Do I really want to admit this in public? Perhaps I should give the matter more thought, or find a way to hedge my bets. Why not play it safe? After all, there’s no telling who’s reading this column. I could destroy what little credibility I have left. I don’t actually have to come right out and say it point blank……..do I? Well, yes, I do. A critic’s gotta do what a critic’s gotta do. So here it is, straight from the heart and straight in your face: Duck Soup is one of the greatest films of all time.
So what if it’s a comedy. Thank your lucky stars. If it weren’t, it’d destroy you. Humour is the only thing that keeps one going after such an unflinching look into the cracked mirror of our humanity. This 1933 Marx Brothers’ movie, directed to perfection by Leo McCarey, is an awesomely savage 70-minute demolition derby that leaves the bulk of western civilization in smoking ruins. Jim Carrey, eat your heart out. I’d call it the greatest anarchist film of all time, except that I can’t think of a single other anarchist film. The word “anarchist” itself has traditionally called up pictures of black-coated, black-bearded fanatics running about frantically carrying large bombs with lit fuses. This may be a misrepresentation of anarchists, but it’s a pretty good description of the Marx Brothers. In Duck Soup, Groucho, Harpo, and Chico were out to prove that paranoia is the only reasonable state of mind in a world that has people like them running around loose in it. A world where governments are insane, leaders are power-mad and venal, morality is sidestepped, and war is made glorious.
Is it a mere coincidence that there were the same number of Marx Brothers (excluding Zeppo, who always played the straight man) as there were Furies in Greek mythology? I think not. The Furies were actually kinder. They only hounded to death those actually guilty of crimes. The Marx Brothers—like taxes, red tape, and bureaucracy—spare no one. Not even themselves. The only thing they genuinely admire is their capacity for mutual sabotage. In the astounding crossfire of jokes, japes, sight gags, puns, pranks, malapropisms, insults, and aspersions in Duck Soup nothing escapes unscathed. No prisoners are taken. Next to neutrino particles, the gags in Duck Soup are possibly the only things in the known universe travelling at faster-than-light speeds.
Logic? The only logic here is the guerilla logic of dreams. Or nightmares. The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.
Art transforming humour into astonishment. Anarchy liberating the human spirit into the pure joy of being. I didn’t fully appreciate how good Duck Soup was until, watching it again prior to writing this review, I realized that this movie held as many surprises for me on the fourth or fifth viewing as it had the first time I saw it in university twenty years ago. How do you define great art? Any piece of work that never ceases to surprise you.
Perfection here embraces the supporting cast. Margaret Dumont, as the inexplicably love-struck Mrs. Teasdale, wealthy patroness of art & government, is the perfect foil to Groucho’s invidious Rufus T. Firefly. Ms. Dumont was a splendidly regal woman; had Queen Elizabeth ever needed a someone to take over the monarchy for a while, Margaret would have been an ideal choice. As Mrs. Teasdale, she inspires some of Groucho’s most inspired non sequiturs:
“Here arc the plans of war. They’re as valuable as your life. And that’s putting them pretty cheap. Watch them like a cat watches her kittens. Have you ever had kittens? No, of course not! You’re too busy running around playing bridge. Can’t you see what I’m trying to tell you? I love you!”
Firefly’s other foil is the dignified but treacherous Ambassador Trentino of Syvania, played by that consummate gentleman-in-real-life, Louis Calhern. Their exchanges could make up an entire graduate course in Anti-Etiquette. Brothers Chico and Harpo take on veteran comedian Edgar Kennedy, playing a hulking but hapless lemonade vendor who demonstrates “that as flies to wanton boys are we to the Marx Brothers / They kill us for their sport.”
