There’s really only one word to describe the Marx Brothers’ comedic style: anarchic.. Every one of their better movies (and most of their worse ones) revolve around insult humor, quick one-liners, fourth wall breaks, physical comedy, absurdist situations, old-style Vaudeville sketches, and whatever the hell Harpo was doing in any given scene, interspersed with musical numbers where the brothers showed off their various non-comedic talents.
1933’s Duck Soup was both the last movie they did in a contract with Paramount Pictures and the last time youngest brother Zeppo appeared in one of their movies. It’s a hell of a movie to go out on.
Duck Soup is something of a political satire. It doesn’t necessarily mock any particular style of government, but that’s essentially what happens here. The nation of Freedonia is in dire financial needs, and the only person who can help is wealthy widow Mrs. Teasdale (frequent Marx foil Margaret Dumont). Mrs. Teasdale will only lend the country money on the condition that the nation’s current leader step aside and allow one Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) to take over.
Now, here’s the thing: try not to think about the politics of Freedonia or its belligerent neighbor Sylvania. If you do, you might wonder why any citizen, no matter how wealthy, can single-handedly determine who should be the nation’s chief executive, or how an ambassador also seems to be running the other one. It’s just there to make sure Rufus is in charge of Freedonia and the pompous guy from Sylvania has a good reason to come by. Plots may not be the strong point in a Marx Brothers movie anyway. A femme fatale character simply disappears from the narrative after a certain point, and much of the movie is set aside for small set pieces that allow the brothers to do comedy bits that may or may not keep the plot moving.
As it is, for a country called “Freedonia,” not only is one wealthy woman determining who’s in charge, but judging from Groucho’s opening song on his policy proposals to ban anything fun and make sure he gets the necessary graft from any corrupt officials…well, it doesn’t sound very free.
But the work of, as they are called here, the Four Marx Brothers is often at the expense of the high and mighty. Dumont was often a more, for lack of a better word, benevolent example of such things, but she always played a woman who, for some reason, was totally open to allowing Groucho’s various characters to insult her appearance, particularly her weight, on a routine basis. Others are not so tolerant. Ambassador Trentino’s thin skin means if Rufus doesn’t mind his mouth, he may plunge their countries into war. Of course Rufus can’t and war occurs, though that was Trentino’s plan all along. There’s also something in there about marrying Mrs. Teasdale to aqcuire Freedonia’s territory, so no matter how free Freedonia may or may not be (and it certainly doesn’t seem to be based on what little we know of Firefly’s policies), it is far better off not being annexed by Sylvania.
But unlike, say, the Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers didn’t limit themselves to bringing down the mighty outsiders to their foursome. Chico’s characters were often on-hand to get one-over on Groucho while using his “simple immigrant” stereotype to comedic effect. The silent Harpo just messes with everybody, pulling all manner of random objects from his pockets that don’t have to make sense when he isn’t snipping random things with a pair of scissors. For Duck Soup, Harpo’s Pinky doubles as both Groucho’s driver and a Sylvanian spy working with Chico’s Chicolini. That Groucho gives government jobs like “secretary of war” to a pair of peanut vendors that mostly seem to annoy or perplex him is all the more reason to not think too hard about how Freedonia is actually run.
And as for brother Zeppo…as with most of the movies he appeared in, his screentime is limited, and he often just plays the straight man to his older brothers. It’s no wonder he opted to work behind the scenes as a talent manager after this movie came out. That’s something of a shame. I’ve done a bit of reading on the Marxes and apparently the other brothers thought Zeppo was the funniest, and the handful of times he was allowed to be part of the comedy in these movies, he actually holds his own pretty well. As expected, he appears in some scenes with Groucho or all four, but doesn’t do much more than play the straightman, and even then not that much.
The AFI only includes one Marx Brothers movie on its 100 movies list, but that’s more than a lot of the older film comedians, so why this one? The war scene at the end is a bit of comedic craziness as Groucho seemingly changes uniforms between shots, stock footage shows help is one the way, and the brothers manage to capture Trentino, pelting him with food until Mrs. Teasdale starts to sing the nation’s national anthem in the name of victory. At that point, the brothers turn and start pelting her with the food.
Margaret Dumont must have been a hell of a good sport.
No, the scene that stands out the most is the mirror scene.
The premise is simple: Chico and Harpo are trying to steal the battle plans from Mrs. Teasdale’s safe, and the two disguise themselves as Groucho to pull it off. Given the fact the three are brothers, they do have a strong resemblance, and while wearing identical clothes, with Chico and Harpo applying the greasepaint mustaches and eyebrows, well, I don’t think this gag would have worked as well if they looked a bit more different.
Here, just see for yourself.
It’s been done since then, including with Harpo himself on I Love Lucy, but that’s some genius comedy right there.
Duck Soup only runs a little over an hour. That’s fine. As a sample of the Marx Brothers-style of comedy, you could do a lot worse but probably not any better.
NEXT UP: We’ve been looking at films from the 30s for a while now. Let’s jump to one of the most recent movies on the list with 1996’s Fargo for our lone Coen Brothers’ installment on the list.