By now the analogy is irredeemably trite — the kind of comment that elucidates nothing yet sounds astute anyway. But here goes: Duck Soup is the Marx brothers’ Citizen Kane. I don’t just mean this in the most obvious sense, although I do believe it’s their masterpiece and arguably the greatest achievement of all time in their chosen mode (Cinematic Vaudeville). There’s a more particular sense that’s especially apt. Like Kane, Duck Soup represents the moment when its creators were blessed with the freedom, the resources, and the acclaim to do whatever on earth they wanted. The analogy breaks down here, because I think Horse Feathers can likewise be described as the brothers at their most vital and undiluted. But neither Kane nor Duck Soup did as well financially as the studios would have hoped, and thus their creators would face studio interference for the rest of their careers.
It’s commonly said that MGM, to which they moved after their contract with Paramount ended, forced the brothers off center stage by adding insipid love stories with humorless protagonists to their films. But this actually describes their first two Paramount films as well. The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers have their running times padded with stories of young men (played by legendary thespians Oscar Shaw and Hal Thompson) trying to win the girl and succeed as artists. So, in fact, A Night at the Opera was a return to that form. The concept was streamlined for the other two Paramount films, Monkey Business and Horse Feathers, with unfunny brother Zeppo filling the role of “someone to root for.”
Then along came Duck Soup, a story without any likable characters whatsoever.
Granted, the personae of Groucho, Harpo, and Chico (heck, even milquetoast Zeppo) are extremely likable and fun to watch. But their characters are unashamed hedonists, scoundrels, turncoats, and cowards. They neither learn nor grow over the course of the story. There’s nothing for the audience to grab onto in terms of a redeeming “hero’s journey.” Uproariously funny though this film may be, if the comic bits are peeled away, what’s left is a remorseless and unblinking gaze into the abyss of human depravity. That’s right; it’s about politicians.
Take any individual skit in this film in isolation, and it looks like an excellent short film that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with a larger plot about national leaders blustering their way to war. Taken together, though, the scenes convey remarkably consistent themes. Groucho and Chico always had demented fun picking apart the English language (particularly American slang) and putting it back together in slightly skewed ways. Here, the effect of Groucho’s monologues is to spoof politicians’ flowery rhetoric, their calculated attempts to make their beliefs palatable to the widest possible audience. Chico’s puns approach the issue from the opposite angle, highlighting how easy it is for words to be misreceived. Harpo does the same thing, only with props.
Above all else, every move the brothers make pushes against attempts at controlling them. Mild-mannered secretary Zeppo’s innocuous scheme to gain an advantage in Freedonia’s diplomatic relations with neighboring country Sylvania becomes the first step to war when Groucho doesn’t stick to the plan. Every subsequent attempt at making amends with the visiting ambassador is foiled because Groucho can’t stop insulting him. Chico spies for one nation while serving in the other’s cabinet, shifting loyalties at a dizzying pace. Harpo, of course, is on his own wavelength altogether. The closest anyone comes to putting a leash on these guys is when Chico is put on trial for his espionage. And it’s barely a few minutes before all the order and structure of that trial melts away, because war has been declared and it’s time for a big patriotic party. The brothers take absolute control of the film at this point, subjecting even extra-textual details like continuity to their brand of anarchy. A curtain is pulled back, and the brothers are standing in Revolutionary War garb so Harpo can do a Paul Revere bit. During the war’s only battle, Groucho’s outfit changes with every cut, and even the monkeys and elephants of the jungle come to Freedonia’s aid. The brothers aren’t even beholden to the cause of their country, as the film’s final moments make clear. They don’t defeat an oppressive regime or usher in new prosperity for their own people — again, there’s nothing of obvious redeeming value to this story, a fact that movie studios (and many audiences) had as much trouble grappling with then as now.
But look again. There is a righteous fury lurking underneath the “Freedonia’s Going to War” song-and-dance routine. To put it mildly, the prospect of violent conflict is greeted with enthusiasm. The assembled crowd slavishly follows the brothers’ every move, whether they wave their arms around or kick their legs in the air. It’s all significantly more unhinged than anything the Marx brothers had done before. The message — that the initial excitement will soon give way to inevitable devastation — appeared in an earlier film (All Quiet on the Western Front) and a later one (Gone with the Wind). Those films both won Best Picture at the Oscars, but they feel self-serious and preachy compared to Duck Soup. Here, the message is hidden within the comedy. During the battle, Groucho quips that if the trenches go up to the soldiers’ necks, they won’t need any pants. It’s a throwaway gag about cost-cutting measures, but it also speaks to the lack of dignity afforded to the typical grunt. “And remember, when you’re out there risking life and limb through shot and shell, we’ll be in here thinking what a sucker you are.”
The Marx brothers didn’t make this movie because they were trying to say something about politics or war, and I’m sure it’s for the best that they didn’t. The only thing they end up saying about those subjects is that they’re ripe for mockery. To paraphrase the late Roger Ebert, the important thing isn’t what this movie says, but how it says it. The how is through inspired comedy that hasn’t aged a day in eighty-one years, comedy built on the brothers’ long-familiar schticks. Margaret Dumont returns after a two-film absence, and Groucho doesn’t miss a step, jabbing her with insults and back-handed compliments. When Harpo engages in a spy mission, it’s of the utmost importance that he doesn’t make a sound. Piece of cake, right? Wrong. Cue “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” Most famously, there’s the captivating “mirror scene,” which contrasts with the brothers’ painstaking efforts to differentiate themselves. It’s one of the rare moments in film history when a scene can keep the viewer rapt while playing out in complete silence. This sums up the whole film, in a way. As of my writing this, I haven’t seen Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street yet, but I’ve read a little bit about the controversies attached to that film and I must admit I already have an opinion about them. Duck Soup is all the proof I need that it’s possible for a satire to be crystal-clear in its themes while, at the same time, having characters who do nothing but extol the opposite of those themes from beginning to end. It’s an astonishing piece of work.