“Duck Soup” isn’t about anything, let alone a soup made with duck. There’s a plot, it’s true, but it really doesn’t matter; it’s just a premise that allows the Marx Brothers to string one routine after another. Actually what makes “Duck Soup” stand out among all the Marx Brothers titles is just how much the plot doesn’t matter. There’s less time between gags here, less time spend on boring and unnecessary things like characterization, dramatic tension, climax, and resolution. To paraphrase I don’t know who, it’s just one darned thing after another. And it’s glorious that way.
But since you ask, here you go: Groucho is Rufus T. Firefly, who, for some unknown reason, is made the leader of the small country of Freedonia. Chico and Harpo are spies for the neighboring country of Silvania. Zeppo is Firefly’s secretary, though he hardly gets any screen time at all – in one scene in particular, even while he’s talking, the camera is on Groucho. No wonder Zeppo quit after “Duck Soup” came out. There is some attempt on the part of the actors who aren’t the Marx Brothers to keep up the pretense that they’re making a normal movie, you know, with a plot and characters and everything, but their persistence just makes the chaos named Marx that much funnier. During the war scenes, Groucho wears a different uniform in almost ever seen. And one minute Chico is in chains as a spy; the next, he’s Groucho’s War Minister. And then they all burst into song. Which is another thing; there seems to be a feeble attempt to make “Duck Soup” a musical; it opens with a musical number, and climaxes with another one. But in between, that’s forgotten about. This is a Marx Brothers movie. There is no other kind of movie at all like it.
The Marx Brothers carry a movie better than most sideshow comedians because their comedy spans the range of comedic possibility. Groucho is all about wisecracks and double entendres; it’s amazing the things he got away with saying in 1931. But just when the cigar and sidelong glance starts to wear thin, here come Chico and Harpo with a classic clown/pantomime act. Harpo keeps pulling things out of his pockets, most often a pair of oversized scissors, but also any assortment of bells, horns, whistles, and, well, whatever visual gag is necessary at the moment. And then when their routine starts to get thin, here comes Groucho again… this could go on forever. I’d never get tired of it.
I suppose you could see “Duck Soup” as a satire of politics, government, diplomacy, and war. Apparently it wasn’t a hit when it came out because audiences felt it went too far, making fun of the country’s leaders. But for a movie to really satirize a subject, it has to observe it first. We have to see truth in the comedy, and laugh while it hurts. I can’t find that in “Duck Soup.” The political situation is just that –a situation. It’s a stage, a premise, a place to tell – or play- a joke. Mussolini thought it was terribly disrespectful, and banned “Duck Soup” from Italy. I’m sure the Marx Brothers would’ve returned the favor, and happily banned Italy from “Duck Soup.”
Is it great because it’s important? Not so much. It’s hard to find much influence on modern comedy here, sad to say. The Marx Brothers brought what worked on the stage into the movies, but it didn’t really last in the movies for long. Every now and then, Woody Allen seems to be influenced by them.
Is it great because it’s fun to watch? Oh, absolutely. It may not be much like modern comedy, but I’ll take “Duck Soup” over most modern comedies in a heartbeat. It’s a joy to watch.