When it comes to comedy teams, in my mind there were none better than The Marx Brothers. While they existed in the same era that gave us The Three (or possibly nine) Stooges, there was just something classier about the Marx’s brand of zany, madcap humour. Coming from a vaudeville background, they were not shy about translating those skills to the silver screen –deft wordplay, musical comedy, mime and even good ol’ physical stuff; they had it all in spades. And in no other film did it all come together better, in my mind, than in today’s offering – Duck Soup.
The plot of Duck Soup sees wealthy Mrs Teasdale (played, as always, by Margret Dumont) hand over the keys of small and bankrupt Freedonia to Rufus T Firefly (Groucho), who attempts to run the country about as well as Groucho Marx could. Meanwhile, neighbouring Sylvania is attempting to take over Freedonia, and their president sends in a couple of spies (Chico and Harpo). Much as in other Marx films, the plot, such as it is, remains secondary to showcasing the antics and skills that each brother bought to the screen.
Wrongly seen as a flop by many people, the film did actually bring to an end two major chapters in the Marx Brothers saga – it was the final film that featured Zeppo (who was the singer of the group), and was the final film that they did with the Paramount Studios. And, boy did they go out with a bang – a film that poked fun at war, politics and government released during the height of the Great Depression. Since then, it has been reassessed as not only the possible best film that the Marx’s ever did, but as an outright classic in and of itself.
And the film is a classic with good reason, with all four boys at the top of their game. Groucho was always an anarchic force of nature, sometimes at the detriment of those around him. However, as Rufus T Firefly, he seems more comfortable sharing the spotlight, which allows for some classic multi-player scenes including the oft-imitated mirror scene.
Tell me that isn’t gold and I will call you a silly person indeed. And so will Warner Brothers, Disney, Seth McFarlane and even Lucille Ball – all who have paid homage to this scene. Yes, I know that Groucho and Harpo weren’t the first to do it, and were themselves paying homage to Charlie Chaplin, but they did it the best.
Chico, as always, was the fast talking huckster (yes, I know Groucho was too a lot of the time, but Chico’s whole character was that); and Harpo, never better as the idiot manchild. While Groucho was often set up as the centrepiece of the team, with Chico and Harpo relegated to “second banana” status; they would always get to show off their skills no matter the film. And in Duck Soup, they show the physical side of their skills off in one of my favourite scenes: in which they screw with a rival snack seller, so they (as rival country spies....remember) can get in good with Rufus. Hell, every time that Chico and Harpo interact with their rival is pure gold in my eyes, even if some of it does cross the line into dickishness – it’s done with such glee that you can’t help but laugh (unless you don’t have a sense of humour, in which case: why are you watching a Marx Brothers film?)
To me, the film holds a strong place in my heart as the first Marx Brothers film I saw. And it introduced me to new comedy heroes, second only to the Monty Python crew. To me, the Marx Brothers show how timeless truly great comedy is; sure, they occasionally would reference happenings of the day, but they were done in such a way as to not tie them to the time. That way, even 70 years later, you can laugh yourself silly at the world play, in addition to the sight gags and physical stuff.
The only thing I find weak about this film, or any Marx film for that matter, is the dryness of any scene not featuring the Brothers (yes, even Zeppo; who was always put forth as the driest of the four). This is by no fault of the foils (because every actor in a Marx Brothers film not named Marx was simply a foil for them), because they are all good at what they do – it’s just that the boys were so powerful and great at what they did, that they not only took focus whenever they were on screen, but their presence was missed whenever they weren’t.
Sure, the boys were never going to stretch as actors, but as comedians, characters and anarchic geniuses, there were none finer than Groucho, Harpo and Chico. And nothing showed this more than Duck Soup. While other films may have highlighted their individual skills, this film truly showcased them as a goup.