Duck Soup

Chaplin was fiercely literal when he decided to be a culture critic. In The Great Dictator, he waltzed through fanfare as a joke on farcical tyrant leaders. In Duck Soup, Groucho sets up the fanfare and then comes in through the back as a joke on other farces, as much as on dictators. Chaplin rose up out of character at the end of his film to give a speech on the dangers of Nazi dogma. Groucho has a Senate square-dancing and horse-kicking, as though the legislators are as funny as the enemy, both being equally limber.

Did anyone realize that the progress of sound would allow film comedy to regress? The silent comics had to find a way to communicate through film; they had to tell jokes through movement. Groucho performs like he's a vaudeville star of the previous century. This makes any of the ensemble films of the early sound era -- including Marx, the Stooges, and all the duos -- more a series of bits than a movie. Are Groucho's the best? It's more like they're the most. He's always on a bit and he's too smart to stay on any of them too long. He's always twinkling, like he just insulted you and you missed it. Duck Soup may or may not have the Marx Brothers’ funniest bits, but it’s their best film because it doesn’t have anything else.

This was the sound era at its most talky, which would begin with messes like Broadway Melody (the film most parodied by Singin’ in the Rain, gnashing pearls and all) and then dip into this prolonged period where people talked so much. Films were being made like they had been denied their chatter for decades, like verbal versions of paraplegics discovering that their legs work again. For Groucho, it was like an all-access pass on the world. This was the Brothers’ last film at Paramount, before moving to MGM for a string of films that “featured” the Marx Brothers in a role alongside another more conventional plot (often romantic), which the sound productions required, to their comedic detriment. Duck Soup is a fitting elegy to the films that had no scenes without the Brothers and no recourse for those helplessly enamored by Groucho’s brow-tilting, wild-eyed wit. You better hope you like it: he'll never give you a break from himself.

The plot of Duck Soup doesn’t exist in any conventional sense. The fictional country of Freedonia appoints Groucho Marx their king but that isn’t the point. If this were explained, the film would have a half-hour prelude with almost no Marx. Duck Soup understands that plots exist not to make sense of the ensuing antics, but to get Groucho into the center of attention for an hour.

From his first on-screen seconds, his royal greasepaint starts quacking and never stops. There’s not one drop of sincerity in this cascading barrage of puns that just keep coming, like they do later in Airplane! and in some of the Brooks films, which carried Groucho's dummy torch forward another half-century. Andy Griffith famously said of the homey sincerity at work in his The Andy Griffith Show that “if it sounds like a joke, throw it out.” He did this to keep the audience relaxed by the performers’ humility, unchallenged by suppositions of punchlines and wordplay. None could be further from Griffith than Groucho, who supposes you on purpose. He wants to indulge himself into your submission.

This barrage easily turns into political satire, but Groucho’s absurdism keeps it too matter-of-fact to be an “argument.” He supports his farces without a hint of ire or debater’s spirit, unlike Chaplin in that he never seems to have more stake in the situation than his characters do. Duck Soup could be about any period in time. Despite this, Benito Mussolini obviously didn't get the joke when he thought that it was on him (he banned Duck Soup in Italy completely). I'm sure that Groucho was terribly pleased with himself to be on another Fascist's hit list (the Marxes were Jewish so their films already earned the ire of another famous mustache).

But even in the States, the Marxes weren't terribly popular. Irving Thalberg, who would later produce the soggier Marx films for MGM, thought that it was because they weren't sympathetic. Maybe people just weren't getting the joke. You may have to take Groucho's words, but you should never take him at them.

If what Groucho says sounds like a racist epithet, it’s a commentary on how farcical those are. If it looks like a long shot preceding a serious political discussion, it’s going to be neither of those things. I could see someone saying that he hasn’t got the gall for honorable interactions. I think Groucho has the gall to have the gall and just not use it. And I could see Groucho himself sending that someone off as he sent the ambassador of the neighboring Sylvania (Louis Calhern): “Go, and never darken my towels again!”

Of course, there are other Marxes, but none of them could have been an act alone. Harpo comes closest to Groucho by being his opposite: you can’t compete with his royal snide-ness, and only Harpo shines for not trying. For every one of Groucho’s whip-cracking puns, Harpo responds with a horn toot or a smack on the bum. His trousers produce gag effects seemingly without limit, from scissors that come out whenever something protrudes enough to be cut (from tassels to cigars to shirttails) to a preposterous blowtorch procured when someone asks for a lighter or flashlight.

And he has one of the gems of Duck Soup too: the infamous mirror gag, one of those moments when American comedy found something it could call its own (only later did we realize it was Chaplin’s first, but decided to remember it from Duck Soup anyway). Ludicrously, both Harpo and the wily Chico (commentating Harpo’s excesses like a chummy Groucho-lite) end up in Groucho-glasses and mustaches on either side of what used to be a mirror. No age will outgrow the subtle timing as the two “Grouchos” play off each other’s movements, a scene which would be propelled through generations as Harpo reprised his role with Lucille Ball playing Chico on I Love Lucy, and most subtly when Nielsen walked through his own reflection in Airplane!, which is the funniest joke in that movie.

Then there’s Zeppo, here without any of the pretensions of the straight leading man that defined him in the early Marx films. I suppose he must have been their agent or lawyer or something. I can’t think of another reason to keep him around.

In comedy, Groucho’s ego is Napoleonic. It’s never had a more devoted forum than Duck Soup, which appoints him the dictator of its 68 minutes of excess while the rest of us hang helplessly in his orbit. As the silent comics strained to survive sound, a silent Marx Brothers film would have been too sane for them and too physical. They'd have no room for all the nonsequiturs they write for Groucho to say and for the audience to not get, as though not getting something silly is why everyone's come in the first place. I’ve often wondered why Duck Soup is called that and the explanation didn’t disappoint. According to Groucho, “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.” The thing about absurdism is that it can’t let itself be discovered. Fortunately, no one’s better at it than Groucho. He didn’t make films: he got away with them.


Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

Leo McCarey

Bert Kalmer

Harry Ruby

Arthur Sheekman

Nat Perrin


Rufus T. Firefly Groucho Marx
Pinky Harpo Marx
Chicolini Chico Marx
Lt. Bob Roland Zeppo Marx
Mrs. Gloria Teasdale Margaret Dumont
Ambassador Trentino of Sylvania Louis Calhern
Vera Marcal Raquel Torres

Official Trailer


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