Draw a line from anything in any movie that’s ever made you laugh, and you’ll eventually connect to the Marx Brothers. Within Duck Soup, their goofy, shambling masterpiece, there are glimpses of what will be funny for the Pythons, the Goons, Dr. Strangelove, and Blazing Saddles. Its frantic wackiness is a strange cuvée of ingenious and idiotic, where dad-puns, deadpan snark, and stunning physical comedy swirl together for 68 breathless minutes. Some of the jokes don’t land like they did in 1933, but 90 years of rapid cultural evolution will do that to anybody. All those frayed edges don’t matter when so much of the material points to something above and beyond its time: There’s simply no path to modern comedy that doesn’t travel directly through Duck Soup.
The plot is simply an excuse for a tattered assemblage of Marxian shenanigans: Somewhere between the Baltic Sea and the Land of Make Believe, lies the fictional country of Freedonia. Broke and leaderless, the fearful Freedonians turn to Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont), a wealthy dowager, for advice on a new ruler. She suggests Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx), a freewheeling rascal.
Firefly’s ascendence kicks off a giddy blast of mayhem and intrigue: Sylvania, a rival nation, wants to annex Freedonia for its own. This scheme is led by Ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern), who plots to gather intelligence and undermine Firefly’s authority. For this, he recruits two bumbling spies (Harpo and Chico), whose antics only help bring the villains to light.
Most of the resulting film plays like a highlight reel for the three brothers. (Zeppo just didn’t have the comic chops of his older siblings, and bowed out of the act after this movie.) Groucho fires off puns with the fury of a Tommy gun: “I got a good mind to join a club and beat you over the head with it.” Meanwhile, Harpo and Chico form a two-man act for the ages, whether they’re clowning a lemonade vendor (Edgar Kennedy, who takes his licks like a champ), or dressing up like Groucho, in a sequence of farcical brilliance.
That bit leads to one of the film’s highlights, in which Harpo, still disguised as Groucho, takes the place of a destroyed mirror and mimics his brother’s every move. It’s pure Vaudeville, and the two men execute it to perfection. Others have tried this schtick before and after–Bugs Bunny is a notable example–but nobody has ever beat this version.
As Soup rolls along, it quietly becomes a satire of war. The Marxes riff on an old Black spiritual (“All God’s Chillun Got Guns”), and hurl fruit at their enemy during a battle. This must’ve inspired Kubrick, as he famously planned to end Strangelove with a pie fight in the War Room.
For all its relentless riffing, Duck Soup really hones in on comedy’s most sacred rule: It doesn’t matter if the material is anarchic, cerebral, or gloriously stupid. If it gets a laugh, it works. Duck Soup not only works, it shows future generations how to get it done.
68 min. NR. Amazon Video.