Retro Review: Duck Soup (1933)

Distributor: Paramount Pictures (theatrical)
Director: Leo McCarey
Writers: Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby. Additional dialogue by Arthur Sheekman and Nat Perrin.
Composer: Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, John Leipold (uncredited)
Starring: Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, Zeppo marx, Margaret Dumont, Louis Calhern, Raquel Torres, Edgar Kennedy
Genre: Musical/Satire/Comedy/War

The Marx Brothers were one of the great vaudeville troupes at the turn of the 20th century. They transitioned into Hollywood to become one of the most popular comedy routines from the 1920s through the 1940s. At the height of their Hollywood success in 1933, they released a moderately well received dark comedy called Duck Soup, which has since gone on to be regarded as one of the greatest Hollywood musical comedies of all time! 

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: G-rated violence and brawling.
Language/Crude Humor: Mild crude and outdated terminology, but no serious language. 
Drug/Alcohol References: Groucho Marx smokes a cigar throughout the entirety of the film.
Sexual Content: Some scantily clad women and crude sexual innuendo. 
Spiritual Content: None.
Other Negative Content: Themes of political corruption, war, and disregard. 
Positive Content: Themes of order, justice, and peace. 

Review

Describing the plot of Duck Soup feels like it’s giving it more gravity than it deserves. As I think through the narrative of the film, the description that comes to mind is somewhat grim and serious. Yet the movie is the opposite of that. It’s completely irreverent and that’s the point. Duck Soup is one of the most scathing political satires in cinematic history and it had a very specific target. It’s also one of the most footloose, fancy-free, and careless musical comedies in the history of Hollywood. 

Set in the fictional country of Freedonia, the nation is in need of a new leader following the nation’s bankruptcy. A wealthy financier demands the strange and enigmatic Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) become the new leader. Rufus immediately reveals himself to be a cruel, arbitrarily, hypocritical ruler who taxes his people to death, imposes new laws on a whim, refuses to take matters of state seriously, and seems to change his mind and policies on a second by second basis. He even carelessly starts a war via an argument with his own internal monologue. 

Lest we forget, the film was released just a decade and a half after World War I. The movie’s comedy is rooted in a deep cynicism about the nature of political power and the legitimacy of the ruling class. Rufus T. Firefly is a one-man engine of sinister political cruelty and destruction, who seems contented only in so far as his actions infuriate those around him. As Firefly continues his reign of dissonance, the neighboring nation of Sylvania is plotting to forcefully annex Freedonia by force. They send two spies (Chico and Harpo Marx) to infiltrate the government and help prepare the way for their approaching war.

Describing it with such serious terminology though really undersells what makes Duck Soup such a relentlessly enjoyable experience as a film. The film is a farce at heart and owns the ensuing chaos of Rufus T. Firefly. It relishes in the absurdity of its premise in the same way Bugs Bunny enjoys torturing his victims. The film is a quick-witted and fast paced comedy that sparsely stops to consider the consequences of its events. Even as war consumes Freedonia and firefights are happening in the streets, Firefly is every bit the mad-man he starts out as.

The title reflects this absurd tone of the film. “Duck Soup” is forgotten American slang for “something easy to do”. For Firefly, being a politician is easy. So long as he doesn’t actually care about the people or does anything consistent, he can enjoy his reign of chaos till the bitter end. As Rufus himself sings during one of the film’s opening songs: 

“If any form of pleasure is exhibited, Report to me and it will be prohibited.
I’ll put my foot down; So shall it be, This is the land of the free.
The last man nearly ruined this place, He didn’t know what to do with it.
If you think this country’s bad off now, Just wait ’till I get through with it.”

Just through this portrayal, the movie is lambasting the very idea of political power as an engine of destruction. It’s criticizing the arbitrary, cruel policies that created contemporary disasters, like World War I, prohibition, and The Great Depression. It’s a farce of powerlessness in the face of a growingly cruel and disinterested international ruling class that’s content to let such tragedies occur. 

The film was, first and foremost, a Marx brothers vehicle for their unique brand of comedic entertainment. The movie was the fifth film in a series starring the eponymously named Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo Marx for Paramount pictures. It was also Zeppo’s last film before leaving the troupe. Coming at the height of the Great Depression, it was merely a lukewarm success and didn’t gain a deeper reputation until years later when its cynicism wasn’t compounded by real world tragedy and deprivation. Over the years, it’s become a recognized classic. My local affiliate of WGN-Chicago famously played the movie every year on New Year’s Eve for decades. 

The actual experience of watching Duck Soup is one of elation. It’s a relentlessly funny comedy with great musical numbers, dance choreography, and well written turns of phrase by the great Groucho Marx. The satire is subtextual but it’s obvious, and it remains deeply cynical to the point of preachiness. I know some people who have grown tired with the film after seeing it multiple times for that reason. I’ve viewed the film a few times over the past year and it remains as biting and clever as the first time I saw it. This really would be a great movie for a New Year’s Eve party!

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Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

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