Dir: Leo McCarey
Star: Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, Margaret Dumont
First off, why the hell is it called Duck Soup. It contains no ducks or soup of significance. It’s not as if the Marx Brothers go for obscurist titles. A Day at the Races is about… yeah, a day at the races. However, per Wikipedia, “duck soup” used to be slang for something which was easy to do. I’m still not quite sure of the relevance to this film, but it is at least an explanation. I guess it continues the animal theme, e.g. Horse Feathers. Considering this dates from a point in time considerably closer to the American Civil War than the present day, we should expect anachronisms. Eyebrows were raised when it opened with Paramount proudly stating they support the NRA. Only, it’s not that NRA, it’s the National Recovery Administration. And I’m still getting my brain around this Groucho Marx line: “The Headstrongs married the Armstrongs, and that’s why darkies were born.” Okay. And moving rapidly on.
The film takes place in the mythical state of Freedonia, where Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) gets anointed leader after a financial crisis. The only woman willing to bail out the country, Mrs. Teasdale (Dumont), insists on his appointment as the price of her support. Ambassador Trentino of the neighbouring land of Sylvania, schemes against Firefly, whose popularity threatens his plans to destabilize Freedonia, and sends spies Chicolini (Chico) and Pinky (Harpo) in to find dirt on the head of state. Things escalate between Trentino and Firefly, to the point war breaks out between the two countries.
Though it’s a war of a curiously inept kind, in which nobody every gets hurt. Hey, it’s a comedy, after all. You do have to put this in its historical context. The Great War had ended less than a generation previously, but the clouds of conflict were beginning to form over Europe again (Mussolini took the film’s comedy personally, and banned it in Italy). With the Depression getting under way too, a sense of cynicism about politics, politicians and those who seek to foment situations for their own benefit is understandable. It’s perhaps notable this wasn’t critically acclaimed at the time, but gained popularity in the counter-cultural sixties.
Large chunks – though certainly not all – are still funny. Groucho’s blistering insults: “You haven’t stopped talking since I came here. You must have been vaccinated with a phonograph needle.” [Kids! Ask your grandparents!] Harpo’s slapstick, culminating in the mirror scene. The trial that degenerates into a glorious musical parody, called All God’s Chillun Got Guns. It arguably makes for a better anti-war satire than Dr. Strangelove; then again, “Kubrick” and “over-rated” kinda go hand in hand for me. It doesn’t all work, to be sure – frankly, all the other songs fell into that category – yet at 70 minutes, there’s hardly an ounce of fat. It slides deftly between the different styles of humour, and the old saying definitely applies here. If you don’t like one joke, don’t worry – there’ll be another along in a minute.