Not for nothing is Duck Soup acclaimed as one of the greatest comedies ever, and while you’d never hold it against Marx Brothers movies for having little in the way of coherent plotting in – indeed, it’s pretty much essential to their approach – the presence of actual thematic content this time helps sharpen the edges of both their slapstick and their satire.
Trentino: There is a machine gun nest near Hill 28. I want it cleaned out.
Chicolini: All right, I’ll tell the janitor.
It is stretching things a bit to characterise Duck Soup as one of the great war satires, though, as if that were its consistent objective. Aside from a very clever sequence in which Groucho convinces himself that Ambassador Trentino’s apology is actually an insult – leading to an all-out declaration of war, highlighting that when it isn’t for reasons of acquisitiveness, conflict is invariably down to personal grievance and ego (“This means war!”) – and the knock-about succession of spins on warfare tropes during the last ten minutes, there’s little that consistently focusses on that target.
Mrs Teasdale: Oh, your Excellency!
Firefly: You’re not so bad yourself.
That said, one might argue even a scene such as Harpo’s feuding with Edgar Kennedy’s lemonade vendor is a metaphor for the escalation of hostilities until all-out destruction on property is waged. More convincingly deployed throughout is the brothers’ flying the flag of all-purpose general anarchy, once again, on display with Groucho as Rufus T Firefly, leader of Freedonia, installed because Mrs Teasdale (Margaret Dumont, of course) fancies him. She even refers to him as “a progressive, fearless leader”, when in fact, as ever, he’s only out to make a quick buck and has no qualms about sending the country into conflict based on a personal slight. It includes possibly the zenith of Groucho’s rudeness to his most estimable co-star:
Firefly: Where is your husband?
Mrs Teasdale: Why, he’s dead.
Firefly: I bet he’s just using that as an excuse.
Mrs Teasdale: I was with him until the very end.
Firefly: No wonder he passed away.
Mrs Teasdale: I held him in my arms and kissed him.
Firefly: Oh, I see. Then it was murder!
Either that or the later “Remember, you’re fighting for this woman’s honour – which is probably more than she ever did” (“Married. I can see you right now in the kitchen, bending over a hot stove. But I can’t see the stove” is also a contender). Chico and Harpo are positioned as a couple of spies, Chicolini and Pinky, for Ambassador Trentino of Sylvania (Louis Calhern). One wonders how he came to the conclusion they were suitable for the job, although their disguises on first meeting him are certainly something. Apparently, Leo McCarey (who went on to direct Charles Laughton in Ruggles of Red Gap, Cary Grant in The Awful Truth and Bob Hope in My Favourite Wife) came up with many of the most renowned elements, including Harpo cutting Trentino’s tails off and pretty much everything else of celebrated note: the mirror scene and the war satire.
Lemonade Vendor: I’ll teach you to kick me!
Chicolini: You don’t have to teach me, I know how!
Part of the reason Duck Soup stands out is that, in contrast to most of their films, where there are extraneous straight subplots or musical interludes, there’s no fat in Duck Soup; the filler, if you could call it that, simply consists of first-rate comedy bits that have nothing to do with the main narrative, such as it is. (Chico and) Harpo’s fight with the lemonade vendor is a piece of sustained genius, all the better for Kennedy acting the perfect foil as his bewilderment grows and grows in response to a piece of delirious hat-exchange business. There’s a recurring sight gag of Harpo ferrying Groucho by motorcycle and sidecar, but always leaving him stationary in the sidecar. Until finally, Groucho gets on the bike and the sidecar containing Harpo speeds off instead. At one point, a live-action dog emerges from Harpo’s kennel tattoo.
Trentino: I didn’t come here to be insulted!
Firefly: That’s what you think!
