DUCK SOUP (director: Leo McCarey; screenwriters: Bert Kalmar/Nat Perrin/Harry Ruby/Arthur Sheekman; cinematographer: Henry Sharp; editor: LeRoy Stone; music: Arthur Johnston; cast: Groucho Marx (Rufus T. Firefly), Chico Marx (Chicolini), Harpo Marx (Pinkie), Zeppo Marx (Bob Rolland), Margaret Dumont (Mrs. Teasdale), Raquel Torres (Vera Marcal), Louis Calhern (Ambassador Trentino), Edgar Kennedy (Lemonade Vendor), Charles B. Middleton (Prosecutor), William Worthington (Minister of Finance); Runtime: 70; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Herman Mankiewicz; Paramount; 1933)
“The Marx Brothers high water mark in film.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
The Marx Brothers high water mark in film; their one true claim to a masterpiece and their most undiluted comedy romp (the musical interludes do not get in the way of the continuous comic antics as they do in all their latter films). Their fourth film, made during the Great Depression, is an unsophisticated political and antiwar satire, a spoof of war movie heroics, of Hitler’s and Mussolini’s Fascism, and a condemnation of respectable society and its institutions including the judicial system. It skewers all sides of the fence by use of sight gags, slapstick, and irreverent quips. In particular it mocks patriotism and religion, as evidenced in Groucho’s song “We got guns, they got guns, all God’s chillun got guns.” The satire rattled the White House, especially, with this quote spoken by Groucho: “And remember while you’re out there risking life and limb through shot and shell, we’ll be in here thinking what a sucker you are.” FDR struggled against a Depression and Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, and the country, so it seems, was in no mood for such humor directed at their government.
As a political satire it’s in the same league with the more sophisticated and tangential Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. But unfortunately for the Brothers it was a box office disaster, their only film not to make money, and as a result Paramount refused to renew. The Brothers went on to MGM and more box office and critical success as their subversive image was given a polishing over by their new producer Irving Thalberg, as a result they never again made such a quality pure madcap comedy. The film’s problem according to most of the film critics that threw rotten tomatoes at it, was that its political attack did not takes as strong a stand as it should have against the rise of fascism. Though a critical failure during its time it’s now considered their definitive film in their original anarchistic style.
It was also the last time their fourth brother Zeppo, the unfunny one, appeared with them. He went on to the business end of things.
The title according to an interview Groucho gave was realized by following this recipe: “Take two turkeys, one goose, a potato and a few carrots, but no duck, and mix them together. After tasting this, you’ll want to duck soup forever.”
Backed by wealthy widow Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont), she will not donate $20 million unless upstart Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) becomes the progressive leader of the fictional country of Freedonia–a country on the verge of bankruptcy and unrest. At his inauguration, Firefly arrives late and makes a grand entrance by shimmying down a fireman’s pole. He then insults Mrs. Teasdale and everyone he’s introduced to, and gleefully sings a song about how he intends to eliminate dissent because it’s a free country. The crowd is with him despite his incompetency, crookedness, and aim to be a dictator.
Neighboring Sylvania’s Ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern) schemes to take over Freedonia himself by either marrying Mrs. Teasdale or ousting Firefly. When Firefly prevents him from marrying the widow, the ambassador sends his sexy Latin dancer girlfriend (Raquel Torres) to compromise him and two bumbling spies, Chicolini (Chico Marx) and Pinkie (Harpo Marx), to get some dirt on him. Firefly counters by making Chicolini Secretary of War and Pinkie his Presidential chauffeur. Chicolini keeps his day job as a peanut vendor, which results in an outrageous vaudevillian skit with a lemonade vendor (Edgar Kennedy) over hats.
Firefly calls for war on Sylvania when he’s insulted that he was called an upstart by the ambassador. The war is played out as a nonsensical goof on war movies of the time, the overall foolishness of war, and the absurdity of fighting a trench war where the leaders are in least danger.
Their funniest routine is a well-executed sequence over a mirror (borrowed and improved on by director Leo McCarey from Charlie Chaplin’s 1916 “The Floorwalker”) with Groucho, Chico, and Harpo all looking like identical Grouchos. The whacky dialogue I enjoyed the most takes place during Firefly’s first Cabinet meeting when he’s handed the Treasury Department’s report and asked if he finds it clear. Firefly: “Clear? Huh! Why a four-year-old child could understand this report.” He then tells his secretary Bob Rolland (Zeppo Marx): “Run out and find me a four-year-old child. I can’t make head or tail out of it.”
REVIEWED ON 4/10/2005 GRADE: A +
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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