Duck Soup

I’ll hold your seat ’til you get there, after that you’re on your own.

I suggest that we give him ten years in Leavenworth, or eleven years in Twelveworth.

The Marx Brothers are said to be the best comedians of their age and, even, of all time.  Duck Soup (1933) is supposed to be the best Marx Brothers movie.  The best of the best.  Well, you know, I’ve come to the conclusion that people are liars.  Gregory House has been saying it for years, but I didn’t think it’d gotten as far as comedy.

Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) has been put into power as the leader of Freedonia through the political/financial maneuvers of Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont).  Unbeknownst to her, the ambassador of Sylvania, Trentino (Louis Calhern), is plotting to take power in Freedonia.  He has enlisted Pinky (Harpo Marx) and Chicolini (Chico Marx) as his incredibly stupid spies.  Gags ensue.

Duck Soup is #60 of the AFI Top 100 Films and #5 of the Top 100 Comedies.  Then again, Citizen Kane (1941) and Some Like It Hot (1959) are #1 in those respective categories.  So much for lists.

In watching classics, I think I’ve missed the memo.  There’s a key to these things that, once obtained, will allow you to enjoy the show.  For Duck Soup, I thought I was safe in pun and fun territory.  For about 25% of the film, I was.  They weren’t all meaningful puns (as opposed to arbitrary puns–“Get me headquarters. Not hindquarters, headquarters!”).  Then the rest of the movie happened.

You’ve got a satirical setup, but I don’t think you can say that it is a satire.  There’s no message or target that I recognize.  Just gags.  I guess that makes it farce.  These gags have been copied and recopied in cartoons.  Not sure if that’s a recommendation.  It isn’t for me, I don’t like farce.

The Marx Brothers come out of vaudeville and it shows.  This movie is more of a themed variety show than a plotted film.  That’s not to say they intended anything else, but it is how I judged it.  Unfair?  No, I don’t think so.  They went so far as to create a espionage subplot, they’ve waded far enough into plotted waters to be judged.

There was one part that I thought was absolutely terrific.  Trentino is about to meet with Firefly before war breaks out and make peace.

I’d be unworthy of the high trust that’s been placed in me if I didn’t do everything in my power to keep our beloved Freedonia in peace with the world. I’d be only too happy to meet with Ambassador Trentino, and offer him on behalf of my country the right hand of good fellowship. And I feel sure he will accept this gesture in the spirit of which it is offered. But suppose he doesn’t. A fine thing that’ll be. I hold out my hand and he refuses to accept. That’ll add a lot to my prestige, won’t it? Me, the head of a country, snubbed by a foreign ambassador. Who does he think he is, that he can come here, and make a sap of me in front of all my people? Think of it – I hold out my hand and that hyena refuses to accept. Why, the cheap four-flushing swine, he’ll never get away with it I tell you, he’ll never get away with it.
[Trentino enters]
So, you refuse to shake hands with me, eh?

Now that’s satire.  If only the rest of the movie wasn’t one physical gag after another, you’d really have something here.

This movie is directed (if I can accurately use the term) by Leo McCarey.  I’m only further amazed that two individuals got writing credits for “story.”  These individuals also have 160 soundtrack credits on IMDB, so I’m guessing these guys are to blame for the musical interludes.

The music, while I’m sure it would be fine on a remastered blu-ray was pretty rough on Netflix Instant.  Since I couldn’t make much of the words, I’ll have to hold back judgment.

I’m a little amazed at the last couple minutes of the movie.  World War I was not so far away to make jokes about gassing soldiers and friendly fire.  It’s funny to think that this movie had to pass censors and no one would have the nerve–if it is nerve–to go there today.  I didn’t find it particularly humorous, but that’s me.

There are some who like to read ancient Greek philosophy.  It’s the start, it’s the beginning, it’s brilliant.  But its positive doctrine is filled with nonsense.  I have a similar approach to Citizen Kane and Duck Soup.  These movies kick off everything we know about film, storytelling, and comedy.  But they suck.  Sure, they suck less than the movies that came before them (on the whole), but I don’t find that compelling.

You know I was joking about that liar thing, right?

Okay, some philosophies and films allude or even borrow from their ancient genres and to understand them fully requires literacy in both the ancient and the modern.  I disagree with that (more so for the film than the philosophy).  In film, the movie works or doesn’t.  The devices involved evolved over time and bits of Duck Soup can be found in many films, but an audience member doesn’t need to know that.

In fact, you’re probably hurting yourself if you do because that awareness puts you right back in the couch/theater and out of the movie.  Unwarrantable intrusion!  It’s one of the reasons I prefer to watch a movie alone.  Only then am I as assured of the possibility of rapture.  That’s the goal.  It should be a wrench for me to want to keep an ear out for a line or write down a thought.

About Prof. Ratigan

A semi-lawyer and amateur enthusiast.
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