1 Year, 100 Movies #60 Duck Soup (1933)

by Trey Hock on November 14, 2010

in 1 Year, 100 Movies,Columns

For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!

I have seen “Duck Soup” many times. It was my first introduction to the Marx Brothers in high school and I think it’s still arguably their best film. Because I bring a lot of positive and nostalgic baggage to this particular film, I knew I needed some back up on this entry for 1 year, 100 Movies. I invited my good friend Scott Johnson, a buddy from film school and an exceptionally talented 1st AC. This was Scott’s first foray into the world of the Marx Brothers, but he’s a huge Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton fan. His familiarity with this era in film made him the perfect person to keep my gushing in check.

Made in 1933, “Duck Soup” is the story of Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx), a bumbling politician who finds himself appointed leader of the bankrupt Freedonia, a mythical country. Once in power Firefly is tailed by two spies, Chicolini (Chico Marx) and Pinky (Harpo Marx), from neighboring Sylvania. These two spies change sides depending on the prevailing forces in the room. All the while Firefly continues to mount a campaign for war against Sylvania, because of his personal disagreement with Sylvanian Ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern) over the wealthy Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont).

With this description of the plot I have already given way too much credit to the overall narrative, which is super thin. “Duck Soup” like all Marx Brothers movies is a screwball, gag-based comedy. So let’s get to the gags.

Groucho’s entire persona is built around his word play and one-liners. Here is Firefly’s introduction, which showcases Groucho’s tempo and delivery. (Sound starts at 5 seconds.)

Groucho toys with language, in a way that most wordy comedians only dream of. It’s not just that he’s fast on the draw, but there is a rhythm and poetry to the way Groucho delivers his dialogue. It has a musical quality to it.

Chico and Harpo as the Sylvanian spies have a number of their own moments. The first comes when they are called in for a status report on their mission to find information that will discredit Firefly. The helpfulness of their update to the ambassador is questionable at best.

With their second chance to shadow Firefly, Chico sets up a peanut stand outside Firefly’s office, but when Harpo returns without any new information, the argument that ensues begins to affect the neighboring vendor.

It’s hard to argue against these two bits. The beauty and gracefulness of the hat scene add to its hilarity. Both Scott and I love the bits, which showcase Chico and Harpo, but though they are great bits they do little to push the actual story along.

I think the overall movie suffers because you have to pay homage to each of those characters, because they are three brothers they all have to play their part. I understand you can’t have a Groucho Marx movie without Harpo or Chico, but it slows down the big story. –Scott

One lengthy bit, which is integrated in only the most cursory way, was far and away our favorite, and perhaps one of the most perfect examples of visual comedy ever filmed. Chico and Harpo, in an attempt to infiltrate Mrs. Teasdale’s home, dress as Firefly, but must avoid being caught by the real Firefly.

This is a dance. This is art. Just think of how difficult this would be to execute with the level of precision that Groucho and Harpo achieve, but the mirror scene also makes a statement about the Marx Brothers themselves.

The mirror scene shows the interchangeability of their roles, that as vaudevillians each brother chose their own role. –Trey

Harpo’s the silent guy. Groucho’s got the one-liners. –Scott

And Chico’s the ethnic guy. This bit reveals all of this as shtick. –Trey

Or as Roger Ebert puts it:

Groucho was such an artificial creation, with his bold slash of a greasepaint mustache, his eyebrows and his cigar. His look was so bizarre it wasn’t makeup so much as a mask; there are times during the mirror sequence in “Duck Soup” when we have to ask ourselves, which one is the real Groucho.

Now prepare to have your mind blown even further. Scott made this little query as to the motivation of each character within the mirror scene.

Are they both trying to trick each other in the mirror, or is Groucho trying to trick Harpo, while Harpo is just mimicking Groucho’s attempted trickery? –Scott

We’re in the moebius strip. This thought had me up all night.

The final war scene is a marathon, which has Groucho changing costume with almost every shot. He wears historic garb from America’s past, all the while defending himself and Freedonia with the clumsiness of a cowardly politician.

With the final moments after accidentally winning a war that was entered over personal pride, the Marx Brothers hurl fruit at Mrs. Teasdale, dressed as Lady Liberty.

If they want to end up by accidentally winning a war and throwing fruit at an image of Lady Liberty, well they’ll just take the long way around, through gag after gag after gag to get them there, but then ultimately that image itself is now hilarious and still powerful. –Trey

To pitch the idea of marring an image of America would have been touchy. Even this one small moment has a significant amount of bite to it. The gags, which build or distract en route to this final moment, are the sugar, which makes this final visual critique palatable.

Still this is a gag heavy film and Scott had this to say about “Duck Soup” as a whole.

I think if I was flipping the channels and I caught this on TCM, I’m not sure that I would have finished it, because I don’t know that I would have caught on to the story. I know I would have watched a bit, some of the gags, then gone on. I’m biased because “Modern Times” is in my top films. It’s hard to argue with Chaplin’s filmmaking prowess, but these Marx Brothers are built for the gags, and that’s what this movie is. –Scott

Scott’s right. If you want a more delicate balance between story and individual gags, then go with Chaplin, but if you want hilarious moments strung together with only enough story to get you from one to the other, then check out “Duck Soup.”

Next on the list “Nashville” (1975)

1 Year, 100 Movies #61 Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

1 Years, 100 Movies #62 American Graffiti (1973)

1 Year, 100 Movies #63 Cabaret (1972)

1 Year, 100 Movies #64 Network (1976)

1 Year, 100 Movies #65 The African Queen (1951)

1 Year, 100 Movies #66 Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

1 Year, 100 Movies #67 Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

1 Year, 100 Movies #68 Unforgiven (1992)

1 Year, 100 Movies #69 Tootsie (1982)

For links to #70 – 79, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #70 A Clockwork Orange (1971)

For links to #80 – 89, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #80 The Apartment (1960)

For links to #90 – 100, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #90 Swing Time (1936)

In addition to contributing to Scene-Stealers, Trey makes short films and teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute. Follow him here:

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Greg November 15, 2010 at 12:31 pm

I just happened to watch this the other night (Netflix instant!) and I have to say I don’t get the love. I mean I get it to a degree as many of the ‘bits’ were very funny. The vendor scene, the mirror scene, and the ambassador update scene you mentioned stand out. Groucho’s dialouge especially was exceptional as you outlined. I feel like you could watch the clips in this post, though, and pretty much have it. This is what makes lists like these tough, I’ve seen a hundred movies I like better in the least few years.

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