The Marx Brothers are not nice. In DUCK SOUP, the freest and most assured of their Paramount output, all characters exist to be objects of scorn and the butt of the Brothers’ jokes. There is no superfluous plot or gentler moments, which can be found in their other works. The film feels instantly less lighthearted than the other Brothers’ films, which resemble more than DUCK SOUP does other frothy parlor room theatrical comedies of their period. The comedy intersects across disparate venues from the war room to the peanut vendor, and from a wealthy mansion to the battlefield. But each character in the film is subject to the same stripping down by the Marx Brothers. Their varying degrees of pomposity are attacked by all three brothers in an attempt to render what they have to say worthless. Everyone from Margaret Dumont’s (she’s terrific) character to the grumpy street vendor present some pillar of established order, and the Brothers take them to task without mercy for doing so. Groucho gets at his most savage and flatly declares his intentions when, stripping down his main rival and Dumont, exclaims “when you get finished on her feet you can start with mine.” Then, stares straight at the audience, “if that isn’t an insult I don’t know what is.” In this same scene, the recipient of Groucho’s attack makes the closest any character comes to a plea for their own dignity, claiming naively “I didn’t come here to be insulted!” Groucho, jumping on the prior line: “That’s what you think.” A scornful sense of destruction pervades the film. The title of the most memorable musical number from HORSE FEATHERS might serve as the mantra for DUCK SOUP: “Whatever it is, I’m against it.”
A note on DUCK SOUP’s musical numbers. If you can get over the way their cues are shoehorned into the dialogue (I couldn’t when I was younger, silly me) those songs are savage. The first song is a celebration of patriotic pomp which sets the tone for the rest of the film. The opening moments build to a crescendo, introducing the theme of political upheaval, the Macguffin of an insidious plan to destroy the nation, and an elaborate ball with stately costumes and an overheated military presence, all of which is extremely Victorian, even Napoleonic, though it is set in contemporary “Freedonia.” When the song kicks off, it triggers an ostentatious display of girls dropping petals on the ground, flanked by men in frilly fez hats. The music builds and builds to silence. Groucho doesn’t show up; he stayed in bed. Groucho’s orneriness has already deflated the sacred cow of Freedonian politics. Later, when he describes his policies as leader of Freedonia, Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) decides to wage war on the well-being of all strictly to prove that he can, exclaiming of “just wait till I get through with it” and advocating for a legal system based around firing squads.
This political candor gets at the “it” that the Marx Brothers seem to be against. When DUCK SOUP introduces an imaginary society in the throes of political uncertainty, it taps the zeitgeist of 1933 both on the home front (this is, as the first title card demonstrates, an NRA project) and, significantly, abroad. The image of a mustachioed comic figure playing the part of a great dictator wielding monomaniacal power in lieu of the democratic process is not the sole possession of Charlie Chaplin, or indeed original to him. But Groucho’s political beast is, nakedly and humorously, commanded by his most basic impulses. He performs his character in open contrast to and mockery of the pomposity on display around him. It’s satire of a despot governing on a whim expressing itself in Groucho’s unabashedly small-minded complaints. On his thrown-away “papers,” Groucho is quick to anger: “You didn’t think they were important? I had my dessert wrapped in those papers.”
More so than in their other films, DUCK SOUP pays attention to how film style can sell comedic dialogue (credit where credit is well due, Leo McCarey.) The use of stock footage in Groucho’s desperate call for reinforcements is a technique which, though not unique to DUCK SOUP, resonates forward across the history of comedy; it’s practically Python-esque. In many of the film’s stylistic elements it challenges the notion that comedy ages or expires. The film becomes excellent satire in its anarchic parody of political grandstanding. Some filmmaking techniques and cultural touchstones may have changed, but what has not changed is the instrument of anarchy, the agnostic-bordering-on-faithless recreation of the established order, cobbling together the loose abstract elements evocative of authority and cheapening them in service of the joke. It’s the democratization process by ridicule of the false solemnity of global politics. When the nation of Freedonia goes to war, it’s a kitchen-sink collection of patriotic iconography and costumes, the film itself suffuse with the fraudulent architectural and emotional tenor of chintzy jingoism (not unlike MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL, another pillar of satire.) DUCK SOUP succeeds more than the other Marx Brothers’ work in part because it necessarily uses comedic filmmaking as political declaration.
DUCK SOUP’s acts of irritation are slapstick with elevated urgency, gags that resonate and elicit laughs because they feel crucial, both to the scene itself and to the film’s underlying messages. The film is consistent and probing with its jokes, which rarely feel superfluous or fanciful. Harpo’s choices of gags and props are absurd, but reliably so, held to an internal logic. Longform jokes are played for the audience’ approval, such as his repeated use of hats and his blowtorch, but Harpo also finds consistent ways to mess with other characters. A hand outstretched in gesticulating anger is of course, a good spot to hang your leg. Someone yelling turns into a chance to feed them against their will. Fisticuffs turns into a handshake, then back into insults and fisticuffs at Groucho’s will. This is not happy-go-lucky and without weight, the laughs always occur at the expense of other people in the film. The Marx Brothers provide for us patriotism, an object of righteous scorn, and handle the task intelligently and with a film style that validates them and harnesses their destructive energy into a philosophy. Again the Pythons, children of the Marx Brothers, provide us with that philosophy in the title of their pre-Flying Circus program: How to Irritate People.