Written by Kris Tronerud

USA, 1933. 70 min. Paramount. Cast: Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo Max, with Margaret Dumont and Louis Calhern; Music: Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby; Cinematography: Henry Sharp; Produced by: Herman J. Mankiewicz; Written by: Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby; Directed by: Leo McCarey

In Woody Allen’s Hannah and her Sisters, Mickey (Allen), contemplating suicide, wanders into a repertory theater showing Duck Soup, and concludes that if life is good enough to produce the Marx Brothers, then it must be worth living. An entire generation of baby boomer moviegoers would not consider that an exaggeration, but the film now regarded as one of the best film comedies of all time had to wait 35 years to be considered as such.

The Marx Brothers made their first film, Cocoanuts, in 1929, the year of the stock market crash, and as the Great Depression tightened its grip, the Brothers became huge stars. Their sublime silliness and refusal to take life seriously seemed to go beyond mere hilarity, to have a genuinely healing effect on a traumatized nation.

By 1933, however, America, still reeling from the effects of WWI and sensing that the world was once more headed for crisis, were less receptive, finding Duck Soup‘s cynicism, utter disrespect for authority and contempt for war in all its aspects somehow threatening. While not the failure Hollywood legend would have one believe (it was the sixth biggest grosser for Paramount that year), Duck Soup was nowhere near the smash success that the previous Horsefeathers had been. For years after, the film was considered minor Marx Brothers, critically overshadowed by the MGM comeback blockbuster A Night at the Opera.

Rediscovered in the 1960s at college screenings and art-house revivals, including many an exam time showing at the Brattle, by a young, fiercely antiwar audience that embraced its hilarious assault on authority and all things establishment, Duck Soup is now considered by many to be the Brothers’ finest hour, and its loopy, anarchic, scattershot approach has influenced an entire generation of comic film makers in the years since, from the The Three Stooges’ sassy WWII shorts and Monty Python’s Flying Circus to Richard Lester’s Beatle films and Allen’s Take the Money and Run and Bananas. Duck Soup’s legendary Mirror Scene was loving recreated by the Brothers’ Room Service costar Lucille Ball on her own TV show (with Harpo).

Duck Soup may be the most influential screen comedy of all time, but the greatest pleasure of its periodic rediscovery is that it’s that rare classic that lives up to its reputation: anarchic, irreverent and just plain hilarious. Though wonderful in their way, many Marx Brothers films are no more than statically filmed stage revues, brilliant vaudeville bits and Broadway musical numbers lamely strung together. Duck Soup, on the other hand, satisfies as a comedy and as a film. Director Leo McCarey began his career directing two-reel comedies for Hal Roach and went on to direct such diverse classics as The Awful Truth and the lovely melodrama An Affair to Remember. With Duck Soup, his first great film, he delivers a real movie: a rowdy mix of biting satire, outrageous physical comedy and of course, timeless Marxian shtick.

While there are a few priceless Marxian musical moments (Harpo’s breathtaking harp solo in A Night at The Opera and the classics “I Must Be Going” and “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” from Animal Crackers), the musical numbers in their films, more often than not, served as periodic and frustrating momentum stoppers every time the brothers built up a head of comic steam. In Horsefeathers, Groucho famously remarks that, while he is required to stay for the musical interlude, the audience is free to “go to the lobby ‘till this thing blows over.” One of Duck Soup’s great merits is that Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmar’s compact, snappy songs are biting send-ups of standard musical comedy filler and are seamlessly woven into the action, propelling the film’s progress rather than bogging it down.

Beyond successfully packaging the Marx Brothers’ antics, Duck Soup also finds the Brothers themselves in top form. Groucho flawlessly delivers a dizzying combination of dazzlingly clever wordplay and pun-filled jokes, so shamelessly corny as to have fallen flat if anyone but this hyper-confident huckster/charmer had delivered them. His delivery is more stylized, a little less loose and amiable, than in the preceding films, but the overall effect of these staccato assaults and the preposterous expressions that punctuate them is of an inspired comic alien on loan from another planet, with the bemused, detached look of someone who intends to hop off the train just before the wreck he has just instigated occurs. Harpo, the divine lunatic with the most expressive face in American film, serves up just enough angelic innocence with his devilry to keep us from being as appalled as we should be by his cheerfully cruel dismantling of lemonade vendor Edgar Kennedy’s mental health. And the greatly underrated Chico, who often doubled for his brother on stage and is here, in Soup’s mirror sequence, indistinguishable from him, is the glue that holds together the polar opposites of Groucho and Harpo; he sardonic, delicate, and oddly wise, providing the quiet structural heart of many of their classic setpieces.

If the audiences of 1933 found Duck Soup unsettling, even long-time fans will be shocked today by its uncanny relevance. As much as war itself, Soup lampoons the flimsy pretexts, the pompous sword rattling, and the noxious nationalism that are the furnishings of the lead-up to wars of choice. When a roomful of be-medaled generals cheerfully send young men off to die in the “The Country’s Goin’ to War” number, it is well-nigh impossible not to be reminded of the world’s present circumstances. Years after making the film, Groucho was asked about the pungent political message that underpins Duck Soup. He replied, ”we were just four Jews trying to get a laugh.” Maybe so, but he also once remarked that “military justice is to justice what military music is to music.” It is hard not to believe that life-long liberal humanist Groucho didn’t mean for us to take away an important lesson from Duck Soup. After we recovered from the uncontrollable fits of laughter, of course.

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