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DUCK SOUP, 1933
Directed by Leo McCarey
Starring: The Marx Brothers
Review by Steven Painter
The fictional country of Freedonia is in financial ruins until the wealthy widow Mrs. Teasdale bails them out; under one condition, that the crazy Rufus T. Firefly runs the country. With the insane leader and inept spies from a neighboring country trying to steal top-secret information, chaos ensues.
Today Duck Soup (1933) is regarded as a comedy classic. In all the lists that discuss the top comedy movies of all-time Duck Soup always seems to make it. In fact it always seems to be the only Marx Brothers movie to make lists like this, which is unfortunate because there are better Marx Brothers movies. So what makes this movie so beloved by critics? Making fun of dictators is always a good thing. That is the focus of this movie.
Groucho plays Rufus T. Firefly, who has been given the throne of Freedonia because the government is in need of some money and their only source for money is Margaret Dumont’s character Mrs. Teasdale. Mrs. Teasdale will only loan the money if Firefly is named head of Freedonia. Of course her wish is granted.It is a gala day in Freedonia when Groucho is introduced as leader, which is a good thing because Groucho always remarked that he could only handle a gal a day. Once again, Zeppo plays Groucho’s secretary and basically only appears in the beginning and end of the movie.
After a song and dance at the introduction of Groucho as the leader, he is told that he must go to a cabinet meeting. Here we have a classic Looney Tunes gag. Groucho calls for his car and Harpo pulls up on a motorcycle with passenger car. Groucho gets in the car and Harpo starts the motorcycle. The motorcycle pulls away, but the car remains where it is.
This is the first of several gags that Looney Tunes would take from this movie. We are then introduced to Chico and Harpo’s characters who are spies for Freedonia’s rival nation Sylvania. Ambassador Trentino has hired the two to spy on Groucho. Harpo plays around with the Ambassador as Chico tells him a story of how the two shadowed Groucho. By the end of the story Trentino is disappointed in them, but vows to give them a second chance. To thank him, Harpo cuts off some of Trentino’s hair, spreads glue across his rear end and shakes hands with him using a mouse trap.
Harpo and Chico decide to start their spying by opening a peanut stand right under Groucho’s window. Here we have some good comedy between the peanut vendors and Edgar Kennedy’s character, the lemonade vendor. They have a big discussion about who should be selling under Groucho’s window. They end up exchanging hats and Kennedy’s hat is placed in the fire used to roast peanuts by Harpo.
Groucho finds out that Trentino is making moves on Mrs. Teasdale, so he decides to fight him so he can be kicked out of the country. Trentino ends up getting slapped, and threatens to leave the country, much to Groucho’s delight. Unfortunately for him, Mrs. Teasdale steps in and he remains.
Later, Groucho is called to Mrs. Teasdale’s where Trentino offers an apology for insulting Groucho. But when Trentino calls Groucho an “upstart” again, Groucho slaps him. In the famous words of Bugs Bunny, Trentino proclaims “This means war!” With that threat, battle plans are drawn. It is Trentino’s idea to get those battle plans, so he sends Chico and Harpo to Mrs. Teasdale’s to get them.
In the most famous scene of the movie, Harpo and Chico break into Mrs. Teasdale’s house and have to each dress up like Groucho to get the battle plans. Harpo is able to get the combination to Mrs. Teasdale’s safe, but is unable find the safe with the battle plans. Instead, he finds a radio that blares one of the loudest renditions of “Stars and Stripes Forever.” Scared, and with Groucho chasing him, Harpo runs into a mirror and brakes it. Since this is the Marx Brothers there is no glass lying around. Just Harpo, in Groucho disguise, staring at the real Groucho. Looney Tunes, and actually the Marx Brothers themselves, would steal this routine of one character trying to mimic the other character’s actions in a broken mirror. It was a famous vaudeville routine that was used by such comedians like Charlie Chaplin, and even made it into a few other film comedies, but the routine is now best known as a Marx Bros. bit.
As it ends up, Chico distracts Harpo and Groucho figures out he isn’t looking at a reflection of himself. Chico is brought to trial for treason and is close to being found guilty, but Mrs. Teasdale breaks in to say that Trentino is coming once again to try for peace. Groucho works himself up and ends up slapping Trentino before the man is able to utter a single word. It is now on to war.
After a big song and dance, in which Zeppo appears again, war starts. Harpo gets the word out about the war, Chico is working for the other side but decides to come back because Freedonia has better food and Groucho is managing the war while changing wardrobes after every shot.
The movie ends with the four brothers in Mrs. Teasdale’s place. They are there to defend her honor, “which is more than she ever did,” as Groucho says. They end up finding Trentino trying to invade the place and with his capture the war ends happily for Freedonia.
With all the jokes in this movie that have been taken by Looney Tunes it has been praised today by critics. But at the time, Duck Soup was a critical and commercial failure. It led to Paramount dropping the Brothers. For many years Groucho disliked the movie, but because it does contain routines that have become so well known and it does poke fun at dictators and it also lacks Harpo playing the harp and Chico playing the piano, Duck Soup gained a special place in Groucho’s heart near the end of his lifetime. It should reach a similar place if you are a lover of good comedies.