There’s little time for Harpo’s lustier proclivities. That is, until an extended scene where he’s sent to take a message through enemy lines (“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”). He stops off to get all sex-pesty towards a woman who turns out to be the lemonade vendor’s wife. Who arrives home to take a bath and finds his ablutions disturbed by a honking sound, repeating until the moment where Harpo rises from the depths playing a trumpet. Harpo also goes to bed with his horse in a bit spoofing the Hayes Code (and surely the inspiration for Norman Wisdom’s The Early Bird). And keeping up tradition, the otherwise redundant Zeppo (who gets to show off how buff he is here, if nothing else) is Firefly’s secretary Bob Roland and has one really good, well delivered line (“Oh, how we’d cry for Firefly, if Firefly should die”).
Firefly: Now, what is it that has four pairs of pants, lives in Philadelphia, and it never rains but it pours?
Chicolini: Atsa good one. I give you three guesses.
Ostensibly, it’s Groucho versus Chico and Harpo in the set-up, an arrangement The Goodies would later make their bread and butter (Graeme versus Tim and Bill). Although, this quickly falls apart as Chico is made War Minister (he’s tried for treason at one point, but is soon back on side when war breaks out, announcing he defected but has come back again). Groucho takes up arms, strafing the enemy, only to be told “You’re shooting your own men!” Later in the onslaught, he gets his head stuck in a chamber pot (“The last time this happened to me, I was crawling under a bed”), which Harpo proceeds to draw his face on.
Roland: General Swift reports a gas attack. He wants to know what to do.
Firefly: Tell him to take a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda in half a glass of water.
Apparently, “All God’s chillun got guns” was considered for deletion from the DVD for its potential to offend, which I can certainly see, but it remains striking for taking an upbeat song style template and lacing it with utterly sinister lyrics. Also of note is the final bun attack on Sylvania (“I surrender”) and then on Dumont. One wonders how far it was from Kubrick’s mind when devising the original custard pie fight conclusion to Dr. Strangelove; which fits, as while Duck Soup very much isn’t Dr. Strangelove, there’s a similar sense of absurdist glee to the depiction of war.
Mrs Teasdale: Your Excellency! I thought you’d left.
Chicolini (as Firefly): Oh, no, I no leave.
Mrs Teasdale: But I saw you with my own eyes!
Chicolini: Well, who you gonna believe? Me or your own eyes?
The mirror scene, though, has next to nothing to do with the war and politics business, yet it’s such an extended piece of genius – Chico and Harpo dress up as Groucho, although most of the business finds Harpo copying Groucho’s every move in the mirror – that Duck Soup deserves five stars for that alone. Dumont’s also involved in the impersonating prior to this (“Your excellency, you sound so strange” she tells Chico, while Harpo delivers a fantastically freakish grinning Groucho).
Trentino: I am willing to do anything to prevent this war.
Groucho: It’s too late. I’ve already paid a month’s rent on the battlefield.
Echoing the situation with Ireland and Animal Crackers, Mussolini banned Duck Soup in Italy, purportedly much to the brothers’ glee. And while commonly reported as a failure, the picture was still the sixth-highest grossing of 1933; somehow, Paramount still saw this as a disappointment after Horse Feathers’ success, but it was the brothers who opted not to renew their contract (owing to Paramount owing them royalties they never received).
Freedonians: Hail! Hail Freedonia! Land of the Brave and Free!
Thus, the Paramount era ended and the MGM one was ushered in, one of initial bullseyes but increasingly off-target exercises in diminishing anarchy. At the time, that was exactly Irving Thalberg’s pitch to the brothers, that Duck Soup hadn’t gone down as well as their prior movies because there was nothing for the audience to sympathise with, and it was all too dark (Groucho admitted Duck Soup was the peak of their Paramounts but believed their two best were their first two at MGM). Criticisms that may have had a bearing on their commerciality, but then, it isn’t uncommon for classics, comedy or otherwise, to get a poor reception first time out (It’s a Wonderful Life). For their immediate careers’ sake, they may well have made the right move, but it also gradually brought the Marx Brothers off the boil.