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Film Friday: The Marx Brothers in 'Duck Soup' directed by Leo McCarey

By Daniel S Levine,

If comedy is supposed to be harder to do than drama, the Marx Brothers certainly didn't make it look that way. Groucho, Chico and Harpo could probably make you burst into laughter just by standing straight – they were just naturally funny. Duck Soup, their final film at Paramount and also last one with Zeppo, is widely regarded as their best film. It is literally 69 minutes of non-stop comedy. There is no time for seriousness here, but plenty of time for fighting in the war room.

Released in 1933, the film was directed by Leo McCarey, who is much better known today for the sappy romantic melodrama An Affair To Remember, the 1944 Best Picture winner Going My Way and the classic screwball comedy The Awful Truth. But McCarey cut his teeth as a filmmaker with Laurel and Hardy, so he knew a thing or two about insane comedy. Teaming him with the Marx Brothers seems like a no-brainer and after seeing Duck Soup, you wish they worked together again.

The plot has nothing to do with ducks and nothing to do with soup. It takes place in the mythical land of Freedonia, which has gone bankrupt, only kept afloat by a wealthy widow, Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont). The government is going to ask her for another loan, but she'll only give them the money if they replace the prime minister with Rufus T. Firefly (Graucho). They pick Firefly to lead the country through its troubles. Meanwhile, the neighboring country of Sylvania is ready to go to war with Freedonia, so Ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern) sends his spies (Chico and Harpo) to learn about Firefly. Trentino hopes he can take Firefly away from Teasdale and marry her, thereby cutting off Freedonia's money supply.

Now that we get the business of plot out of the way, you can truly enjoy the Marx Brothers' complete lunacy. While the screenplay by Bert Kelmar and Harry Ruby is an early example of political satire in film, the witty dialogue from Graucho and the physical comedy of Chico and Harop completely dominate your attention. For Graucho's part, what makes his scenes work is the twisting of anything the straight man (or woman) is saying. And the genius of it is making scripted dialogue feel like it came right from his head, as if he thought it up on the spot. “I could dance with you until the cows come home,” he tells Margaret Dumont. “On second thought, I'd rather dance with the cows till you come home.” In other scenes, he plays off Zeppo, who plays Firefly's sectary. While telling him to write a letter to his dentist, Gaucho says, “Dear dentist, enclosed find check for $500, yours very truly. Send that off immediately.” To which Zeppo replies, “I'll have to enclose a check first.” “You do and I'll fire you,” he replies.

On the Chico front, it is partly about his scenes with Graucho (he does get appointed as Secretary of War, after all), but it's also his hilarious work with Harpo. Their scenes together are comedy gold. I'm pretty sure I could watch an entire movie of the two of them torturing that poor lemonade salesman.

Of course, when all three of them finally get together towards the end of the film, that's when things really get funny. There's the priceless “mirror scene” and the hilarious sequence in the government headquarters. In the final ten minutes of the movie, we get a short glimpse of what a Marx Brothers war movie would be like, with Graucho wearing different military costumes in every scene and Harpo finding one last way to ridicule the lemonade salesman. It's comedy genius, partly because of the brothers but also because of the way McCarey stages it.

Every time I watch Duck Soup, part of me wishes it was longer, but then I realize that it is the perfect length. For a film that cares so little of its own plot, any extra length might feel like overkill. The brothers were always about pushing the envelope, but having a skilled director like McCarey putting the movie together helps reel them in. Unlike MGM, which would later limit the brothers by throwing in romantic subplots and songs, McCarey limits them with time.

On Home Video: Duck Soup and the other four movies they made for Paramount are owned by Universal, which has released them all individually and in collections. Earlier this year, Universal released a budget edition of the collection that squeezes Duck Soup, Horse Feathers and Monkey Business on one disc and The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers on another.

Duck Soup is one of the top 10 greatest comedies of all time and if you think of it as political satire, you could even put in the same class as Doctor Strangelove. But the Marx Brothers were always in a class of themselves and Duck Soup is the ultimate example of that.

 
 

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