Hail, Hail, Freedonia, Land of the Brave and Free!
Duck Soup was the fifth theatrically released Marx Brothers film (in 1933) and is generally regarded as their greatest work. What makes it such a classic? Firstly, the script is excellent and the boys are in top form with it (this was still the stage in their career where they would take the material on the road and hone it in theatres before filming began). It was also one of the only times that the Marx Brothers were blessed with a truly great director - Leo McCarey - who went on to win two Oscars (for The Awful Truth and Going My Way). Unlike most of their films there are no musical solo numbers, it is only 66 minutes long, but it crackles with jokes from beginning to end. If you thought that Airplane was the first film to really cram in the gags - think again.
The Plot and Classic Scenes
Freedonia is on the brink of financial disaster and only the intervention of rich widow Mrs Teasdale (Dumont) can prevent it. The one catch? That Rufus T Firefly (Groucho) be installed as head of state. This scuppers the plans of Ambassador Trentino of Sylvania (Louis Calhern), who has been looking to annex Freedonia to Sylvania. He hires two spies (Chico and Harpo) to follow Firefly, who eventually gets insulted once too often and declares war on Sylvania. After an attempt to steal the plans, Chicolini is caught and put on trial. During the trial war breaks out, and in a frantic final battle Trentino is captured and Freedonia is triumphant!
Classic Scene One - the Lemonade Stand ('Peanuts to you!')
Chicolini is spying on Firefly using the disguise of a peanut vendor outside of Firefly's window. An attempted fist fight with Pinky ends up disturbing the unfortunate holder of the lemonade stall next door (ex-member of the Keystone Kops and master of the slow burn, Edgar Kennedy). Kennedy's attempts to get rid of the pair only result in chaos, a slow mental breakdown, and his hat being on fire. Later on Pinky is looking after the peanut stand when Kennedy comes over and starts taking peanuts without paying. Every time he takes a packet Pinky knocks it out of his hand, until eventually most of the peanuts are on the floor and, unsurprisingly, Kennedy's new hat is on fire. Kennedy finally has enough, pushes over the peanut stand and returns to selling lemonade. By this point he has a queue of customers who rather abruptly disappear. He turns around to find Pinky paddling in his lemonade...
Classic Scene Two - the Mirror Sequence
Probably one of the most copied comic sequences of all time, but the original is undoubtedly the best. Pinky, disguised as Firefly, and on the run from him, accidentally runs into a very large mirror and breaks it. Firefly catches up with him and with nowhere left to run Pinky has the inspired idea of becoming Firefly's reflection. Cue five minutes of classic silent comedy, as Firefly tries to catch Pinky out with ever more elaborate moves for him to copy. Pinky is only caught when Chicolini, also dressed as Firefly, accidentally enters the reflection too...
Classic Scene Three - the Trial
After being caught trying to steal the Freedonia battle plans, Chicolini finds himself on trial for spying. Every time he opens his mouth the odds on him being found innocent lengthen. Fortunately he is saved when Trentino storms in, is insulted for one final time, and war is declared. The declaration of war is greeted by the entire court joining in what must be the most satirical song and dance routine in the movies.
To War! To War! To war we're going to go!
We've got guns, they've got guns,
All God's chillun got guns
Rufus T Firefly - Groucho always seems to be at his best when he's in charge of things - the bigger the better. Give him a whole country and stand back. He spends equal time in the movie trying to woo Mrs Teasdale ('All I can offer you is a Rufus over your head.'), putting up with Chicolini and Pinky, insulting Trentino ('Go - and never darken my towels again.'), and trying to get the crackers out of his bed. Watch out for the war scene at the end where Groucho's outfit changes with every editing cut.
If any form of pleasure is exhibited.
Report to me and it will be prohibited.
I'll put my foot down,
So shall it be.
This is the land of the Free.
Chicolini - Probably Chico's best role - he always seems to be in the thick of the action. Whether it's tangling with the lemonade vendor, receiving his orders from Trentino, becoming Minister of War, going on trial for treason, or spending the entire war switching sides, Chico's ability to hilariously murder the English language every time he opens his mouth keeps everyone on their toes.
Pinky - Harpo at his mischievous best, as inept spy, peanut seller, Firefly's driver and seemingly head of the Freedonian draft board. His best sequence is where, after being given the combination of the safe with the battle plans in, he silently proceeds to turn the lock the correct number of times, resulting in the radio (and not a safe at all) blasting out some very loud music.
Bob Rolland - Unfortunately in Duck Soup Zeppo is given very little to do - this is probably one of the reasons that it was his last film before becoming a (very well-respected) agent. He plays Firefly's secretary - chiefly he gets to do a few plot updates and join in a couple of songs.
Mrs Teasdale - Margaret Dumont (who apparently never really got the Marx Brothers' sense of humour) plays the rich widow who bails out Freedonia. Like most of the Marx Brothers films she's in, she spends most of her time being the foil for Groucho's jokes. This is probably the best example:
Groucho - Not that I care, but where is your husband?
Dumont - Why, he's dead.
Groucho - I bet he's just using that as an excuse.
Dumont - I was with him until the very end.
Groucho - No wonder he passed away.
Dumont - I held him in my arms and kissed him.
Groucho - Oh, I see, then it was murder. Will you marry me? Did he leave you any money? Answer the second question first.
Dumont - He left me his entire fortune.
Groucho - Is that so? Can't you see what I'm trying to tell you? I love you.
Dumont - Oh, your Excellency!
Groucho - You're not so bad yourself.
Duck Soup is a highly satirical film in its treatment of war and government, following in the traditions of the Lilliputian war in Gulliver's Travels, and echoed later in Dr Strangelove. Indeed, a couple of scenes were cut before release because they were considered too controversial at a time when relations between America and Russia were highly-strained. The satirical nature of the film can probably be best highlighted by Firefly's reason to go to war:
But there must be a war - I've paid a month's rent on the battlefield!
Lots of the jokes in Duck Soup were actually purloined from Groucho and Chico's radio show Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel.
Duck Soup is presently at number 83 in the IMDB list of top 250 movies.
The AFI voted Duck Soup the 5th funniest American film of all time.
The AFI also voted it the 85th greatest American film of all time.