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Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #135: Duck Soup

The comedy Duck Soup (1933) came out over eight decades ago, and yet its influence can still be seen in pop culture today. Starring all four of the iconic Marx Brothers, this is the comedy that made the ultimate “mirror scene” in which Harpo comes face to face with Groucho and tries to imitate his every moves in order to convince Harpo he is actually seeing his reflection and not an intruder in his bedroom. Over the years the scene has been recreated in Bug Bunny cartoons, Mickey Mouse cartoons, and an episode of Family Guy. A slightly less family friendly example of the film’s influence is how Rob Zombie used some of the characters’ names for his horror movie House of 1000 Corpses (2003) and its sequel The Devil’s Rejects (2005). Clearly you can’t accuse Mr. Zombie of not having a sense of humour.

I have not seen House of 1000 Corpses because I don’t see the entertainment value in a bunch of teenagers getting massacred by rednecks, but I did enjoy the creativity and thrills of The Devil’s Rejects. In that movie the murderous rednecks are hunted by an equally deranged sheriff who learns about the Marx Brothers connection when he invites a film critic to his office as a consultant. That critic risks getting shot by the sheriff when he complains Elvis Presley’s death overshadowed Harpo’s, but he definitely knows his classic comedies. Growing up on a steady diet of Bug Bunny, Tiny Toons, and Mickey Mouse cartoons I kept seeing the influence of the Marx Brothers even though I didn’t know it at the time. Two years ago I finally got to watch Duck Soup in the classic section of Netflix, and found the Brothers’ brand of comedy is still as funny, and even thought provoking nowadays.

Directed by Leo McCarey, the movie is a farce in which Harpo plays Rufus T. Firefly who has been appointed leader of the small and bankrupt nation of Freedonia. The catch is Harpo is playing the same character he has played across vaudeville, Broadway, and other movies, with his classic moustache, glasses, and cigar. Of course he also has his witty lines of dialogue, such as this gem: “Married. I can see you right now in the kitchen, bending over a hot stove. But I can’t see the stove.” That is a wacky and offensive man to be in charge of any nation, but as I write this Donald Trump is campaigning to be President of the United States, so what is crazier, reality or fiction?

The movie is not just a series of jokes; there is a semblance of a plot involving politics, espionage, and even war. Firefly’s appointment comes at the suggestion of wealthy Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) who will continue to provide financial aid to Freedonia as long as Firefly is in charge. Meanwhile the neighbouring country of Sylvania wishes to annex Freedonia and the Sylvian ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern) wants to dig up dirt on Firefly and hires spies Chicolini and Pinky (Chico and Harpo Marx) to gather information.

Fourth brother Zeppo Marx has the role of Firefly’s secretary, but none of the Brothers manage to do much work. Chicolini and Pinky do clown antics while selling peanuts outside of Firefly’s window, and instead of taking care of the country’s finances Firefly is busy courting Mrs. Teasdale for her money. Unfortunately Trentino would like the cash as well, and the slapstick interactions between the three of them eventually lead to war. In general war is no laughing matter, but smart comedians can make fun of anything. You can’t laugh at soldiers being mowed down by a machine gun, but I dare you not laugh at the Marx Brothers using fruits as weapons against their enemy soldiers.

It is scary how relevant this movie remains to this day, with its portrayal of greed and stupidity in politics. You would think the world would have changed a lot more since the 1930s, but the more things change the more things stay the same. Fortunately, no matter how much the world changes the dialogue and comedy of the Marx Brothers remains hilarious.


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