By Stephanie Star Smith
December 18, 2002
"The last guy 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."
Thus we are introduced to Groucho, in the guise of Rufus T Firefly, the new president of Freedonia, in this Marx Brothers classic. All the usual elements are there: Margaret Dumont as a rather clueless rich widow on whose money Groucho has designs; a foppish foil for Groucho to skewer; Harpo and Chico making Groucho's life miserable with their antics. Duck Soup would also mark the last film in which Zeppo Marx, who later became famous when his stage name became a term referring to a useless member of a group, would appear.
It might seem surprising, but the plot in a Marx Brothers' movie actually was taken somewhat seriously. Granted, it was mostly a framework for the Marx Brothers to perform their signature comedy, both individually and as a team, but their antics were always in service of the plot. More or less.
For Duck Soup, the plot revolves around the ambassador of Sylvania, Freedonia's neighbor, attempting to annex Freedonia and its natural resources. Through intrigue, counterespionage, and a blatant attempt at romancing Mrs Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) in order to gain her support, Ambassador Trentino seems to be guaranteed success, until Rufus T Firefly appears on the scene, and Trentino hires Pinky and Chicolini (Harpo and Chico, respectively) to destroy Firefly's reputation and chances with Mrs Teasdale. A beautiful Spanish dancer staying with Mrs Teasdale, but actually in cahoots with Trentino, also gets nowhere when trying to trap Groucho into a tryst that Mrs Teasdale is supposed to discover, since Groucho appears to have the same attitude towards women trying to seduce him as he does towards clubs that will have him as a member. In the end, the Marx Brothers save both Freedonia and Mrs Teasdale, and everyone lives happily ever after until the next movie.
So why should this appeal to a modern audience?
Because it's funny. Damned funny. That's about the best reason I can give anyone for viewing a comedy, and there's no need to fear the jokes are outdated or somehow less amusing than what one would hear on Comedy Central. In fact, many a comedian working today owes a debt to Groucho, Harpo and Chico. And while comedy is certainly a subjective thing, with the Marx Brothers, you get something for everyone. Like double entendres and sarcastic wit? Then Groucho's your man. Love physical comedy? Harpo will fill the bill. Enjoy word games and tortured logic? Chico's got that for you. Separately, they're inspired; together, they perform some of the finest comedy ever put on the Silver Screen.
Although many consider Night at the Opera or Animal Crackers the Marx Brothers' crowning achievement, my favorite has been and always will be Duck Soup. That may be because it's the first Marx Brothers film I saw, but I also think it's because the plot and the brothers' antics blend together in Duck Soup in a way that was never topped, and almost not equaled (I will grant that Night at the Opera comes very, very close). There are so many classic lines - many of which you've probably heard quoted and never known the source - and so many classic bits of shtick that one can almost say you've never seen a movie comedy until you've seen Duck Soup. And at just over an hour in running time, even if you only find half-a-dozen laughs - a figure so low, I can't even grasp it - that's better than many a sit-com that forces itself into our living rooms each week.
Don't let the age of the film, or that it's black-and-white, put you off. Enjoy the genius that was the Marx Brothers. And remember:
"We're fighting for this woman's honor, which is probably more than she ever did."