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Duck Soup (1933)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

"Hail, Hail Freedonia, Land of the Brave and Free...!"

I've read recently that laughter is good for your heart. If that is true then Duck Soup should be even better than chicken soup for your cardiovascular health. This film is the Marx Brother's masterpiece and the apex of their movie accomplishments. The musical and political spoof was directed by Leo McCarey and written by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. It is a comedy classic that will shine as long as the memory of the 20th century State stays fresh in people's minds. Of course, the Marx Brothers are always funny, but this movie has such a wealth of comedy material because government is the natural supplier.

The movie begins at an important state function. According to Mrs. Gloria Teasdale (Margaret Dumont), who has been keeping her country afloat financially, Freedonia needs a new leader. The current leaders implore Mrs. Teasdale to lend Freedonia another $20 million. She responds by saying that she believes, along with the people, that the government has been mismanaged. She will lend more money to the government only on the condition that Rufus T. Firefly be appointed to lead Freedonia’s government.

Firefly is appointed and an extravagantly expensive reception welcomes him to Freedonia. One of the attending statesmen, from neighboring Sylvania, Ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern) is greeted by Mrs. Teasdale at the reception where she is acting as hostess. She introduces Trentino to Vera Marcal (Raquel Torres), who has a reputation as a dancer. As Mrs. Teasdale is drawn away to greet more arriving guests, Trentino and Marcal hatch plans to undermine Firefly’s government so that they can take control of Freedonia.

Discussion of Firefly's imminent arrival at the diplomatic ball brings forth his secretary Lt. Bob Roland (Zeppo Marx) and the first indication that perhaps this film isn’t a serious drama when he begins to sing. However, the serious tone is temporarily salvaged when the music segues to Freedonia’s short National Anthem: "Hail, Hail Freedonia, Land of the Brave and Free...!" From the look of events in the movie so far, Freedonia seems vaguely European, but that one line anthem sounds vaguely familiar too.

After several musical fanfares announcing Firefly’s entrance produce no Firefly, the scene shifts to a sleeping area and a “mustachioed” man smoking a cigar while he sleeps. A loud alarm wakes him and he quickly removes his nightshirt, which he is wearing over evening dress, and he enters the ballroom sliding down a fire pole. Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) has arrived at his reception. Mrs. Teasdale eventually spies him and welcomes him “with open arms.” Groucho launches into a series of one-liners, so characteristic of his comedy style, which continue mostly unanswered. Mrs. Teasdale sings a question about what Firefly intends to do as Freedonia’s leader. He replies thusly…. (singing)

These are the laws of my administration:

No one's allowed to smoke,
Or tell a dirty joke,
And whistling is forbidden.
(sang Firefly before whistling)

If chewing gum is chewed,
The chewer is pursued,
And in the hoosegow hidden.
(said while appearing to chew gum) 

If any form of pleasure is exhibited,
Report to me and it will be prohibited.
I'll put my foot down, so shall it be,
This is the land of the free. 

The last man nearly ruined this place,
He didn't know what to do with it
If you think this country's bad off now,
Just wait 'til I get through with it 

The country's taxes must be fixed
And I know what to do with it
If you think you're paying too much now
Just wait till I get through with it 

I will not stand for anything that's crooked or unfair
I'm strictly on the up and up, so everyone beware.
If any man's caught taking graft, and I don't get my share
We stand 'im up against the wall and ... Pop!  goes the weasel.

There’s more, but that’s enough to get the flavor of it. Sound familiar? It should, although to audiences in 1933 when the movie was released all those prohibitions wouldn’t have sounded quite so close to home. Prohibition had just been repealed.

Trentino has two more Sylvanian spies dispatched to dig up dirt on Firefly: Chicolini (Chico Marx) and Pinky (Harpo Marx). The scenes with Chico and Harpo are outrageously funny. The scene with Trentino in which Chicolini and Pinky are first seen is merely the beginning of their riotously irreverent comedy. Harpo (a master of visual humor) and his scissors (and other implements from his overcoat) are very active throughout the movie. The scenes at the peanut and lemonade stands are classics as are many others from this movie.

Government and its wars are given a thorough drubbing by the comedy masters. Although all the Marx Brothers movies are very funny, the early Marx Brothers movies produced by Paramount are their best. Duck Soup is the best of the best. If you need an excuse to enjoy a great comedy, do your heart a favor and have some laughs.

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