Duck Soup (1933). 68 minutes. Directed by Leo McCarey. Starring Groucho Marx (as Rufus T. Firefly), Chico Marx (as Chicolini), Harpo Marx (as Pinky), Zeppo Marx (as Bob Roland), and Margaret Dumont (as Mrs. Teasdale). Screenplay, music, and lyrics by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby.
If aliens landed on earth tomorrow, and the American Film Institute gave them a copy of Duck Soup to watch as a way of helping them to understand the history of American film culture, I think that these hypothetical aliens would enjoy it, but it might cause them to be perplexed. If we had to explain to the aliens why Duck Soup is funny, then we might be perplexed. Duck Soup is funny — in fact, it’s hilarious. It is the movie, after all, that in a supremely life-affirming moment convinces Woody Allen’s character in Hannah and Her Sisters not to commit suicide, and it is widely considered to be the Marx Brothers’ finest film. But now that I am writing about Duck Soup, I find that I struggle to put into words why it makes me laugh so much.
As for the story, what there is of one — although let us keep in mind what Roger Ebert said when reviewing this movie, that “[t]o describe the plot would be an exercise in futility, since a Marx Brothers movie exists in moments, bits, sequences, business and dialogue, not in comprehensible stories” — Mrs. Teasdale (played by Margaret Dumont) is the primary financial support for a nondescript country called Freedonia. Freedonia is hard-up for cash, and when its cabinet petitions Mrs. Teasdale for more funds, she insists that in exchange for her money, the country make Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) its leader. When Firefly begins his time in office, the president of neighboring country Sylvania sends the two spies Chicolini and Pinky (played by Chico Marx and Harpo Marx, respectively) to dig up information on Firefly. Later, after a series of very silly episodes and misunderstandings, Freedonia and Sylvania go to war with each other in a lengthy final sequence; it involves a big song-and-dance number that parodies American musical styles and has battle scenes in which Firefly changes his clothing every few minutes.
If all that you (or the aliens, for that matter) knew about this movie was the paragraph above, you would still not have a very good idea of why this movie is funny. So I return to the project of trying to explain the Marx Brothers. This is not as easy as it may seem, because for one thing, as Ebert has also pointed out, although it is not hard to say whom they have inspired, it is hard to say where they came from. Their madcap style seems uniquely theirs, and while it is true that they grew out of the American vaudevillian tradition, they are unlike the other vaudeville acts that were translated to the cinema. Their style is both intensely visual and physical (as one sees in the gags that make use of the peanuts and lemonade stands in this movie, which involve Harpo, Chico, and the veteran comic actor Edgar Kennedy) and intensely verbal (as is the case in most of Groucho’s scenes).
Some elements of the Marx Brothers’ humor are vaguely recognizable from elsewhere in the comedy universe. In some ways, Harpo resembles a classic clown. His curly hair, his oversized coat, and the honking horns strapped to his waist all evoke the persona of a circus clown. The fact that he is mute makes him mime-like. And yet unlike clowns, he is not garishly painted or frightening, and in contradistinction to the humor of children’s clowns, his humor is decidedly adult: Harpo is a notorious skirt chaser, especially in the early Marx Brothers films. In Duck Soup that side of his character is diminished somewhat, but he still manages to prop his bent leg up in the arm of the lemonade vendor, played by Edgar Kennedy, whom he intends to vex. Perhaps one of the reasons that the peanut and lemonade stands sequences in this movie are so funny is because of all the things that Chico and Harpo do to terrorize Kennedy, Harpo placing his thigh in Kennedy’s arm seems to be the simplest but the most offensive. The leg-up joke involves violating the space of another character in a blatantly rude way. No one in real life would do this who wasn’t a little bit deranged. Look at Harpo’s face throughout his scenes in this movie and you will see the expression of a character who is not altogether sane.
Groucho is perhaps the hardest of the brothers to characterize. He is very loquacious in this movie, and his talk is full of puns and one-liners — but then Chico speaks in much the same way. It is true that Groucho and Chico both play with language, but whereas Chico is a silly caricature of Italians who mangles speech, Groucho is almost more attitude than character. If Groucho’s lines were delivered by any of the other brothers, let alone by any other comedian, they would never seem Groucho-like without the intonation and gestures that he uniquely contributes to them.
