Duck Soup

Leo McCarey

BY Will SloanPublished Jul 11, 2011

The word "anarchic" is used so often to describe the Marx Brothers, but how seriously do people really take this claim? Because their films are old, and because the best ones are only now being re-released on DVD after years out of print, it's easy to forget the sheer ferociousness of their comedy. When, early in Duck Soup (1933), the hoity-toity Margaret Dumont tells Groucho (here playing "Rufus T. Firefly," newly appointed dictator of Freedonia) that the future of the country is in his hands, and he replies, "Well, that covers a lot of ground. Say, you cover a lot of ground yourself. You better beat it, I hear they're going to tear you down and build an office building where you're standing," the sheer destructive force of that statement hits you in the gut. After the film spends several minutes establishing a story (some nonsense about tension between Freedonia and rival nation Sylvania), out comes Groucho to tell us that the story means nothing, and you're a fool for ever thinking otherwise. If Duck Soup has a mission, apart from being funny, it is to subvert every attempt to take it seriously – unlike other Marx Brothers films, there is no romantic subplot, no glamorous love ballads and only the most basic plot, which is gleefully undermined at every opportunity. Our expectations are continuously subverted. Chico is first a Sylvanian spy, then a war criminal, then, all of a sudden, the Freedonian Minister of War. When Harpo tries to play one of his signature harp solos on piano strings, the lid falls on his hands. In the famous mirror scene (Harpo, dressed as Groucho, tries to convince Groucho that he's his reflection), the two men follow each other's movements perfectly until one picks up the other's hat and hands it to him, thereby rendering the entire logic of the situation suddenly irrelevant. All the while characters and subplots appear and disappear at random, and actions have no ramifications. The film retains some kind of internal logic, but only in its complete rejection of logic, and while some critics have allegedly found an anti-war/dictatorship message, this is more total disrespect for any authority rather than a particularly coherent political point-of-view. Minute by minute, there are more laughs in this densely packed little 68-minute film than any other comedy, and in its utter pandemonium, Duck Soup is the purest and most forceful expression of the Marx Brothers' particular brand of political, social and especially cinematic anarchy. Unfortunately, Universal's new DVD is just a single-disc repackaging of the same version found in the disappointing 2004 Marx Brothers Collection box set. The image and sound are unspectacular, and the only extra is a trailer. It's hard to think of a classic film more deserving of a full restoration and extras than this.

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