Appellate Judge James A. Stewart likes his duck soup frozen, not canned.
"Why, a four-year-old could understand this report. Run out and find me a four-year-old child. I can't make head or tail out of it."—Groucho Marx
The above line is great—one of many oft-quoted lines from Duck Soup. The movie, in which Groucho Marx quips his way into political power, came out in 1933, a year when many Americans would undoubtedly have liked to see a four-year-old child running the government. There's some picky rule in the Constitution about that, so the best they could hope for was Groucho, acting like a four-year-old in the role of Rufus T. Firefly.
Facts of the Case
Wealthy Gloria Teasdale won't lend the government of her native Freedonia any more money unless they put Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx, You Bet Your Life) in charge—so they do. Soon, he's sparring verbally with the ambassador of Sylvania, bringing the nation to the brink of war. Meanwhile, the ambassador has sent spies (Harpo Marx, Chico Marx) into Freedonia to put out Firefly. What's Firefly going to do about it? Appoint one of the spies as secretary of war, of course.
There are a few of those famous sharper quips, as when an official points out that "War would mean a prohibitive increase in our taxes" or Groucho Marx, as Rufus T. Firefly, sings "If you think this country's bad off now, just wait till I get through with it." However, the dialogue runs more to puns, like "You've got to take up the tacks (tax) before you can take up the carpet," and silly stuff, like a riddle Firefly poses that he can't remember the answer to.
There's not that much satire beyond the sight of putting a four-year-old in charge of a nation during the Great Depression—and Groucho does look like one, rolling up his trousers and bouncing a ball in meetings. When his secretary (Zeppo Marx) discovers the ambassador plotting, Firefly has a solution: "I've got a good mind to ring his doorbell and run."
While Groucho brings verbal chaos, Chico and Harpo do mostly slapstick. They torment a peanut vendor and run around Mrs. Teasdale's home on a secret mission. It's especially fun to watch Chico and Harpo impersonating Groucho, getting his mannerisms right, even though they're let down by their voices (or lack thereof, in the case of silent Harpo). At one point, Harpo gets to answer a phone call; while it must be maddening for whoever's at the other end, it's great for viewers.
The movie has fun with visual tricks, putting a barking dog in the middle of Harpo's tattoo, and inserting some goofy footage into a key war scene.
Picture quality isn't perfect with lines, specks, and other glitches on the 1933 black-and-white film that couldn't really be avoided, but Universal seems to do the best it can with the release.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Once Groucho shows up for the first time, Duck Soup can't be stopped. Those first few minutes of plot setup, however, can be slow. Also, the moments when people break into song—once just to tell the time—won't be for everybody.
There are a couple of surprisingly naughty lines and scenes in this movie. It's not for the littlest ones.
The thing that piques your interest in Duck Soup is the thing that's most likely to limit your enjoyment: By now, all the best lines have been quoted somewhere—and it turns out that there aren't as many great lines as you'd think from all that quoting. The rest of the movie is just silliness.
If you're looking for a brilliant satire, you're likely to be disappointed. Duck Soup is funny, but it just isn't that kind of film, despite its reputation. What it turns out to be is silliness and slapstick, most of which has little to do with the political premise. If you love puns (as I do), the dialogue's a rare treat (as when Chico, as secretary of war, wants a standing army, to "save money on chairs"). Avoid overanalyzing it, and it could be tasty.
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