Written by: Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, Arthur Sheekman, Nat Perrin
Starring: Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, Zeppo Marx, Margaret Dumont
Politics deals with very serious matters and dictates the way people think and live. It indicates why so many people get invested in the elected political leaders as their decisions make the largest impact on what taxation will look like and whether the sovereign nation will go to war. As serious as these matters may be, leave it to the Marx brothers to take the mundanity of it all and turn it into, for my money, the funniest films ever made.
Freedonia faces bankruptcy as a nation and the wealthy widow of the last successful leader, Mrs.Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) decides to grant the country much-needed aid with a condition. The current leadership must resign and the great Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) must be given the reins to lead the nation. This change in power occurs as the country Sylvania tries to annex Freedonia and has its spies try to take down the new leader.
When a nation gets to the point of depending on one constituent to help them out financially, they cannot be taken seriously, which allows for the introduction of Rufus to be exactly what they deserve. Mrs. Teasdale builds him up as a man of great stature who will be exactly what Freedonia needs and then out comes good old Rufus. He does not waste much time highlighting the greatest factor of the comedy the Marx brothers employ. A non-stop barrage of jokes. It begins right away with Rufus essentially insulting Mrs. Teasdale right to her face along with the ambassador to Sylvania, Trentino (Louis Calhern). Some of these piercing jokes were shocking but the pair cannot completely comprehend the malice coming from Rufus. This sequence along with nearly everything else in the film shows the difference between the normal characters in these movies and then what the brothers portray.
Rufus continues to make a mockery of all governmental affairs while Chicolini (Chico Marx) and Pinky (Harpo Marx) get hired as spies to get dirt on the new Freedonian leader. Their antics do not fall in the typical style of spying, as they are pretty terrible at it. Instead, they spend most of the movie messing with others in a truly hilarious way. The fact these three get asked to do anything of major importance sums up the “normal” characters. For some reason, people seem to trust Rufus in Freedonia to be the one to help them prosper and Trentino somehow believes Chicolini and Pinky will eventually deliver on their work of acquiring damning information. It all becomes a farce of political moves and the Marx brothers are the only ones in on the joke.
Duck Soup contains so many hilarious sequences where the Marx brothers display what makes them special. They manage to do a perfect combination of silent physical comedy along with incredibly biting jokes. Rufus goes on runs where he jokingly insults everyone in the room while they smile right back at him but then there is the physical comedy primarily done as if watching a silent film. The standouts include when Chicolini and Pinky mess with a lemonade vendor as they run an operation of a peanut stand along with the fake mirror scene. Sound becomes immaterial and it all hinges on what can be seen with meticulously choreographed moments of comedic brilliance. The mirror scene, in particular, comes as the exclamation point to an entire sequence where Pinky and Chicolini try to impersonate Rufus by putting on his pajamas and obviously fake mustache. It leads to Rufus walking by a mirror trying to ensure the image he sees before him is his actual reflection and not someone else. A sequence with no basis in reality, as there’s no way the impersonator could possibly know every jerk movement Rufus would do to trick him but the way it shifts proves to be funnier as it continues.
Timing becomes a key to Duck Soup as many comedies have trouble cutting off a sequence when it begins to become unfunny. This film, however, times everything perfectly. Continuing to examine the mirror scene displays it, as it can easily get to the point where it no longer becomes funny but the dynamism of the bit keeps it going in inventive ways that further show how each of these characters are in on the joke. No sequence feels like it goes on for too long, which is truly impressive especially considering the incredibly short runtime of the movie overall.
It’s difficult to pick a favorite performer in this feature because each of the brothers brings their own strength and comedic value. Groucho has the mouthy Rufus and he delivers some of the fiercest and intelligent jokes I have ever heard. Chico portrays Chicolini who never quite does stop talking for his own good and Harpo plays Pinky who does everything physically, as he does not speak. Harpo goes all in with this character and those fierce scissors as he seeks to ridicule everyone else in the story. The greatest of them all, however, may be Margaret Dumont as Mrs. Teasdale. She, more than anyone else, must be the proverbial “straight man” to the ridiculous Marx brothers and delivers her sincere dialogue in such a perfect manner. I’m not sure how she could keep her composure with the ridiculous things she needed to take seriously. Mrs. Teasdale is integral to the film’s success because she demonstrates someone with actual pride in the nation of Freedonia unlike the three other knuckleheads just looking to mess around. Their contrasts continually add to the humor in such a delightful manner.
The order is up and Duck Soup proves to be a winning dish. It displays the Marx brothers at the height of their powers and ability to have both physical and joke comedy come together with a true farce of a story. The film takes great glee in making fun of governmental bodies and does so successfully when looking at how a jokester like Rufus could be put in charge. No joke misses and most of it has aged incredibly well since the 1940s. Combining all of its attributes displays a film that had me laughi