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Criticwire Classic of the Week: Leo McCarey’s ‘Duck Soup’

Criticwire Classic of the Week: Leo McCarey's 'Duck Soup'

Every now and then on the Criticwire Network an older film gets singled
out for attention. This is the 
Criticwire Classic of the

“Duck Soup”
Director: Leo McCarey
Criticwire Average: A+

“The Interview” looks more goofy than trenchant, but it’s suddenly become the controversial film of the year after North Korea’s response, the Sony hack and the threats on theaters planning on showing it drove Sony to pull the film from the calendar entirely. It wouldn’t be the first time an ostensibly lightweight film infuriated a dictator, either. Leo McCarey and the Marx Brothers didn’t intend “Duck Soup” to be much more than a zany romp with one of the world’s most popular comedy teams, but it still managed to infuriate Benito Mussolini enough that he banned it from Italy. It remains not only one of the funniest movies ever made, but one of the sharpest political comedies of all time.

The plot concerns the political fallout when one country’s leader (anarchic trickster Groucho) insults the ambassador of another (a perfectly uptight Louis Calhern), who’s trying to start a revolution by sending in spies (fast-talking fool Chico Marx and silent raging id Harpo).

But the film’s plot is partially an excuse to string together great gags, which range from mini-masterpieces of comic timing (the famous mirror scene between Groucho and both Chico and Harpo imitating Groucho) to formally inventive bits of editing (Groucho meowing at Harpo’s tattoo, only for a dog to pop out of it and bark at him). And because the Marxes are working with a director of McCarey’s caliber, all of the dull bits that usually mar their other films, like sappy love bits or superfluous musical numbers (only funny ones), have been hacked away, resulting in a lean 68 minutes of the Brothers’ sublime clowning, whether it’s Groucho ordering his assistant (Zeppo, always a great straight man) to send a check without actually enclosing a check or Harpo and Chico ruining an irate lemonade vendor’s day.

Still, the Marx Brothers were at their best when undercutting societal and cultural pretensions, and nowhere was that more necessary than in the political world. In “Duck Soup,” international crises are started by petty insults and rivalries, wars by blind calls to nationalism. Groucho’s Rufus T. Firefly is an ultimate lunatic dictator, singing about creating arbitrary laws and bans seemingly out of the sheer joy of it. But Calhern’s thin-skinned ambassador isn’t any better, and there’s plenty of both of them out there. “Duck Soup” is a treasure, then, because of its willingness (nay, compulsion) to make both look ridiculous.

More thoughts from the Criticwire Network:

Edward Copeland, Edward Copeland’s Tangents

The whole premise (and movie) is supposed to be ridiculous, but it’s difficult not to see that there is something beneath the surface saying that about war in general. Read more.

More thoughts from the web:

Geoff Andrew, Time Out London

Totally irreverent towards patriotism, religion (a song proclaims ‘We Got Guns, They Got Guns, All God’s Chillun Got Guns’), diplomacy, courtroom justice, and anything even vaguely respectable, it also includes what is perhaps the Brothers’ funniest scene ever: an immaculately timed and performed sequence with a broken mirror in which Groucho, Chico and Harpo look absolutely identical. A masterpiece. Read more.

Roger Ebert, RogerEbert.com

Dated as “Duck Soup” inevitably is in some respects, it has moments that seem startlingly modern, as when Groucho calls for help during the closing battle sequence, and the response is stock footage edited together out of newsreel shots of fire engines, elephants, motorcycles, you name it. There is an odd moment when Harpo shows Groucho a doghouse tattooed on his stomach, and in a special effect a real dog emerges and barks at him. The brothers broke the classical structure of movie comedy and glued it back again haphazardly, and nothing was ever the same. Read more.

Leonard Pierce, The A.V. Club

Everyone is unstoppable in this one: Groucho is at his most savagely anarchic, starting a war out of sheer peevishness. Chico and Harpo are both fantastic, especially in a scene with a lemonade vendor that’s like a three-man clinic on physical humor. And for once, the material is up to the performers: the songs are good, the costumes imaginative (and changed at such a rapid pace that it becomes a running gag), and though studio bosses at the time blamed its lack of a romantic subplot for its mediocre box-office performance and mixed reviews, now, that absence makes it glide along as smooth and fast as a hunting shark. Read more.

Eric D. Snider, Film.com

Today’s jokes might not be funny in 20 years, and jokes from decades ago might strike modern audiences as nothing more than quaint. But the Marx Brothers films include comedy devices and styles that have survived the test of time. Humor evolves — and yet you can find in modern comedy an example of nearly everything the Marxes do in “Duck Soup.” Our sense of humor, whether we know it or not, has Marxism in its DNA. Read more.

Scott Tobias, The A.V. Club

When the gang hooked up with a distinguished director, Leo McCarey (“The Awful Truth”), for the first and last time of their careers, their talents were perfectly channeled into 1933’s “Duck Soup,” arguably the funniest movie ever made. The brothers claim that the film’s story—about a leader (Groucho) who arbitrarily takes his country to war—was never intended as satire, but only “Dr. Strangelove” matches its audacity in sending up the follies of nationalism and conflict. The buildup to Groucho’s fight with a neighboring country, triggered by an ambassador calling him an “upstart,” leads to a joyous musical setpiece in which the prospect of war sends the nation into a state of perverse ecstasy. Read more.

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