Saturday, August 25, 2012


BACK-STORY:  “Duck Soup” was the last Marx Brothers’ movie made for Paramount.  It was the last film where all four brothers starred.  Zeppo gave up his fabled acting career after the film was finished.  The Marx Brothers were  never funny again.  The movie was released in 1933, coincidentally (and I do mean coincidentally) the year Hitler came to power.  The movie was banned in Italy because Mussolini was personally offended (you can’t buy publicity like that) and in Germany (as with all their films) because the brothers were Jewish.  It was directed by the only decent director that dealt with them – Leo McCarey (who did not enjoy the experience).  The movie underperformed at the box office possibly because its irreverence did not fit the Depression-era mood of the populace and its anti-government satire ran up against the optimistic mood of the early New Deal.  Critics were pretty brutal and the movie was not highly thought of until a revival in the 1960s.  Today it is considered to be the Marx Brothers’ masterpiece and is ranked #60 (up from #85) on AFIs most recent list of great American movies.  It is #5 on the Comedy list.  The title apparently comes from a slang term meaning an easy task.

Margaret Dumont - one of the great straight ladies
OPENING:  The fictitious European country of Freedonia is going bankrupt and the governing council pleads with the wealthy Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) to float a loan.  Teasdale inexplicably insists that Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) be appointed the new ruler.  Meanwhile, Ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern) from neighboring Sylvania is plotting to marry Teasdale and foment a war. 

SUMMARY:  Firefly’s personal assistant Bob Roland (Zeppo) gets the festivities started by breaking into a song to announce the arrival of Firefly. (Couldn’t they have at least given Zeppo a funny name?)  Let the anarchy begin.  Firefly arrives via a fire station pole and the percentage of sentences coming from his mouth that are jokes is going to be well over 90% for the rest of the movie.  He reminds one of Robin Williams, but Groucho’s lines are obviously well crafted instead of improvised.  The second song soon follows the first as the crowd sings the Freedonian National Anthem.  “Hail, hail Freedonia, land of the brave and free”.  Fortunately, the songs will be spaced out after this.

Trentino has hired Chicolini (Chico) and Pinky (Harpo) as spies.  He meets with them and suffers verbal and physical abuse from the worst secret agents in history and yet sends them back to keep an eye on Firefly.  Harpo’s schtick includes using scissors to snip things.  Hilarious?  

Rufus T. Firefly
                Firefly hosts a cabinet meeting, but shockingly takes little interest in efficiently running the country.  It looks like Teasdale has chosen unwisely.  Oh well, what woman would not have been seduced by Groucho’s charms (and constant insults)?  For example, later in the movie when he imagines marriage to Teasdale he tells her: “I can see you right now in the kitchen, bending over a hot stove, but I can't see the stove."

                Next comes the famous lemonade stand scene where Chicolini and Pinky abuse the hapless nearby lemonade stand owner played by Laurel and Hardy foil Edgar Kennedy.  Classic physical comedy – vaudeville style!  Just don’t ask what the Hell this has to do with anything.  Oh, that’s right,  it’s an analogy for how countries treat each other before going to war!  Thank you, critics.  I would not have picked up on that.  It looked like nonsense to my untrained eyes. 

 Firefly appoints Chicolini Secretary of War so he can have humorous exchanges with him.  Mission accomplished!  Firefly decides to insult Trentino out of the country so he can have Teasdale’s millions to himself.  Instead, Firefly provokes himself into causing war with Sylvania. 

Trentino, Firefly, and Teasdale
Later that night, Dumont tries to reconcile the two men and at first Firefly is amenable.  He utters one of the great WTF lines in cinema when he says "Well, maybe I am a little headstrong, but I come by it honestly. My father was a little headstrong, my mother was a little armstrong.  The headstrongs married the armstrongs and that's why darkies were born." (Before you write your congressman:  My research reveals this was a reference to the popular hit from 1931 entitled “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” sung by Kate Smith and meant as an anti-racism song.  Do not look for it on your local jukebox.)  The attempt at reconciliation collapses resulting in Firefly’s declaration “This means war!”  Followed by the screamingly funny:  “Go, and never darken my towels again!”  Groucho rules!

The next scene is Chicolini and Pinky sneaking into Teasdale’s house to steal the war plans.  Harpo briefly (mercifully)  plucks the strings of her piano in lieu of a harp, but Chico does not play the piano.  (Two reasons why this is my favorite Marx Brothers’ movie.)  Both Chicolini and Pinky find reasons to disguise themselves as Firefly and the iconic mirror scene ensues.  Enjoy the extended period when Groucho does not say a word.  It must have been a record.

