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Duck Soup Movie Review

marx groucho war teasdale

1933 – Leo McCarey –

A government has been mismanaged, if you can imagine such a thing. Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont), who has already spent half of her late husband's legacy supporting Freedonia, now insists that her choice, Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx), be placed in charge of the country. The comic insolence of the Marxes has never been exercised more freely than in this classic from 1933. Groucho makes his entrance in the massive reception hall sliding down a fire-pole, he plays hopscotch while Mrs. Teasdale delivers her formal speech of welcome, and later he makes the cabinet members wait while he finishes a game of jacks. When one official resigns, saying he is “washing his hands of the whole thing,” Groucho tells him to wash his neck too.

Nearly all of the Marx Brothers' most famous films adopt an approach that is, amid the many jokes, selectively satiric: Florida real estate salesmen in The Coconuts, country-house mysteries in Animal Crackers, academics in Horse Feathers, the dignity of high art in A Night at the Opera. Duck Soup goes the furthest, and the wildness that makes it cherished today may have also made it a popular failure upon its release and led to the Brothers leaving Paramount and moving to MGM. The film savages some of the Marxes' biggest and riskiest targets: government, authority figures, courts, war, patriotism.

Anyone who ever marveled at the inexplicable staying power of incompetent administrators will savor the scene where Groucho recruits a peanut vendor (Chico Marx) off the street as his new Minister of War. Life's occasional surreal moments when the formality of habit and ritual seem to be the only things giving structure to an otherwise absurd situation find great illustration in Chico's pun-filled trial scene.

Freedonia eventually goes to war against Sylvania because Groucho cannot tolerate being called an upstart by Ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern)—though being called a swine and a worm doesn't bother him. The announcement leads to a musical number in which the massive sound stage fills with extras singing a song (“All God's Chillun Got Guns!”) that gives bloodthirsty patriotism the aura of a spiritual. Director Leo McCarey, according to Jean-Pierre Coursodon in American Directors, tightened the film by taking out a subplot involving a romance between Zeppo and Raquel Torres and by adding the scenes at Mrs. Teasdale's house involving efforts to steal Freedonia's war plans. The anarchy of the film may have made it out of step with its own time when such respected subjects were not to be questioned, but since at least the 1960s, this comedy has been cherished for blowing a raspberry into the dignified corridors of respectability.

Cast: Groucho Marx (Rufus T. Firefly), Harpo Marx (Pinky), Chico Marx (Chicolini), Zeppo Marx (Bob Rolland), Margaret Dumont (Mrs. Teasdale), Raquel Torres (Vera Marcal), Louis Calhern (Ambassador Trentino), Edmund Breese (Zander), Leonid Kinskey (Agitator), Charles Middleton (Prosecutor), Verna Hillie (Secretary), George Macquarrie (First Judge), Edgar Kennedy (Lemonade Dealer), Edwin Maxwell (Secretary of War), William Worthington (First Minister of Finance) Screenwriter: Bert Kalmar, Nat Perrin, Harry Ruby, Arthur Sheekman Cinematographer: Henry Sharp Composer: Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby Producer: Herman J. Mankiewicz for Paramount Running Time: 70 minutes Format: VHS, LV, DVD.

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