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Dissecting the Classics – The Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup

January 11, 2019 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics . In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.

Duck Soup

Wide Release Date: November 17, 1933
Directed By: Leo McCarey
Written By: Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, Arthur Sheekman & Nat Perrin
Produced By: Herman J. Mankiewicz
Cinematography By: Henry Sharp
Edited By: LeRoy Stone
Music By: Bert Kalmar & Harry Ruby
Distributed By: Paramount Pictures
Groucho Marx as Rufus T. Firefly
Harpo Marx as Pinky
Chico Marx as Chicolini
Zeppo Marx as Lt. Bob Roland
Margaret Dumont as Mrs. Gloria Teasdale

What Do We All Know?

Few American comedy acts in the early 20th century are as popular or influential as the Marx Brothers. The five brothers made a name for themselves as musicians before transitioning to comedy, and that combination of talent took them from vaudeville to Broadway and then to film and television. Their comedy combined wordplay, deadpan humor and impressive physical comedy as well as their musical background. And even when Gummo and Zeppo left the group to other careers, the other brothers continued to entertain for almost half a century. Groucho Marx is particularly ubiquitous in pop culture thanks to his distinct glasses and fake mustache combination.

The Marx Brothers had a five film deal with Paramount, and all of them are considered to be comedy classics. Duck Soup is the final one in the film, and while at the time it wasn’t as popular as Horse Feathers or Animal Crackers, it has gone on to be considered the best of the bunch. Generally speaking, its underwhelming box-office performance (in comparison to the previous Marx films) is owed to the time of its release: right in the middle of the Great Depression. Even still, it was the sixth highest grossing film of its year, so clearly the Marx Brothers were drawing people in.

What Went Right?

For those unfamiliar, the plot of Duck Soup is pretty straight forward. The fictional country of Fredonia is in economic crisis, and the wealthy Mrs. Teasdale agrees to help financially only after Rufus T. Firefly is appointed the leader of the country. Teasdale’s late husband’s wealth makes her the target of romantic rivalry between Rufus and Trentino, an ambassador from Sylvania, a country which is trying to annex them. This rivalry escalates from personal insults into all-out war. And if all that sounds serious or important, it isn’t. Everything is just a playground for the Marx brothers to have their fun, and it’s glorious. While much of the humor is just simple observational or situational humor, the film’s primary targets are political squabbling, economic disaster and the stupidity that leads to war. The best humor often comes from suffering and these subjects are perfect comedy goldmines, both in the time period and today.

Comedy is the hardest thing to review properly, since its highly subjective and you don’t want to give away the punchlines for those who haven’t seen it. So, if you haven’t seen it, just know that it’s an excellent example of the Marx’s signature mix of deadpan humor, wordplay, physical comedy and musical numbers. With that, I’ll give a mild SPOILER warning for the rest of this segment. The main plot features some killer Groucho one-liners as he verbally tears apart Mrs. Teasdale (“Oh, so it was murder!”) and Trentino (“Call me an upstart…”) and makes a mockery of his job as leader of Freedonia. (“That’s old news.”) The court scene is also a riot thanks to Harpo’s hysterical wordplay. But I really enjoy the digressions from the main plot as Harpo and Chico engage in shenanigans, whether it’s the useless report to Teasdale or the outstanding lemonade stand gag with the hats. And this movie also features an excellent showcase of the mirror gag, in which the Marx brothers mimic each other to trick Groucho into thinking he’s looking at a mirror.

What Went Wrong?

Duck Soup is barely over an hour long and is non-stop comedy, and pretty much all of it works. While humor is the quickest thing to age and the most likely to age poorly, I don’t think this movie suffers that badly from that aging. It’s still very, very funny, and topics like the politics of war and economics will always be timely, and good physical comedy pretty much never ages.

And In Summary…

Duck Soup, and the other Marx Brothers films from Paramount, are well worth going out of your way to see. The Marx Brothers are a comedy treasure and if you’re unfamiliar with their work, you’re in for a real treat. Duck Soup is only an hour or so long as well, so if you need something to entertain you for a short amount of time, you can’t go wrong here. This gets an enthusiastic recommendation.

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Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Batman (1989), Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale, Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Batman (1966), The Maltese Falcon, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, 12 Angry Men, Aladdin, The Wizard of Oz, Dial M For Murder, Godzilla (1954), The Hurt Locker, The Breakfast Club, Iron Man, The Shining, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, Blade Runner, Rosemary’s Baby, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Princess Bride, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Toy Story, Star Wars – Part 1, Star Wars – Part 2, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Die Hard, Spirited Away, Airplane!, Dirty Dancing, RoboCop, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Captain America: The First Avenger, In the Heat of the Night, West Side Story, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Rocky, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Sixth Sense, The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Clerks, Goodfellas, The Avengers, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Frozen, Jaws, The Omen, The Incredibles, Life of Brian, Escape From New York, Independence Day, Vacation, Ghostbusters, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Hook, Men in Black, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Double Indemnity, Lethal Weapon, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, No Country for Old Men, The Exorcist, Psycho, Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Haunting, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King, Citizen Kane, Mary Poppins, Christmas Vacation, The Iron Giant, The Secret of NIMH

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I log reviews for every film I see, when I see them. You can see my main page here. I recently saw Bumblebee and am pleased to say that the Christmas season was 4 for 4 on the big movies I wanted to see (the others being Aquaman, Mary Poppins and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse).