#85 Duck Soup

#85 Duck Soup (1933)

“Take two turkeys, one goose, four cabbages, but no duck, and mix them together. After one taste, you’ll duck soup for the rest of your life.”

Duck Soup begins with a shot of several ducks swimming about in boiling cauldron. Unfortunately this duck wasn’t in the pot. But what is in the pot is a solid hour of comedy routines from the Marx Brothers, Groucho (because he was grouchy), Harpo (because he played the harp), Chico (because he was a womanizer), and Zeppo (because…).

I think there’s a plot. Let’s see, something about a country called Freedonia needs a new leader so they hire Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho). He promises to raise taxes, abolish civil liberties, and generally leave things even worse than the way he found them. Sylvania is a neighboring country attempting to bring Freedonia down. Their leader hires spies Chicolini and Pinky (Chico and Harpo) to disgrace Firefly and plunge the country into chaos. Umm… I think that’s right. But it doesn’t matter because the plot merely serves as an excuse to barrage the audience with witty insults, puns, double entendres, slapstick, one-liners, prop humor, sight gags, and musical comedy.

It’s impossible to overstate the influence of the Marx Brothers on virtually every comedic act that followed them. Everyone from Milton Berle to Monty Python owe much to the comedy genius of the Brothers. It’s probably fair to say that their comedy is American comedy. It’s a blend of two distinct types of jokes: Groucho’s witty wordplay and dialogue driven humor and the more slapstick physical comedy perfected by Harpo. I prefer the former. His delivery is perfect, and the writing is so, so sharp. Take this exchange between Groucho and Mrs. Teasdale for example:

Rufus T. Firefly: Not that I care, but where is your husband?
Mrs. Teasdale: Why, he’s dead.
Rufus T. Firefly: I bet he’s just using that as an excuse.
Mrs. Teasdale: I was with him to the very end.
Rufus T. Firefly: No wonder he passed away.
Mrs. Teasdale: I held him in my arms and kissed him.
Rufus T. Firefly: Oh, I see, then it was murder. Will you marry me? Did he leave you any money? Answer the second question first.
Mrs. Teasdale: He left me his entire fortune.
Rufus T. Firefly: Is that so? Can’t you see that I’m trying to tell you I love you!

Harpo’s silent, physical humor is obviously great, seminal stuff, bringing to mind Benny Hill, Mr. Bean, and even Manuel from Fawlty Towers. But for me the gags tend to get old rather quickly, and Harpo’s facial expressions just tend get on my nerves. This is hardly criticism, though. Just a matter of taste.

Perhaps the most famous scene in the film is the mirror scene. Harpo breaks into Groucho’s apartment and accidentally breaks his mirror. When Groucho comes to investigate, Harpo, disguised as Groucho in nightgown and cap, mimics every one of Groucho’s moves while standing where the mirror once did. I’m sure you’ve seen the gag copied by various other performers through the years, further testament to the Marx genius.

The mirror scene just may be the most honest, genuinely funny joke in the history of film. It transcends language and relies on nothing but the pure talent of the performers, without having to resort to the crass and vulgar. Five will get you ten: show this to anyone in the world, no matter their age, race, intelligence or religion and I’m betting they laugh. Or at least get the joke. But don’t show it to this kid. He won’t understand, and will probably just quack at you and yell for you to come back as you walk away, irritated.

I was dreading having to watch this film. I thought for sure that I’d find it unbearably corny, unwatchable. I watched it twice, and I recommend that you do also. Something will make you laugh, I promise. Sixty-eight minutes well spent.

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