Duck Soup

Duck Soup

Remember, you're fighting for this woman's honour, which is probably more than she ever did.

I would offer up Duck Soup as the spiritual great-grandfather of movies like Blazing Saddles and Airplane!. Its plot seems to exist as an afterthought, unnecessary baggage that gets in the way of the movie’s true purpose: “four Jews trying to get a laugh,” as Groucho Marx would later confess.

It’s possible to view Duck Soup as a brilliant political farce, lacerating the bloated self-importance of world leaders, or you can just look to it for 68 minutes of pure post-Vaudevillian anarchy. It works both ways. This may not be the Marx Brothers at their most coherent, but it’s easily them at their funniest.

Gloria Teasdale (the Marx brothers’ perpetual foil Margaret Dumont) is a rich widow who can bail out the cash-strapped nation of Freedonia, but she has one condition: the new president of the country must be Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho). Ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern) of Sylvania is plotting to conquer Freedonia. To that end, he sends Pinky (Harpo) and Chicolini (Chico) to spy on Firefly’s government.

Duck Soup operates by its own rules of logic, and what transpires does not always seem to flow organically from one scene to the next. Every scene seems concocted as an excuse for rapid-fire word play between Firefly and Chicolino, rapid-fire word play between Firefly and everyone else, raucous musical numbers or sustained scenes of silent pantomime by Pinky. It often feels like the Marx Brothers didn’t stop shooting this movie because they had finished anything but they simply ran out of film.

By all rights, this should be a chaotic mess and, by some definitions, it probably is. The only reason it works is that the Marx Brothers totally commit to the film’s blitzkrieg against your funny bone, its unrestricted comedic warfare with some of the team’s most quotable lines and one of comedy’s immortal bits: the famous mirror scene between Groucho and Harpo.

With other movies, I might be tempted to drone on, analyzing its story and characters, and make this review longer than the film itself, but with Duck Soup, I only have to answer one question: Is it funny?


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