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With: Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx, Zeppo Marx, Margaret DuMont
Written by: Burt Kalmar, Harry Ruby, Arthur Sheekman, Nat Perrin
Directed by: Leo McCarey
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 70
Date: 17/11/1933

Duck Soup (1933)

4 Stars (out of 4)

The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy The Marx Brothers: Silver Screen Collection on DVD.

For some reason, the Marx Brothers' greatest film, Duck Soup, has had trouble staying in print on home video. Now it's finally available on DVD again and it looks like it might be here to stay.

It's part of a beautiful, must-have six-disc set that includes all five of the brothers' films with Zeppo: The Cocoanuts (1929), Animal Crackers (1930), Monkey Business (1931), Horse Feathers (1932) and Duck Soup (1933), plus a sixth disc of extras (three "Today Show" interviews with Harpo, Groucho and Harpo's son William).

Because of their origins on stage, the four Marx brothers -- Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo -- made a slow start into the cinema. The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers suffered from their clunky stage-to-screen adaptation, as well as antique achievements in cinema sound. Animal Crackers has the slowest first ten minutes of nearly any comedy, opening with a tepid musical number performed by supporting characters.

Written directly for the screen with help from comic legend S.J. Perlman, Monkey Business was a vast improvement, and Horse Feathers was better still, thanks to improved quality of sound design.

But Duck Soup has it all. It marked the brothers' peak experience in film, their fastest, craziest, funniest film before leaving Paramount and going to MGM, where their films became longer, slower and more expensive. Duck Soup is the closest thing to pure anarchy on film.

Getting away with some of the most vicious political satire of all time, the film's "plot" concerns the fictitious, nearly bankrupt country of Freedonia. The widow Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) offers $20 million to bail the government out, but only if Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) is appointed new leader. The Sylvanian ambassador (Louis Calhern) attempts to woo away the rich widow by distracting Firefly with a sexy Latina dancer (Raquel Torres), which leads to war between the two countries.

Of course, the brothers find every excuse to stray away from this plot and distract us, notably in the famous peanut stand scene in which Chico and Harpo torment poor lemonade vendor Edgar Kennedy, and the extraordinary mirror scene, in which Harpo dresses as Groucho and mimics his movements through an open doorway.

A quick word about Zeppo: many Marx Brothers fans consider him the disposable brother, the one who didn't have any kind of shtick. But Zeppo was the greatest straight man the screen has ever known. He was sweet, but not too sweet, and he never stole the attention away from the gags. He always provided a cheerful and willing foil and never broke the rhythm or acted in an unprofessional manner. Keeping an eye on Zeppo's incredibly subtle work can add yet another layer to this fast-paced, in-your-face film.

Duck Soup contains a few scrappy songs that can hardly be called "songs," and dozens of glorious dialogue exchanges like this one, one of my favorites:

Minister of Finance: Something must be done! War would mean a prohibitive increase in our taxes.

Chico: Hey, I got an uncle lives in Taxes.

Minister of Finance: No, I'm talking about taxes -- money, dollars.

Chico: Dollars! There's-a where my uncle lives! Dollars, Taxes!

The film was directed by Leo McCarey, who was undoubtedly the sprightliest of all the Marx Brothers directors; they were often saddled with studio regulars like Sam Wood and Norman Z. McLeod. McCarey had directed dozens of silent comic two-reelers and knew how to keep the action moving at lightning pace, knew when to disregard plot for comedy and -- above all -- knew how to let the brothers loose without completely losing control of them. Tragically, as McCarey's star grew, he rarely returned to comedy. After the hits Ruggles of Red Gap and The Awful Truth (for which he won the Best Director Oscar), he began to favor melodramas like My Son John and An Affair to Remember.

But perhaps the ultimate reason Duck Soup continues to dominate the other Marx Brothers films is its cynicism toward politics. The ridiculous reasons for going to war ("I already put a deposit on the battlefield") and the awkward, hysterical war itself are especially relevant today.

Not to mention that today's comedies get longer and longer and rely more and more on plot. It's refreshing to see a feature length film whose only goal is to make us laugh -- at any cost.

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