Groucho's forcefuly memorable putdowns.

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Freedonia is in a financial mess, borrowing a huge sum of cash from Mrs. Teasdale Firefly is a cynical, sarcastic dictator who refuses to play politics by the book. For instance, he agrees to reduce workers' hours -- by shortening their lunch breaks!

Firefly attempts to win the hand of Mrs. Teasdale, as does Ambassador Trentino of the neighboring country, Sylvania. To make matters worse, Sylvania sends inept spies Chicolini and Pinky (Chico and Harpo) to obtain top secret information, and bring disgrace on Firefly. However, nothing goes according to plan of course, and Chico is appointed Freedonia's secretary of war, Harpo becomes Firefly's chauffeur, and the two countries declare war on each other simply because of the leaders' insults to each other.

Comic Elements

Beyond any of the political import of 'Duck Soup' is the fact that it is very funny indeed and can be watched on the merit of its humour and be appreciated as the landmark comedy it is.

The plot line may be slender but it is plenty strong enough to support some of the best comedy sequences ever filmed. The Marx Brothers had developed and honed their routines on the stages of New York and some of the movie's clever gags were taken from Groucho's and Chico's early 1930s radio show Flywheel, Shyster & Flywheel. They brought their ideas and impeccable timing to the big screen. One of the scenes has been copied many times, perhaps the Brothers' funniest scene ever, an immaculately timed and performed sequence with a broken mirror in which Groucho, Chico and Harpo look absolutely identical and explore the comic possibilities of a three dimensional mirror. Another sublime scene involves the madcap sequence in which Chico and Harpo drive a lemonade seller to distraction by swapping their hats around.

The Marx Brothers were at root, absurdists, turning normal social conventions on their head by ignoring them and following their madcap ideas into the realm of the insane. Part of their humour comes from their crazy antics, and part from the fact that seemingly sane people ludicrously continue to take them seriously, expecting rational behaviour from them.

Full of witty one-liners, great sight gags, and even some snazzy song numbers ("Freedonia's Going to War" is the hilarious declaration of battle and a song proclaims 'We Got Guns, They Got Guns, All God's Chillun Got Guns'), this is surely one of the best, if not the best, the Marx Brothers have ever done. As well as the gags, puns, routines, and of course, improvisation the movie was deemed offensive enough by some to count as surrealist satire. It was banned in Italy because Benito Mussolini took Groucho's role as a personal attack. Nothing could have pleased the brothers more.

The Famous Mirror Routine

A Movie With A Message

The film is a resounding anti-war statement. (As Firefly says to a hapless young soldier, "You're a brave man. Go and break through the lines. And remember, while you're out there risking your life and limb through shot and shell, we'll be in be in here thinking what a sucker you are.")

The Marx's also take aim at petty dictators and deceitful ambassadors, showing them to be as full of the same nonsense as the high society types who are their usual satirical targets. The motives and methods of war are shown up for all of their true ridiculousness, while the everyday machinations of government are also put under a very cynical microscope. Duck Soup is a piece of stunning cynicism par excellence, and plays better the darker the social and political climate in which it appears. Seventy five years after its release, its time has come again.

As well as attacking war, democracy, leadership, and legal systems the movie is also totally irreverent towards patriotism, religion, diplomacy, courtroom justice, and anything even vaguely respectable, An absolute masterpiece not to be missed.

Thank You Groucho

Clips from Duck Soup


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