Directed by: Leo McCarey
Premise: A Marx Brothers film in which Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) becomes leader of the fictional country of Freedonia and goes to war with neighbor Sylvania.
What Works: The Marx Brothers are one of the essential comedy troupes in American cinema and Duck Soup is among the brothers’ best work. Their comic style is best described as absurd and anarchic and Duck Soup applies their unique brand of humor to politics and war. Something important to know about Duck Soup is that it was originally released in 1933, placing it after World War I but before World War II, and the characters and scenarios of the film are clearly informed by the earlier war. The sets and costumes are indicative of the pre-World War I era and the absurd series of events in the film that lead to a war between Freedonia and Sylvania reflect the confusing alliances and hostilities that had embroiled much of Europe and Northern Africa in a disastrous conflict. As a movie about World War I, Duck Soup suggests that the war is to be understood as a farce; just as World War I was fought over no compelling principle and was resolved with no tangible goal achieved, the battle of Duck Soup begins over a personal slight and ends on a physical gag. There are no heroes, just a group of bumbling idiots reacting to each other. When Duck Soup was released it was considered somewhat crass as it depicted governmental and military figures as buffoons and warfare as a comedy of errors. Viewing the film now, at a time when everyone is expected to speak of warfare and the military with nothing but solemnity, Duck Soup remains a rebellious piece of filmmaking. Despite the fact that Duck Soup springs out of a specific historical period and the fact that comedy generally doesn’t age well this film remains very funny. In much the same way that Dr. Strangelove retains its ability to amuse decades after the end of the Cold War, Duck Soup is also still able to make the viewer laugh. The politics of the film are light (this is not an Oliver Stone picture) and the Marx brothers never lose sight of their goal: to make the audience laugh. The quick, witty banter between Rufus T. Firefly and Chicolini (Groucho Marx and Chico Marx) is funnier than a lot of contemporary sitcom writing and there are plenty of bits that have nothing to do with war. This film includes a number of classic lines of dialogue and the mirror gag is an often imitated comedy bit. The fact that Duck Soup includes this lighthearted and even frivolous content and then juxtaposes it with a war makes the film all the more subversive and even a little unnerving.
What Doesn’t: The set pieces involving Pinky and a concession salesman (Edgar Kennedy) are the one bit of comedy that has not aged well. These scenes don’t seem to fit into the film and exist primarily to give Harpo Marx something to do. The scenes are brief and in and of themselves they are funny but they also come across as filler.
DVD extras: There are multiple versions of the film available. The complete cut available on home video runs 68 minutes and includes a trailer.
Bottom Line: Duck Soup is a comedy classic and its influence can be seen in everything from Saturday Night Live and Monty Python to Loony Tunes and South Park. It is also a subversive film that can still make the audience laugh.
Episode: #390 (June 3, 2012)