But then there is the famous silent mirror scene, in which Firefly masquerades in front of a defunct mirror, with Pinky (and later even Chicolini) also dressed as Firefly and pretending to be his reflection. The premise of this scene is that Groucho, in his bedroom attire, with his comically exaggerated moustache and eyebrows, can be impersonated successfully by anyone who happens to wear the same pajamas and have cigar ash handy for doctoring up his face. Harpo and Chico make for good Grouchos superficially in this scene, and yet Firefly, who suspects all along that it is Pinky (and later Chicolini) on the other side of the “mirror,” ultimately emerges triumphant. Although the other two brothers look remarkably like Groucho in the scene, Groucho’s character is the shrewder one, and his mind, unlike his moustache, cannot be so easily replicated.
One thing that I always marvel at in a Marx Brothers movie is the way that the comic brothers mingle with the straight characters. While Groucho, Harpo, and Chico belong to a madcap world, the other characters (including Bob Roland, played by Zeppo Marx, and Dumont’s Mrs. Teasdale) act as though they are living in a serious drama. The straight characters lay down a plot punctuated with opportunities for the brothers to enter into and to embark on a new gag. The straight character/madcap character dynamic can vary in terms of its success in these pictures (Duck Soup is the brothers’ fifth film and their last for Paramount), and I think one of the reasons that the blending of these two worlds works so well in this outing is that there is hardly anything of substance going on in the film’s serious world.
After Duck Soup, the brothers moved to MGM, and there came a new era: in their first picture for MGM, A Night at the Opera, producer Irving Thalberg insisted that the brothers actually do something to help someone. They were made to participate in the straight plots in increasingly more productive and ethical ways — for example, in A Night at the Opera, they bring two lovers together and thwart that picture’s malevolent characters. After Duck Soup, it was as though the studio thought that the brothers’ zaniness was too much for the audience to handle and so decided that it should be administered in smaller doses. One of the reasons that Duck Soup is the Marx Brothers at their best is that it belongs to their more madcap period and does not require them to exhibit goodness or productivity of any kind. The film reminds one of the mantra of the writers of the TV series Seinfeld: no learning, no hugging.
Duck Soup is notable for another reason, and that is for its political satire. Some critics have objected to the application of such a serious term as political satire to a film that is this zany. To call it political satire is, I admit, to apply a term that is of slightly the wrong shape, because satire is generally more orderly than Duck Soup is; but to reject the term political satire entirely is, I think, also to dismiss some of the film’s political commentary. In the Firefly character, there are definitely echoes of the kinds of world leaders who had taken power during the years preceding the film. The policies that Firefly expresses in his initial song “These Are the Laws of My Administration” are draconian and dictatorial, and many of the lines are biting: for example,
The last man nearly ruined this place.
He didn’t know what to do with it:
If you think this country’s bad off now,
Just wait till I get through with it.
These lines seem to poke at Depression-era Presidents Herbert Hoover, who had just left office, and Franklin Roosevelt, who had just taken office. Presumably it would have been difficult for a 1933 audience to have heard those lines and not to have thought of Hoover and Roosevelt. But the film also engages in satire (admittedly a very silly version of satire) when it piles on the visual gags during the climactic battle sequence. There Firefly wears a panoply of classic historical military costumes ranging from American Civil War uniforms to Davy Crockett gear and including a wild British Palace Guard costume. The absurdity of Firefly’s frequent costume changes suggests an empty theatricality to the war and an absurdity that is in keeping with the anti-war views of post-World War I isolationists.
It is important to keep in mind that when Firefly and his crew win the battle against Sylvania at the very end of the film and begin to pelt its ruler with fruit, after a while they leave off attacking him and turn their wrath on Mrs. Teasdale when she begins to sing the Freedonian national anthem in triumph. As we see Mrs. Teasdale shielding herself from thrown food in the film’s final moments, we understand that the brothers are attacking her because of her terrible, pompous singing and because there is something awful about hearing the praise-laden national anthem at that moment. This final act of silencing the operatic Mrs. Teasdale points to the Marx Brothers’ penchant for deflating their antagonists. The brothers persistently seek to unnerve their fellow characters and to diminish their grand gestures. No one escapes unscathed in this movie. Part of what is so delightful about the Marx Brothers, especially in Duck Soup, is the way that their characters — irreverent, malevolent, anarchic tricksters — get away with everything. Perhaps this amorality was something that any group of performers could only exhibit for so long before someone decided to reign them in.