Duck Soup

Year 1933

Groucho Marx as  Rufus T. Firefly
Chico Marx   as Chicolini
Harpo Marx as  Pinkie
Zeppo Marx as Bob Rolland
Margaret Dumont   as  Mrs. Teasdale
Louis Calhern as Ambassador Trentino  
Director - Leo McCarey
Story - Bert Kalmar  
Story and Music - Harry Ruby  

Of all of the Marx Brothers' movies, Duck Soup seems to be the one that everyone considers a work of art. I don't know about that, but it is the movie where they dismissed all of the musical interludes in favor of packing in more Marx Brothers' madness. Watching the boys work at mischief is a pleasure.

In this movie, like in most of the Marx Brothers' films, Groucho is in charge of a failing enterprise. Now though he's Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho), President of Freedonia, which is a small European nation on the brink of bankruptcy. He has no plan to save the nation but he's out to save himself.

Zeppo is along to assist Groucho in the running of the country. Chico and Harpo are being themselves which means Groucho can't succeed. As for the final resolution, Groucho cannot abide Ambassador Trentino (Calhern) from the neighboring country of Sylvania and war between the two nations is declared.

It is this whole war thing that makes critics drool. They claim the movie is an anti-war film. Maybe it is. Personally, I think that war is nothing more than the perfect fodder for the Marx Brothers' acerbic wit. The outcome may be anti-war, but the whole point of any movie starring the Brothers Marx is to skewer convention. War and politics are ripe without any higher motive.

The tricky part is that the subjects skewered are near and dear to critics both past and present who have no direct dealing with either war or politics (despite their evaluation of their own self worth), and these audience proxy thinkers have strong opinions about both war and politics. With that in mind, it shouldn't be hard to guess that this movie was not well received by the theater going public at the time of its release and the movie nearly sank the careers of the genius brothers.

So why should you see it? Everyone should see at least one Marx Brothers movie. They were a unique team and helped define movie content when the industry was young. For example, Groucho was the first actor to directy address the audience. They managed to be both in the movie and observers simultaneously. They combined verbal jokes with unique slap-stick, relying more on the former than the latter. The physical comedy that they developed is still being copied today. Their jokes, which were fresh when they uttered them, are still being referenced today.

If it's not this movie that you want to watch, then Horse Feathers or A Night at the Opera would work just as well.

Here are some examples of scenes and dialogue that have become classic.

Groucho: Why a four year old child could understand this report. Run out and find me a four year old child. I can't make head or tail out of it.

Minister of War: How about taking up the tax?
Groucho: How about taking up the carpet?
MoW: I still insist we must take up the tax.
Groucho: He's right. You've got to take up the tacks before you can take up the carpet.

Groucho to street vendor Chico: Do you want to be public nuisance?
Chico: Sure. How much does the job pay?
Groucho: I've got a good mind to join a club and beat you over the head with it.

Minister of War attempts to bring up the subject of taxes again.
Chico: I got an uncle lives in Taxes.
MoW: No. I mean dollars.
Chico: Atsa where he lives, Dollars, Taxes.
Grouch shakes Chico's hand for a job well done.

Margaret Dumont: What are you doing?
Groucho: Fighting for your honor which is more than you ever did.

Groucho rides in a motorcycle sidecar driven by Harpo but is always left behind. He attempts to thwart Harpo by driving the motorcycle. Harpo races away in the motorized sidecar, once more leaving Groucho behind.

A mirror breaks and Harpo, facing Groucho over the space of the now missing mirror, mimics Groucho's actions to convince Groucho that the mirror is still in place. One move of Groucho's has him spinning around and throwing out his hands at the end of the move. Harpo does not spin but throws out his hands anyway thus fooling Groucho.

The movie isn't perfect and not all of the humor works. For example, I thought that Harpo's battle with a fellow street vendor went too far. Especially since the fellow street vendor did not start the ruckus. There's a hi-de-ho number about going to war that might be offensive if you don't consider that this song lampoons the War of Northern Aggression.

The worst thing about the movie is the lousy transfer. There are gaps and jumps in the DVD that should have been filled in if any time was taken to restore this piece. I purchased The Silver Screen Collection by Universal Studios. It's watchable, but it did not receive any effort to reconstruct the missing frames from whatever was used as a master. The boys deserve better.

These are small quibbles, though. The movie is entertaining and funny as only the irreverent brothers can be.

There's very little chick flick potential here unless the girl is filling out a dictionary of put downs and witticisms. It's a guy's sense of humor and touches on subjects that can potentially offend. But, the Marx Brothers went for the joke and not the societal statement. Accept that and leave your indignation at the door.

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