Retro Reel Review #11 Duck Soup (1933)

 Posted by on June 23, 2012 at 12:00 pm  Film, Retro, Reviews & Discussions
Jun 232012

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!

Memorable Quotes:

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!




  16 Responses to “Retro Reel Review #11 Duck Soup (1933)”

  1. Hail, hail, Freedonia!

  2. You left out this memorable quote:

    Rufus T. Firefly: Remember, you’re fighting for this woman’s honour, which is probably more than she ever did.

  3. I don’t know about Roger, but I can tell you that when I was in college in the 1970’s I did once sit in a theater all day watching this over and over. In fact, I’ve seen it so many times since that in recent years I’ve sometimes skipped watching it when it comes on TCM, afraid I might kill the pleasure by watching it too much.

    This is my second-favorite movie of all time (First is Holiday [1938]), and has too many great scenes, lines, and moments for me to begin quoting my favorites. O.K., maybe a couple:

    When Ambassador Trentino gets a telegram, Harpo grabs it away from him, looks at it, then furiously tears it up. Chico explains: “He gets mad because he can’t read.”

    From Groucho’s opening song:
    “I will not stand for anything that’s crooked or unfair,
    I’m strictly on the up-and-up,
    So everyone beware.
    If anyone’s caught taking graft,
    And I don’t get my share,
    We stand ’em up against the wall
    And ‘Pop, goes the weasel.'”

    Francois Truffaut once said that this and Chaplin’s Shoulder Arms were the only true anti-war films, because they were the only ones that refused to take war seriously.

    Re the great Margaret Dumont, Groucho always claimed that she really didn’t get the jokes. He once said “She was the same off the stage as she was on. That was part of her charm. She actually didn’t understand any of the jokes. I’m serious — she really didn’t understand the jokes. Very seldom. I know there was a joke in Duck Soup which was at the finish of the pixture. It was a kind of a war and we were in a small cottage — Margaret and myself. She said to me ‘What are you doing, Rufus?’ I said ‘I’m fighting for your honor, which is more than you ever did.’ And later she asked me what did I mean by that.”

    • Holiday is a favorite of mine too. George Cukor, Ernst Lubitch, Preston Sturges, etc., really made the best rom-coms. I wonder if todays producers can improve a picture as Irving Thalberg is said to have with the Marx Bros.? Groucho appeared on Dick Cavett’s show several times and these are considered to be his best interviews.

  4. HI Mel —
    I love Groucho’s opening song, and the first time I heard “We put him up against the wall and ‘pop goes the weasel!” I laughed so hard I almost cried; it was so unexpected yet so casual! I think Groucho’s administration song pretty much describes (at some point) almost every U.S. president!

    And almost every other line is a punch line, with Firefly getting most of the jabs– I just like to imagine that this was where Roger picked up his penchant for one liners. And do you recall in “Annie Hall” when Alfie is in a theater watching ‘Duck Soup’? He’s watching the ‘We’re going to war” sequence and you see Groucho, Chico and Zeppo playing the soldiers helmets like a xylophone!

    The Mirror scene still awes me after all these years and showings, the precise matching of movements, and how Groucho picks up ‘reflection’ Chico’s hat and they walk around each other. Brilliant.

    I think this is one of the few Marx movies where neither Chico nor Harpo plays their trademark instrument, although Harpo does very briefly stroke the inside of a piano’s harp.

    My other favorite Firefly/Teasdale exchange:
    Rufus T. Firefly: Not that I care, but where is your husband?
    Mrs. Teasdale: Why, he’s dead.
    Rufus T. Firefly: I bet he’s just using that as an excuse.
    Mrs. Teasdale: I was with him to the very end.
    Rufus T. Firefly: No wonder he passed away.
    Mrs. Teasdale: I held him in my arms and kissed him.
    Rufus T. Firefly: Oh, I see, then it was murder.

    Thanks for commenting! and Pea-nuuuts! to you!

    • Ya gotta love President Rufus T. Firefly. He may be a warmonger and a dictator, but he’s always honest about it. “You think this country’s bad off now/Just wait til I get through with it.” He’s a variation on Groucho’s famous “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have someone like me as a member.” His whole attitude is that any country irresponsible enough to make him president deserves the worst leader possible.

    • Actually it was Mickey (Woody Allen) in Hannah & Her Sisters who watched Duck Soup in a theatre. It was right he thought about killing himself and the rifle went off but he’d being sweating so much, that the rifle slipped off his forehead.

      • kd you’re right! I knew it was one of Woody’s movies, and that Woody was watching Duck Soup, just couldn’t remember which one. Thanks! And Peanuts to you too! 🙂

  5. “Pick a number between 1 and 10.”

  6. Thanks for your fine retrospective, Therese.

    My movie buff wife has been responsible for my Marxian education, which included a substantial library. As much pleasure that one gets from the films, the pleasure is greatly enhanced by the stories. School daze, stories about their vaudville, on-the-road, pre-film, pre-broadway exploits, Chico as a world-class pinochle player.

    I can recommed a few choice books:

    The Marx Brothers Scrapbook – a collaboration with Grouch himself, rich in photos and playbills, and filled Groucho’s salty language (including some candid comments about starlet Marilyn Monroe, who played in a late, forgettable Marx Bros. film). Groucho’s turn-of-the-century sensibility regretted such candor and language, so he tried (and to all our benefits failed) to block the publication of this book.

    Harpo Speaks – Harpo’s memoir. A charming lovely read by a charming lovely man.

    Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx – a recent (2001) biography. Serious in orientation backed by a serious research effort. I recall that the author effectively debunked some of Groucho’s mythmaking about their origins. We now have good evidence that Marx senior, Frenchy, was not “the worst tailor in New York”. The author pointed out that a bad tailor could not have made enough money to support the family’s apartment in the Upper East Side – a neighborhood which was higher rent than many.

    • Jahn, I want all three! Thanks for the info–straight to my wishlist! Sometimes I think the world would be a happier place if the Marx Brothers ran it! Man, I love Harpo, especially loved how serious this clown’s face would get and he made magic on the harp. That man could make you laugh and cry – I miss that in modern movies. It’s sad that the later Marx movies were not as good as the earlier ones, although I love ‘A Night at the Opera’, A Day at the Races, and even A Night in Casablanca had its charm (I remember watching it in the hospital after my son Steve was born, and I laughed so much, it made my cesarian stitches ache, but it was worth it!
      Thanks again for the book listing ,and thank you all for reading my Retro Reel Reviews!

  7. I watched “Six Months Leave” yesterday morning and there was the proof that Roger was indeed a Marx Brothers fan. When they’re trying to get in to the underground gambling club and the doorkeeper asks them for the password, Roger immediately says “Swordfish.” That was the password to get into the speakeasy in The Marx Brothers Horse Feathers (1933).

  8. There you go! BTW, sorry there was no RRR this week, I didn’t finish it on time and I want to do it justice. I had a yard sale on Saturday and another event on Sunday, but the next column is almost ready and will be up next Saturday! Thanks for you patience- Therese

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