Duck Soup Review

(3.5 STARS)

Comedy today is such a dicey genre for me. There are a few I just love – “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” for example. On the whole, however, I think most comedies are obvious, overlong, generic, and simply unfunny. If I’m in need of a laugh, I usually pop in one of my old favorites, or else I just watch TV. Some television comedies are more idiotic than their film counterparts, but at least you only have to suffer for 20 minutes – and some shows are genuinely funny. The only type of comedy that hasn’t let me down once is the classic stuff – Chaplin, Keaton, and now the Marx Brothers.

I wouldn’t say I’m well-versed in any of their careers – especially the Marx Brothers (“Duck Soup” is the first of their films I’ve seen). But it’s easy to see why their films are so timeless. “Duck Soup” is an hour of sharp dialogue, hilarious skits, and pure joy.

The film takes place in the fictional land of Freedonia, land of the brave and free. The country is going bankrupt, however, so the government asks the wealthy widow Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) for a hefty loan. She agrees, but under one condition: Freedonia’s leader must step down, to be replaced by Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx). Firefly isn’t the most effective leader, though. Thankfully for the viewers, he’s more interested in cracking jokes than actually governing. But with the ambassador (Louis Calhern) to neighboring Sylvania – Freedonia’s mortal enemy – trying to plot against him, it’s only a matter of time before Firefly does something that brings the two nations to war.

“Duck Soup” is just really funny. That’s why it works. It lampoons government and war with one-liner after one-liner, and just when you think you’ve had enough one-liners, the characters burst into a hilarious song or perform a clever skit. It never feels stale, and it’s rarely unfunny.

Groucho has a lot of charisma – just what is needed to pull of this character. Margaret Dumont – a Marx Brothers’ regular – is hilariously dim as Mrs. Teasdale, who’s always about five steps behind the other characters. Groucho’s brothers all have smaller parts. Harpo and Chico play Sylvanian spies who go undercover working for Firefly and attempt to steal his war plans. Their trial is probably the film’s funniest scene (but Firefly’s entrance is a close second). The two play off each other quite well. Zeppo, the fourth brother, plays one of Firefly’s aides. He doesn’t have much to do, but the war scenes at the end with all four brothers together are delightful.

If you haven’t seen a Marx Brothers film and are concerned the comedy will feel dated, don’t. The film is considered a classic for a reason. Moviegoers laugh at this film today as much as I expect they did in 1933. The film is the poster child for absurdism, and its perfect blend of sight gags, bizarre characters, brilliant one-liners, and uproarious musical numbers makes “Duck Soup” one of the all-time great comedies and something no film lover (or comedy lover) should miss.

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