Duck Soup (1933): Marx Brothers Best Film, Zany Absurdist Comedy

Made in 1933, Leo McCarey’s Duck Soup is still one of the greatest comedies of the Marx Brothers–and one of the zaniest American satires ever made.

The sharp, unsentimental screenplay is by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, Arthur Sheekman, and Nat Perin, who also wrote the songs.

First released theatrically by Paramount on November 17, 1933, this pre-code comedy was billed as the “Four Marx Brothers” (Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo) and also featured Margaret Dumont, Louis Calhern, Raquel Torres and Edgar Kennedy.

It was the last Marx Brothers film to feature Zeppo, and the last of five Marx Brothers movies released by Paramount.

In postage-stamp-sized Freedonia, Prime Minister Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) declares war on neighboring Sylvania, just for the fun of it.

The comedy’s target is not just the U.S., but any monarchy and tyrannical institutions. Harpo parodies Paul Revere, but Groucho, his commander in chief, wears symbols of  American military–of glory and/or defeat.

A semi-surrealist farce about war, Duck Soup is the Marx Brothers’ most sustained bit of insanity–some critics see it as precursor of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove…in 1964.

In hindsight, the film’s commercial appeal might have suffered due to the fact that it was released several months before the election of Roosevelt as president, when American viewers were ready for more optimistic uplift, which would be reflected in comedies made in 1934 and 1935.

It’s hard to believe, but Duck Soup was a flop when first released, but over the past decades, it’s been reevaluated and is considered to be nothing short of a satirical masterpiece. In 1990, the US Library of Congress deemed Duck Soup “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry.

There were bitter contract disputes between the brothers and Paramount.  After the film fulfilled their five-picture contract with the studio, the Marxes and Paramount parted ways.

This comedy contains enough gags for five movies, but one of the favorite sequences is the mirror sequence.

Overall, Duck Soup shows that the humor of the Marx Brothers is ageless.

Detailed Plot:

The wealthy Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) insists that Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) be appointed leader of the small, bankrupt country of Freedonia as a condition of continuing to provide much-needed financial aid.

Meanwhile, neighboring Sylvania is attempting to annex the country. Sylvanian ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern) tries to foment a revolution, digging up dirt on Firefly by sending in spies Chicolini (Chico) and Pinky (Harpo).

After failing to collect useful information against Firefly, Chicolini and Pinky are able to infiltrate the government when Chicolini is appointed Secretary of War after Firefly sees him selling peanuts outside his window. Meanwhile, Firefly’s secretary, Bob Roland (Zeppo), suspects Trentino’s motives, and advises Firefly to get rid of Trentino by insulting him. Firefly agrees to the plan, but after a series of personal insults exchanged between Firefly and Trentino, the plan backfires when Firefly slaps Trentino instead of being slapped by him. As a result, the two countries come to the brink of war. Adding to the international friction is the fact that Firefly is also courting Mrs. Teasdale, and, like Trentino, hoping to get his hands on her late husband’s wealth.

Trentino learns that Freedonia’s war plans are in Mrs. Teasdale’s safe and orders Chicolini and Pinky to steal them. Chicolini is caught by Firefly and put on trial, during which war is officially declared, and everyone is overcome by war frenzy, breaking into song and dance. The trial put aside, Chicolini and Pinky join Firefly and Bob Roland in anarchic battle, resulting in general mayhem.

In the end, Trentino caught in a makeshift pillory, with the Brothers pelting him with fruit. Trentino surrenders, but Firefly tells him to wait until they run out of fruit.

Mrs. Teasdale begins singing the Freedonia national anthem, and the Brothers begin hurling fruit at her instead.

Running Time: 68 minute