Retro Review: ‘Duck Soup’

When it comes to the comedy genre, few can even be mentioned in the sentence as the Marx Brothers. Their filmography is pretty much a list of classics of the genre from Monkey Business to A Night in Casablanca. Each of the foursome had their schtick which they played to perfection. Groucho was famously always ready with a sharp-tongue, Harpo silently pranced around with a physical gag always in his coat, Chico was the self-styled tough guy, and Zeppo was the straight man though the brothers swore behind-the-scenes he was the funniest. When forced to single out one movie as their “best” many point to Duck Soup, a brilliant send-up of fascism.

The land of Freedonia has appointed the sharp-tongued Rufus T. Firefly as its new ruler. To help him out in his nation ruling he recruits two spies Pinky and Chicolini to his side with a “Hey! Do you wanna be a public nuisance?” Since he does not know how to actually run Freedonia, Firefly arbitrarily decides to go to war with a neighboring nation.

This is a movie which is still sadly relevant today as there is no end to self-absorbed nutjobs who find themselves as heads of state. In our own country we had clueless, ego-driven, and childish idiot in charge, but unlike Groucho he was not remotely funny. The fact that a movie meant to satirize the rising tide of fascist rulers like Hitler and Stalin can still be relatable to viewers in the 21st century speaks volumes about our society. While the social commentary of this film is both biting and honest, let us not forget the main draw of the Marx Brothers is that they are absolutely, gut-bustingly, maddeningly hilarious. Of all of the comedy troupe’s in Hollywood’s Golden Age what made this crew work is that they all have their own entertaining skillset and they play their parts to perfection. Duck Soup is a prime example of this as the brothers fire on all cylinders. Groucho finds the perfect partner in Margaret Dumont to spit out witticisms, insults, and other sarcastic remarks. Harpo gets a perfect moment to shine with his iconic “mirror scene” which has been frequently duplicated and stands as one of the Marx Brothers’ greatest bits.

Publicly the brothers claimed they never intended for this movie to be a statement picture ala’ Chaplin’s The Dictator, but privately they were said to be ecstatic that Mussolini took the film as a personal insult. It is a true artistic accomplishment when one can make a powerful social stance but still being incredibly entertaining which is something Duck Soup accomplishes to perfection. It may have received a lukewarm reaction from audiences in 1933, but today Duck Soup stands as perhaps the greatest cinematic outing of the Marc Brothers.