Most of the time on this blog, we tend to write about new movies that just came to theaters, or else were recently released on DVD. Recently, though, I had the chance to watch an old favorite and see that it still holds up pretty well.
The movie is Duck Soup, and it stars the Marx Brothers – Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo. I watched it numerous times on TV and in the theater in my younger days, but hadn’t seen it in many years. Groucho’s wisecracking in particular had a huge influence on me so I thought it would be fun to watch. When I had the chance to introduce the Marx Brothers to Mike Nikolich on top of it, the perfect storm hit.
The plot, like most of those Depression-era comedies is pretty simple. Rufus T. Firefly, a general ne’er do well and huckster (Groucho) is named the President of a fictional country called Freedonia by the fabulously wealthy Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont, the Marx Brothers’ favorite straight man). The reason she gets to decide who will run the country is Freedonia needs money, and she will only provide it if Firefly becomes President. Hey, people have been elected here for worse reasons.
Firefly, accompanied by his secretary Bob Roland (an under-utilized Zeppo), proceeds to name walnut vendor Chicolini (Chico) his Secretary of Defense. Chicolini brings in his pal Pinky (Harpo) to help him and the stage is set.
In the meantime, Ambassador Trentino of Sylvania (Louis Calhern), plots to get his country to go to war with Freedonia in order to seize its assets and Mrs. Teasdale’s money. As part of his plot he hires Chicolini and Pinky to spy on Firefly for him.
All of this, though, is primarily an excuse to run through the standard Marx Brothers antics: Groucho’s insincere wooing of Margaret Dumont and insulting of every stuff-shirt authority figure he comes across, Harpo’s manic running around causing mischief (such as cutting off the tie of every man he meets) and Chico’s general scheming and wordplay. There are even a couple of musical numbers thrown in which show the Brothers’ background from the Broadway days.
Some of the references are certainly dated, and the entire movie reflects a Hays Code (read: censorship) sensibility. Still, they get away with as much as they can. Many of Groucho’s wisecracks are just as biting today.
For those with a passing familiarity of the Marx Brothers, this is the one that includes the Vaudeville favorite mirror routine. A mirror is broken accidentally by Harpo, who is disguised as Groucho. When Groucho goes to discover the source of the noise, he sees the mirror is missing, but Harpo pretends to be his reflection. No matter what Groucho does, Harpo imitates it. Today’s audiences might ask why Groucho doesn’t just reach across and see if the glass is there, or punch him? But that’s not the way it works here. In fact, at one point Harpo drops his cap and Groucho hands it to him before continuing. Presumably, in Groucho’s mind, if he didn’t initiate the mistake then it doesn’t count.
The movie will take you back to a gentler, more polite time. But honestly, one big thing still holds true today. When Firefly and Ambassador Trentino have a personal disagreement, they don’t duke it out. They settle it like politicians by going to war. Some things never change.
– Reviewed by Ken Krause