“But there must be a war. I’ve paid a month’s rent on the battlefield!”
A wealthy socialite (Margaret Dumont) with a crush on zany Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) insists that he be elected president of the troubled country of Freedonia; meanwhile, the ambassador (Louis Calhern) of Freedonia’s rival, Sylvania, enlists the help of two inept spies (Chico Marx and Harpo Marx) to gather critical information on Firefly, and soon war has erupted between the two countries.
Response to Peary’s Review:
It’s interesting but not surprising to learn that while made in the Marx Brothers’ “heyday”, Duck Soup was their “one critical and commercial flop of the period” — perhaps because “Depression Era audiences, who needed to believe in their leaders, were a bit unnerved seeing Groucho as the ruler of a country”. However, as Peary notes, “college audiences in the 1960s were looking for films that treated politicians with the disrespect they deserved”, thus leading this film to take its “rightful place in the comedy-film pantheon” (and turning it into a cult favorite). Peary, along with most other critics, refers to this as “the team’s masterpiece”, noting that it contains “70 delightful minutes of non-stop (no musical interludes or romance) sight gags, verbal wit, zany improvisations, and Groucho and Harpo offending everyone around them”, and further observing that “it is the only film that provided the team with the proper political milieu for their anarchic brand of humor”.
In his Cult Movies review, Peary argues that director Leo McCarey (who apparently balked at being given this assignment) “presents the Marx Brothers… at their most consistently rude and irreverent”, noting that their humor is “derived to a great extent from the cumulative effects that their unremitting insults (Groucho), puns (Groucho and Chico), invasions of privacy, destruction of property (Harpo), and general annoyances (Groucho, Chico, and Harpo) have on the pompous boors and wealthy hypocrites who populate their world”. Nicely said! Indeed, that description just about sums up their comedic arsenal perfectly. For more information about specific scenes in this zaniest of cinematic masterpieces — a still-potent example of unadulterated comedic anarchy — I humbly refer you to either Peary’s Cult Movies review, or any of the many fine analyses available online or in print.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Groucho Marx as Firefly (nominated by Peary as one of the best actors of the year in Alternate Oscars)
- Margaret Dumont at Mrs. Teasdale
- Groucho and Chico’s non-stop verbal wit
- A ruthlessly breakneck satire of countless cinematic tropes
- The infamous, oft-imitated-but-never-equaled mirror scene
- A truly surreal screenplay
Yes, as an undisputed comedy classic. Nominated by Peary as one of the best films of the year in his Alternate Oscars, and discussed at length in his first Cult Movies book.
(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)