“Take two turkeys, one goose, four cabbages, but no duck, and mix them together. After one taste, you’ll duck soup the rest of your life.” Groucho Marx (on the title)
Groucho Marx, on being asked on the significance of the politics in Duck Soup shrugged, “What significance? We were just four Jews trying to get a laugh,” and ladled derision on anyone who attempted to read higher meaning into its admittedly berserk plot.
Watching in the present day it can be tempting to agree with him but, enmeshed inside the films’ double entendres, comic violence and musical numbers, is a vicious skewering of everything from war, government and diplomacy to the very notion of patriotism. All of this was a bold stand for a comedy (or indeed any) movie to take in America circa 1933. The American public was still reeling from the aftermath of the Great Depression and the insinuation that world leaders were cynical idiots only out to feather their own nests at the expense of their countries struck an unpalatable nerve. Amusingly, the first draft of the film was reportedly even more explicitly cynical with Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) deliberately setting out to provoke war so as to drive up profit margins for his munitions factory. Paramount insisted on a re-write as people, “wouldn’t accept that a world leader or captain of industry could be so corrupt”. Perhaps the less said about that particular statement the better. Even in truncated form there was plenty to offend the red blooded Americans in the audience, in particular Firefly’s cheerful, “…And remember while you’re out there risking life and limb through shot and shell, we’ll be in here thinking what a sucker you are,” had bald eagles weeping tears of rage down the length and breadth of the country.
Whilst the film was not a flop, as is commonly reported (it was the sixth highest grossing film of 1933), it did do worse than their previous film (Horse Feathers) and effectively ended their relationship with Paramount. This lead the brothers to sign to MGM for their future films, who demanded the madcap action be intercut with a serious romantic subplot (because if there’s one thing people demand from a Marx Brothers movie, it’s seriousness). As a result Duck Soup can be viewed as the last of the series where the tail didn’t wag the dog. Featuring none of the usual instrumental interludes (though at one point Harpo does pluck a piano’s strings in an ominous manner) the film is a pure streamlined sprint through the brothers’ favoured brand of insanity.
The specifics of the plot are almost unimportant, but for the uninitiated: The broke Balkan republic of Freedonia are bailed out by millionaire dowager Ms. Gloria Teasdale (Margaret Dumont, the ‘fifth Marx Brother’), on the condition that they elect Rufus T. Firefly as leader. Simultaneously, the Ambassador of neighbouring Sylvania (Louis Calhern) who has designs on Freedonia hires…idiosyncratic spies Chicolini and Pinky (Chico and Harpo) to find out what they can about Firefly. Madness quickly ensues with war breaking out after the ambassador calls Firefly an upstart. None of the brothers care about anything but themselves and have a contempt for the world that borders on the psychopathic (particularly Harpo, who in one sequence involving the repeated theft of a hapless lemonade stand proprietors’ hat reduced this reviewer to tears of laughter).
Nearly every one of Groucho’s lines is absurdly quotable, and the physical comedy is of the absolute highest quality (those who haven’t seen the famous ‘mirror sequence’ owe it to themselves to drink it in at the earliest opportunity). What is amazing is how modern much of the humour is, in particular a montage displaying reinforcements arriving, featuring everything from competitive divers to rampaging elephants, would be perfectly at home in the post-Simpsons age.
Nearly all of the film is packed to bursting with a never ending, eye-watering number of jokes and even the musical numbers are filled with classic one-liners. Much to the Marx Brothers’ amusement, Mussolini took the film as a personal insult and had it banned in Italy, which isn’t bad for, “four Jews trying to get a laugh.”
Regardless of whatever the brothers’ intentions actually were, Duck Soup is an incredibly bold movie which, in addition to being hilarious, helped pave the way for everything from Dr Strangelove to Idiocracy by daring to imagine a world where world leaders could be as dumb and self-interested as any slob off the street. Perish the thought.
Duck Soup will be opening 16 January for an extended run at the BFI Southbank as part of their The Best Of Marx Brothers season.