It was my dad who originally introduced me to Duck Soup (1933). I believe it was some time in my high school years. Even my dad sensed my nerdiness, I suppose. I could not imagine many of my peers then (or even now) considering the Marx Brothers funny. I, on the other hand, was into history and generally liked old stuff, movies included. As a (roughly) eight-year-old, I remember sitting transfixed in the living room watch The Longest Day (1962), the John Wayne version of the D-Day invasion during World War II. For more comedic fare, my dad would show me Monty Python. Clearly, he had a good gauge of my sense of humor. If you like witty puns, a bit of slapstick, and some interestingly talented music playing, then Duck Soup has a little bit of everything for you.
Set in the mythical country of Freedonia, Duck Soup opens with a nation on the verge of bankruptcy. Its government summons the wealthiest widow in the land, Gloria Teasdale (Margaret Dumont), to ask for a loan to keep them solvent until their tax revenues can make up the difference. Mrs. Teasdale says that she will lend the money on one condition: that they bring in Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) to be their new leader. His introduction into his new position comes with a great deal of fanfare and excitement, with luminaries from around the world making an appearance to great him, particularly the ambassador from rival Sylvania Trentino (Louis Calhern). Trentino wants to marry Mrs. Teasdale and see Freedonia annexed to Sylvania in the process, but for the moment he is there to greet Firefly. Yet, with sword drawn honor guard and be-tutued dancers dropping flower petals on his proposed path, Firefly is late. Instead, he arrives via a firepole from his bedroom, and joins the honor guard with his cigar as a saber. What follows is a musical number (one of a few musical interludes) where he explains what he intends with his administration. It is a hilariously autocratic proposition about which everyone seems excited. Further, when he finds out how rich is Mrs. Teasdale, he immediately proposes to her. None of this, including the many insults Firefly hurls at him, endears him to Trentino. Regardless, the ambassador remains determined to undermine Freedonia, and employs the spies Chicolini (Chico Marx) and Pinky (Harpo Marx) to keep tabs on Firefly in the hopes of gaining information to bring down Sylvania’s neighbor. Chicolini and Pinky’s initial report of their efforts, not helped by the fact that Pinky does not talk, is not a promising one. Nor do they seem particularly concerned, doing various Marx Brothers antics the whole time. Nonetheless, Trentino sends them back out to continue monitoring Firefly. Chicolini manages to get in Firefly’s good graces when Firefly sees Chicolini selling peanuts and on a whim elevates the faux vendor to minister of war. This is to come in handy for Trentino because Friefly invites himself to Mrs. Teasdale’s tea party, interrupts Trentino’s attempt to ask for Mrs. Teasdale’s hand, and promptly declares war on Sylvania. Mrs. Teasdale tries one last time to negotiate peace between Firefly and Trentino, but Firefly conjures up an excuse for why this will not work and continues on his bellicose path. Firefly then entrusts his war plans to Mrs. Teasdale, which Trentino gets word of through Mrs. Teasdale’s houseguest, the beautiful dancer Vera Marcal (Raquel Torres). This news brings Chicolini and Pinky to Mrs. Teasdale’s home to steal the plans, but then again, what do you expect from veritable clowns? At any rate, Chicolini is discovered as a spy and is put on trial, though apparently acquitted through a verbal exchange between he and Firefly full of puns. Hence, it is to war with Sylvania, a sequence featuring Firefly wearing every military uniform imaginable, which are changed instantaneously whenever there is a cutaway. He, Chicolini, Pinky, and the other Marx Brother (poor Zeppo Marx) end up defending Mrs. Teasdale’s home. They are about to be overwhelmed when they manage to take hold of Trentino, who immediately surrenders, thus ending the war. This prompts Mrs. Teasdale to launch into a patriotic song, which is not to the Marx Brothers’ liking as they quickly turn and start hurling tomatoes at her.
The description of Duck Soup in the previous paragraph might make it sound like it has a plot, which would be misleading. It is actually a little over an hour-long excuse for the Marx Brothers to do their comedy. While it is hilarious, I could imagine it getting tedious if it were much longer. One can only take so many puns in one sitting. Yet, that is not all that the Marx Brothers are able to do for laughs. This film has one of the more famous scenes in cinema history. When Chicolini and Pinky are in Mrs. Teasdale’s home searching for the war plans, they each decide one of the best ways of sneaking around is to dress like Firefly. They are brothers in real life, so it worked well on camera. At one point, in fleeing Pinky runs into and breaks a large mirror that has a room on the other side of it. When Firefly reaches where the mirror was, he finds Pinky there, the spitting image of himself. There follows a funny, but extremely clever and well done, sequence where Pinky mirrors Firefly’s movements. It works flawlessly for a little while, and Pinky correctly guesses Firefly’s movements when he emerges from behind a wall. It even remains chuckle-worthy when it begins to break down. What ruins it is when Chicolini shows up, leading to his capture. This alone makes the film worth watching. There are some dated references in it, and a little bit of racism that you could miss unless you know what you are looking at when it happens. Still, on balance, it is comedic gold.
I do not really have too much of a Catholic angle to Duck Soup. On a deeper level, it is an anti-war film as the Marx Brothers lampoon militarization throughout. That is a notion this Catholic supports. One could also take issue with the way women are treated in the film. Pinky, in particular, chases after the fairer sex with an ungentlemanly interest. Neither does Firefly have nice things to say about Mrs. Teasdale, his only real interest being her money. Despite all this, you watch this film because the Marx Brothers were pioneers. This is probably their best work, and it is worth an hour of your time.