Chicolini is put on trial so the screenwriters can show off their puns.  For instance:

Firefly: Chicolini, give me a number from one to ten.
Chicolini: Eleven.
Chicolini: Now I aska you one. What is it has a trunk, but no key, weighs 2,000 pounds and lives in the circus
Firefly: Right.?
Prosecutor (unwittingly supplying the correct answer): That's ir-relevant.
Chicolini: Irr-elephant? Hey, that'sa the answer! There's a whole lotta irr-elephants in the circus.
Minister/Judge: That sort of testimony we can eliminate.
Chicolini: Thats-a fine. I'll take some.
Minister/Judge: You'll take what?
Chicolini: Eliminate. A nice, cool glass eliminate.

"all God's chillun got guns"

                The trial is interrupted by news that Sylvania has declared war.  This, of course, results in a big production number aping a minstrel show.  The song is “Freedonia’s Going to War” and is one of the few moments in the film that can clearly be determined to be purposeful satire.  The number makes fun of nationalism in general and the initial enthusiasm for war when countries reach that stage.  (This was the only musical number in their films where all four Marx Brothers participated.)  It is also theorized that the production is satirizing the Berkeley numbers popular back then.

Firefly as Scoutmaster
CLOSING:  Suddenly the war is well underway.  Firefly is leading from what looks like an isolated farmhouse that is under fire.  The one-liners are flying like the bullets and shells.  Some authentic looking soldiers are actually included, but Firefly is dressed alternatively as a Rebel infantryman, Yankee general, British palace guard, Scoutmaster, and Davy Crockett.  Things are not looking well until Trentino is captured leading an assault on the headquarters.  Don’t ask why an ambassador is leading an assault.  The boys pelt him with fruit until he concedes defeat.  Teasdale breaks into a victory aria and is likewise pelted.

Acting -  C
Action -  4/10
Accuracy – are you kidding?
Realism -  see above
Plot -  C
Humor -  A

Overall -  B-

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?  It totally depends on their opinion of the Marx Brothers.  This film is actually less female friendly than their other movies.  There is no romantic subplot.  Both females are cringe-worthy.  Teasdale is either clueless about Firefly’s nonstop insults or accepts them because she is infatuated with him.  Not exactly a feminist.  Trentino’s paramour Vera (Raquel Torres) is femme fatale lite and seems to be in the movie purely to add cleavage.  I cannot imagine very many women under age fifty enjoying this movie.

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  The movie is a thinly disguised retelling of the Franco-Prussian War.  Firefly represents Otto Von Bismarck and Teasdale is Queen Victoria.  Just kidding.

CRITIQUE:  This is the best Marx Brothers’ movie, in my opinion.  I am not a big fan of the musical interludes and romantic subplots that tend to bring their films to a screeching halt.  “Duck Soup” has less of those weaknesses.  The movie is manic with its mix of sight gags, slapstick, one-liners, and puns.  Many of the jokes are laugh out loud funny which is unusual for a movie that goes back to the 1930s.  Of course, you also have a few groaners.  However, the percentage of jokes that work is surprisingly high.  Many of the lines are classics.  Officially the top ones (determined by AFI) are the following:

