Duck Soup (1933)

Rufus T. Firefly is named president/dictator of bankrupt Freedonia and declares war on neighboring Sylvania over the love of wealthy Mrs. Teasdale.

1933, DUCK SOUP: MARX BROTHERS

There are a lot of reasons why so many different reviewers suggest that “Duck Soup” is a genuine candidate for the funniest movie ever made. It has the Marx brothers at their very best, with rapid-fire laughs combining with a satirical “plot” that is very funny in itself, without getting in the way of the individual comedy sequences that are the real highlight of the film. Their timing and material are as good here as they ever have been.

The Marx brothers are still beloved today because when at their best, they treated their audience to a lot of riotous slapstick that cannot be watched without laughing, while at the same time rewarding their viewers for paying attention with a steady stream of puns, deadpan one-liners, brief sight gags, and other subtler humor. The more you watch, the more you notice.

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“Duck Soup” has a lot of their very best material, and everyone has their own favorite scenes, whether it is the mirror sequence, or Chico and Harpo giving their report to Louis Calhern, or the street vendor scenes, or … . The variety of comic settings and comic material is amazing, and when you add in the entertaining musical sequences (which again are particularly good in this one), it is a feast that never stops.

Any Marx brothers fan has seen this one several times, and does not need to be reminded what great fun it is. If you have never watched one of their films, give this one a try.

Mirror scene

In the “mirror scene,” Pinky, dressed as Firefly, pretends to be Firefly’s reflection in a missing mirror, matching his every move—including absurd ones that begin out of sight—to near perfection. In one particularly surreal moment, the two men swap positions, and thus the idea of which is a reflection of the other. Eventually, and to their misfortune, Chicolini, also disguised as Firefly, enters the frame and collides with both of them.

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Although its appearance in Duck Soup is the best known instance, the concept of the mirror scene did not originate in this film. Max Linder included it in Seven Years Bad Luck (1921), where a man’s servants have accidentally broken a mirror and attempt to hide the fact by imitating his actions in the mirror’s frame.  Charlie Chaplin used a similar joke in The Floorwalker (1916), though it did not involve a mirror.

This scene has been recreated many times; for instance, in the Bugs Bunny cartoon Hare Tonic, the Mickey Mouse cartoon Lonesome Ghosts, in the Abbott and Costello film Lost in a Harem (1944), in The Three Stooges short Idle Roomers (1944), in The Pink Panther (1963), in the TV series Gilligan’s Island (“Gilligan vs. Gilligan”, 1966), in the film Big Business (1988), in The X-Files episode “Dreamland“, and is parodied in the Family Guy episode “Road to Germany“. Harpo himself did a reprise of this scene, dressed in his usual costume, with Lucille Ball also donning the fright wig and trench coat, in the I Love Lucy episode “Lucy and Harpo Marx”.

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Reception

Groucho in one of the many costumes he wore in the war sequence of Duck Soup.

Popular belief holds that Duck Soup was a box office failure, but this is not true. Although it did not do as well as Horse Feathers, it was the sixth-highest-grossing film of 1933, according to Glenn Mitchell in The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia and Simon Louvish in Monkey Business, his biography of the Marx Brothers.

One possible reason for the film’s lukewarm reception is that it was released during the Great Depression. Audiences were taken aback by such preposterous political disregard, buffoonery, and cynicism at a time of economic and political crisis.Film scholar Leonard Maltin had this to say in his book The Great Movie Comedians:

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As wonderful as Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, and Duck Soup seem today, some critics and moviegoers found them unpleasant and longed for the more orderly world of The Cocoanuts with its musical banalities. . Many right-thinkers laughed themselves silly in 1933—but a large number didn’t. . The unrelieved assault of Marxian comedy was simply too much for some people.

Years later, Groucho’s son Arthur Marx described Irving Thalberg‘s assessment of the film’s purported failure during a National Public Radio interview:

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[Thalberg] said the trouble with Duck Soup is you’ve got funny gags in it, but there’s no story and there’s nothing to root for. You can’t root for the Marx Brothers because they’re a bunch of zany kooks. [Thalberg] says, “You gotta put a love story in your movie so there’ll be something to root for, and you have to help the lovers get together.”.

Most critics at the time disliked it because of its “dated” look at politics. Some modern critics are also unimpressed. Christopher Null believes, “the send-up of Mussolini-types doesn’t quite pan out. Take the comedy, leave the story. 

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Even Groucho himself did not initially think too highly of the film. When asked the significance of the film’s politics, Groucho only shrugged and said: “What significance? We were just four Jews trying to get a laugh.” Nevertheless, the Brothers were ecstatic when Benito Mussolini took the film as a personal insult and banned it in Italy.Also, the residents of Fredonia, New York, protested because they feared that the similar-sounding nation would hurt their city’s reputation. The Marx Brothers took the opposite approach, telling them to change the name of their town to keep from hurting their movie.

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Despite the tepid critical response at the time, Duck Soup is now seen as a classic political farce. Film critic Danel Griffin believes that Duck Soup is “on par with other war comedies like Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, only slightly more unnerving in that Duck Soup doesn’t seem to realize it is anything more than innocent fluff.” Fellow film critic Roger Ebert believed, “The Marx Brothers created a body of work in which individual films are like slices from the whole, but Duck Soup is probably the best.”British film critic Barry Norman was slightly cautious about the Marx Brothers overall, but considered that Duck Soup was their best and included it in his 100 best films of the 20th century.

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Revived interest in the film (and other 1930s comedies in general) during the 1960s was seen as dovetailing with the rebellious side of American culture in that decade. American literary critic Harold Bloom considers the end of Duck Soup one of the greatest works of American art produced in the 20th century.

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