Duck Soup meets one other criterion of greatness: timelessness. No, I’m not talking about the pseudo-Art Deco set and props. Duck Soup is timeless as a denunciation of war and hypocrisy. It will ring true as long as there are leaders around who insist, like Firefly, on prepaying our rent on the battlefields. With the first announcement of war, all four Marx Brothers lead a huge congregation of Freedonian citizens in a rousing chorus of song & dance numbers (“They got guns, we got guns / All God’s children got guns!”) that’s difficult to believe even when it’s seen. Sending a man out on a dangerous mission behind enemy lines, Firefly tells him: “Remember, while you’re out there risking life & limb through shot & shell, we’ll be in here thinking what a sucker you are.”
If the National Rifle Association, which backed Duck Soup and has their logo prominently displayed in the opening credits, didn’t understand what they were getting into, Benito Mussolini over in Italy made no such mistake. He had Duck Soup banned from the country as soon as he’d watched it. Groucho’s Firefly is the incarnation of every self-serving tin pot dictator, inveterate womanizer, con artist, and politician-on-the-make. Except that he’s also the first to admit it:
“The last man nearly ruined this place,
He didn’t know what to do with it;
If you think this country’s bad off now,
Just wait ‘till I get through with it!!”
I could spend the rest of this review raving about my favourite bits, but that’s the entire script. There’s the amazing trial scene, the incredible mirror scene, the ferocious lemonade scene, the umbrageous party scene, the…..well, you get the point. Besides, the script would only include the 400 verbal jokes; you’d still miss the 345 (more or less) purely visual ones. And what about those musical numbers? As real-life American anarchist Emma Goldman once wrote, “If there’s no dancing, count me out.”
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
“The most surprising thing about this film was that I succeeded in not going crazy, for I really did not want to work with [the Marx Brothers]: they were completely mad.” –Leo McCarey
“Although they were not taken as seriously, [the Marx Brothers] were as surrealist as Dalí, as shocking as Stravinsky, as verbally playful as Gertrude Stein, as alienated as Kafka.” –Roger Ebert
“In two sessions separated by a couple of weeks, I heard [Groucho] talk for hours at a time, always in the same way, circling his material looking for loopholes. I began to think of him as a soloist, with speech as his instrument. Like a good musician, he no longer had to think of the notes; he worked in terms of timing and the through-line, and questions did not inspire answers, but improvisations.” –Roger Ebert
Anarchy in its purest form. The quintessence of chaos. Weaponized comedy. Could there have been Monty Python or The Simpsons or Guy Madden without Duck Soup? Probably not. Eugene Ionesco said that the three greatest influences on him were Groucho, Harpo, and Chico. With this picture, Leo McCarey and the Marx Brothers unleased the comedy Kraken—a ludic Leviathan the like of which we shall not see again. Slipping in just before the Motion Picture Production Code tried to neuter American cinema, Duck Soup is proof that the prudes and prigs and puritans had reason to be afraid. Actually, we should all be afraid. The infamous three-hat scene could be the Marx Brothers’ gloss on King Lear’s “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods, / They kill us for their sport.”
There can be no greater tribute to the film’s brilliant caustic wit (credited mainly to writers Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby) than the fact that virtually the entire screenplay is included in the Imdb’s Quotes section for Duck Soup. [Also worth checking out—the beefed-up Trivia pages.]
No point in carrying on here. If you haven’t seen Duck Soup, nothing will quite prepare you. If you have, you’re either too outraged to watch it again or you’re not going to hang around here when you could be singing along with “All God’s Chillun Got Guns” and “Freedonia’s Going to War.”
Two quick shout-outs: First, to Paramount’s supervising art director Hans Dreier (along with Wiard B. Ihnen) for the over-the-top, faux-fascist monumental set design of Freedonia’s council chamber (not surprising that Mussolini banned the film because he thought it was a direct attack on him). For more on this amazing era in motion picture design, check out Howard Mandelbaum and Eric Myers’ Screen Deco: A Celebration of High Style in Hollywood. Excellent black-and-white cinematography by Henry Sharp, whose career extended from 1920 to 1957.
Second, to Latina actress Raquel Torres for her brief-but-memorable turn as one of the early 30’s sexiest vamps. She rocks those gowns.
Duck Soup opens with an endorsement by the NRA. Proof that irony lives, and that satire is completely lost on some people.