    • Firefly:  Remember, you're fighting for this woman's honor, which is probably more than she ever did."
    • Firefly to Vera:  "I could dance with you ‘til the cows come home. On second thought, I'd rather dance with the cows ‘til you came home."
    •  Fierfly: "I suggest that we give him ten years in Leavenworth, or eleven years in Twelveworth."
            Chicolini: "I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll take five and ten in Woolworth."
Unfortunately, other than the fact that it is a very funny movie, it is not a very good movie.  The acting is average.  Groucho and Chico are fine, but I always have found Harpo to be grating.  You have to admire Dumont and Calhern for being able to keep a straight face and maintain their composure.  The rest of the cast is mostly people they could have picked up off the street.  This is embarrassingly apparent during the big musical number where it looks like it was not rehearsed much.  Speaking of which, many of the scenes look like they were done in one take.  This should not be surprising considering we are talking about the Marx Brothers.
Technically speaking, the movie does not stand out.  The cinematography is pedestrian.  It is crisp black and white, but nothing special.  The score (was there one?) is forgettable.  The plot exists only to go from one comedy premise to another.  Much of it makes no sense (imagine telling this to Groucho).  A good example is that Trentino supposedly wants war as an  excuse for conquering Freedonia and plots throughout to accomplish this.  Yet, in several instances, his character tries to avoid war.  But who expects consistency in a Marx Brothers’ movie, right?
The movie is highly rated mainly because it is considered to be a scathing satire of government and war.  This is debatable and may have been read into the movie by later interpreters.  It is telling that it was not until the 60’s that most critics “discovered” its brilliant satire.  People conveniently overlook the fact that it was released in 1933 at a time that Hitler was barely known in America and certainly had not revealed his villainy.  As far as Mussolini, he was still in his “he makes the trains run on time” phase where he was more praised than condemned.  It is going too far to credit the Marx Brothers with targeting fascism for satire.  Groucho’s Firefly is nowhere near Chaplin’s Hynkel from “The Great Dictator”.  It is very hard to conceive of the character as being a parody of Mussolini.  Obviously, the movie has nothing to say about World War II, but even World War I is problematical.  Certainly you can make a case for the “Freedonia Going to War” number being critical of the enthusiasm that Europeans felt for war in 1914, but that type of nationalism is pretty generic.  This would also apply to the famous line by Firefly:  “There must be a war – I’ve paid a month’s rent on the battlefield.”  The strongest connection to WWI is when Firefly sends Pinky out to the front and snidely says that “while you’re out there risking life and limb through shot and shell, we’ll be here thinking what a sucker you are.”  If meant to be, this is as good an indictment of the misuse of European young men as you can find.  Before you pat the Marx Brothers on the back for “sticking it to the man”, consider the fact that when asked about the satirical nature of the film, Groucho replied that “Duck Soup” was just “four Jews trying to get a laugh.”  Sometimes it’s just that simple.  By the way, did you know that “The Naked Gun” was an indictment of the corruption of the Los Angeles Police Department?
CONCLUSION:  “Duck Soup” is overrated as the 5th best comedy of all time according to AFI, but it certainly is in the top 100 comedies.  It is very funny (or specifically, Groucho and Chico are funny).   I am not sure it belongs in the 100 Greatest War Movies.  I have to assume the Military History panel bought into the revisionist belief that it is brilliant satire.  I do not buy that the Marx Brothers intended the movie to be recognized as a great anti-war movie.  I take Groucho at his word that they were trying to make a funny movie without a deep meaning.  It is absolutely criminal that “Dr. Strangelove” is #94 and “Duck Soup” is #27.  On what planet is that justifiable?  For that matter, where is the vastly superior “To Be or Not To Be”?

POSTER:  Good.  Kudos for including Zeppo.  B

 the trailer
TRAILER:  Gets the manic nature right, but does not give the slightest clue what the movie is about.  Plus it advertises it as a musical show, which it is not.   D
the mirror scene


10.  Mr. Roberts

9.    Good Morning, Vietnam

8.    Catch-22

7.    Duck Soup

6.    Kelly’s Heroes

5.    Stripes

4.    MASH

3.    To Be or Not To Be

2.    Dr. Strangelove

1.    Tropic Thunder


                   Readers might want to look back at this year’s March Madness competition that determined that “Tropic Thunder” is the best war comedy.  Start here: "March Madness: War Comedies"  
Reminder:  you can follow me on twitter -  @warmoviebuff 


  1. Once again, the critics (1) broaden the criteria to include their favorites, and (2) find deeper meaning than what was probably intended. (And, once again, my litany about how movies are a Rorschach test, and people, especially professional critics, see what they want). Marx Brothers satire was broad-based, and not about specific political issues. OK, the "country's going to war" scene could be a satire of war mania, but the Marxes made fun of everything, and "everything" includes war. Duck Soup bombed in 1933, and got taken up by the liberal intellectuals in the 1960's. Suddenly, the brothers were symbols of rebellion and protest. Their admirers have actually made the Marxes seem more pretentious than they ever were.

  2. Totally agree. Except it wasn't quite the bomb people assume it was. That's why I said it underperformed. You have to admire Groucho's response to the chatter that the movie was deep. A lot of Hollywood types would have agreed with critics citing how awesome their satire was.

    1. "Bomb" was probably too strong a term. But my impression is that it was a box office disappointment. Two books ("Movie Comedy Teams" by Leonard Maltin and "The Marx Brothers at the Movies" by Paul Zimmerman and Burt Goldblatt) said that Duck Soup's underperformance was why the brothers' contract with Paramount was not renewed when it expired. But then, those same authors considered the movie to be an anti-war satire, and blamed its underperformance on the general unpopularity of political satire in 1933. The movie is just not that overtly political. For a lot of critics and film historians, though, the idea that Duck Soup is an anti-war (and anti-Nazi) statement is the emperor's new clothes.

  3. I've only seen your war comedy no 1 which I thought was hilarious, really funny. Whether I will like the others or not is something I'll find out in the future.
    I have never seen a Marx Brothers movie and for some reasons I have a feeling I will not like them at all

  4. Try "Duck Soup" for your first Marx Brothers movie. Freedonia is a lot like where you live. I am pretty sure you would like To Be or Not To Be and Dr. Strangelove. I am not sure about the rest

  5. Five years later...
    It should be noted that the Brothers were toying with the idea of adapting "Of Thee I Sing," a politically satirical Broadway musical, for the screen. When that fell through, they turned to the ideas that would become "Duck Soup." So, one could argue that they had political satire on their minds from the start.


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