Duck Soup is a snide mixture of political satire and slapstick, which boils politics down to its basic elements, money, power, and blatant stupidity. It was the fifth Marx Brothers movie and the last to feature all four brothers. By now America was delightfully familiar with the exaggerated, outrageous characters the siblings had created: wise-ass Groucho, Italian Chico, mute Harpo and sexy Zeppo. The chemistry of the veteran vaudeville family was tight and well choreographed by now, with Zeppo as the ‘sanest’ member balancing out the wacky traits of his brothers. This is considered by many the brothers greatest film, and with good reason; it totally skewers political relations and the vulnerable public. I can imagine a young Roger Sterling sitting in a theater all day, watching this over and over.
Struggling Freedonia needs $20m from its wealthy patroness Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) to survive its near bankruptcy, but she won’t give a cent unless her friend, Rufus T. Firefly is made ruler. The government bodies agree, and the incompetent Firefly is installed. But slick Ambassador Trentino of Sylvania is determined to take over Freedonia, and sends his spies Chicolini (Chico) and Pinky (Harpo) to infiltrate the administration and help him take over the little provincial country.
As second-rate spies, Chicolini and Pinky drive a lemonade vendor crazy and chase the ladies. Eventually they switch sides “because the food is better”, but before they do, while on their mission to steal battle plans from Firefly, an iconic routine is launched that leads to three minutes of the funniest silent comedy to ever grace a screen (hint: it involves a broken mirror and three Rufus T. Firefly’s).
Margaret Dumont, as Mrs. Teasdale, Firefly’s staunch supporter and benefactor, is ever the trooper, announcing most of her lines in operatic tones. Like most of Dumont’s Marx Brother matrons, she is a wildly wealthy grand dame who’s naïve enough to believe that anything that Groucho tells her. Groucho insults her mercilessly, but her wealth keeps him flirtatious. ‘Can’t you see I love you?” he begs at the mention of her money. Raquel Torres is sexy as Vera Marcel, a South American-type dancer who hopes to create a scandal with Firefly, and Louis Calhern as Trentino is just slimy enough that he’ll deserve anything that comes to him, and the Brothers deliver!
The Freedonians themselves are hopelessly ignorant, and willing to follow Firefly, even when he casually sings about how his administration will be quite the draconian one, and when they sing the “We’re going to war!” with Firefly and his entire cabinet, it’s a hilarious mess of operetta, minstrel show. and blind patriotism.
Duck Soup paces itself beautifully as it smacks hundreds of jokes into its relatively short length (only 68 minutes). The dialogue is fast, furious, and writers Bert Kalmar,Harry Ruby, Arthur Sheekman and Nat Perrin keep Groucho mean, Chico scheming, and Harpo dangerous and lovable and the same time. But the script finds quiet humor too; Harpo ‘answering’ the phone with his horn, and of course the mirror scene. I’m sure there was plenty of input by the Brothers routines themselves, and the jibes are merciless, but screamingly funny. At the risk of sounding cliché, they really don’t make ’em like this anymore, and more’s the pity since modern comedians could learn that there’s more to the art of comedy than fart jokes and vulgarisms. Duck Soup remains a testament to screwball humor that doesn’t insult you intelligence, but luxuriates in it. It should be required viewing for anyone under 30.
Snacking Game – eat or imbibe every time Harpo uses his scissors!
Rufus T. Firefly (to Mrs. Teasdale): Will you marry me? Did he leave you any money? Answer the second question first!
Firefly (to Mrs. Teasdale): You better beat it or I hear they’re gonna tear you down and put up an office building where you’re standing. You can leave in a taxi. If you can’t get a taxi, you can leave in a huff. If that’s too soon, you can leave in a minute and a huff. You know you haven’t stopped talking since I came here? You must have been vaccinated with a phonograph needle!
Mrs. Teasdale: I’d like you to meet a most charming lady!
Firefly: Well, it’s about time!
Teasdale: This is a gala day for you!
Firefly: Well, a gal a day is enough for me; I don’t think I could handle any more.
Firefly: All I can offer you is a Rufus over your head!