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Duck Soup

June 21, 2011

75. Duck Soup
Directed by Leo McCarey
Written by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby
USA, 1933
IMDB | allrovi

Reviewed by Ally
Umpteenth viewing

Synopsis:

Wealthy dowager Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) promises to bail out the small, bankrupt country of Freedonia, on the proviso that Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) is appointed leader. Trentino (Louis Calhern) — ambassador of neighbouring country Sylvania — tries to gain control of Freedonia by stirring a revolution, sending Chicolini and Pinky (Chico and Harpo Marx) to spy on Firefly, and wooing Mrs. Teasdale. A series of disagreements between Trentino and Firefly plunge the countries into war.

Not that any of it really matters. The main thing is, it’s funny!

Essential Scene:

Trentino consults his spies, the inexplicably Italian Chicolini and the inexplicably mute Pinky. The mischievous pair proceed to wreak havoc in Trentino’s office.

Trentino’s secretary brings in a telegram. Pinky rushes over, grabs it, then screws it up furiously. Chicolini explains: “He gets mad because he can’t read.”

Trentino gives Pinky a cigar. He tries to light it with the telephone receiver. When that fails, he magically produces a blowtorch from his coat pocket.

They eventually get down to business.

Trentino: Now gentlemen, please, will you tell me what you found out about Firefly?

Chicolini: Well, you remember you gave us a picture of this man and said follow him?

Trentino: Oh yes.

Chicolini: Well we get on the job right away. And in the one hour, even less than one hour —

Trentino: Yes?

Chicolini: We lose the pitsh! That’s pretty quick work, eh?

Trentino: But I asked you to dig up something I can use against Firefly. Did you bring me his record?

"Did you bring me his record?"

Exasperated, Trentino flings the record across the room. Pinky pulls a gun from his pocket and shoots the record in midair. Chicolini awards him a cigar, then shuts Trentino’s fingers in the lid of the cigar box.

Trentino: Now Chicolini, I want a full detailed report of your investigation.

Chicolini: Alright, I tell you. Monday, we watch Firefly’s house, but he no come out. He wasn’t home. Tuesday we go to the ball game, but he fool us; he no show up. Wednesday he go to the ball game and we fool him; we no show up. Thursday was a double-header, nobody show up. Friday it rained all day, there was no ball game, so we stayed home, we listened to it over the radio.

Trentino: Then you didn’t shadow Firefly!

Chicolini: Aw, sure we shadow Fire– we shadow him all day.

Trentino: But what day was that?

Chicolini: Shadowday!

Throughout the scene, Pinky has been snipping things with scissors at regular intervals — Trentino’s cigar, his hair, even his coat tails. When the spies finally leave him, Trentino is left with a mousetrap on his fingers, a newspaper glued to his posterior and absolutely no information on Firefly.

Thoughts:

Every time I watch Duck Soup, a different joke stands out to me. This time, it was a scene between Firefly and Pinky. Firefly asks: “Say, who are you anyway?” Pinky responds by rolling up his sleeve to show him a tattoo:

That clears that up…

There is, however, something missing from Duck Soup. It is so densely populated with gags, there was no room for Harpo and Chico’s customary musical interludes. Aside from this minor disappointment, there is nothing I can say against the film. Groucho delivers his trademark insults at breakneck speed, giving Margaret Dumond barely enough time to be shocked before he’s onto the next wisecrack. Chico and Harpo perform their finest piece of slapstick choreography as they torment Edgar Kennedy the lemonade vendor.

Oh, and Zeppo’s in it too…

Then there’s the classic “mirror scene,” in which Pinky disguises himself as Firefly and pretends to be his reflection in a missing mirror. The gag was first used by Charlie Chaplin in 1916, then Max Linder in 1921, but was surely immortalised by the Marx Brothers.

Reviewed by Rachel
Umpteenth viewing

Essential Scene:

Mrs. Teasdale welcomes Freedonia’s new leader, Rufus T. Firefly. This scene is a wonderful example of the fast-as-lightning dialogue of Groucho Marx and the straight-woman talents of Margaret Dumont.

Mrs. Teasdale: Oh, Your Excellency! We’ve been expecting you. As chairwoman of the reception committee, I extend the good wishes of every man, woman and child of Freedonia.

Rufus T. Firefly: Never mind that stuff. [He takes out a deck of cards] Take a card.

Mrs. Teasdale: [as she takes one] Card? What will I do with the card?

Rufus T. Firefly: You can keep it. I’ve got fifty-one left. Now what were you saying?

Mrs. Teasdale: As chairwoman of the reception committee, I welcome you with open arms.

Rufus T. Firefly: Is that so? How late do you stay open?

Mrs. Teasdale: I’ve sponsored your appointment because I feel you are the most able statesman in all Freedonia.

Rufus T. Firefly: Well, that covers a lot of ground. Say, you cover a lot of ground, yourself. You better beat it, I hear they’re gonna tear you down and put an office building where you’re standing. You can leave in a taxi, if you can‘t get a taxi, you can leave in a huff. If that’s too soon you can leave in a minute and a huff.  D’you know you haven’t stopped talking since I came here? You must’ve been vaccinated with a phonograph needle.

Mrs. Teasdale: The future of Freedonia rests on you.  Promise me you’ll follow in the footsteps of my husband.

Rufus T. Firefly: How do you like that? I haven’t been on the job five minutes and she’s making advances to me. Not that I care, but where is your husband?

Mrs. Teasdale: Why, he’s dead.

Rufus T. Firefly: I bet he’s just using that as an excuse.

Mrs. Teasdale: I was with him to the very end.

Rufus T. Firefly: No wonder he passed away.

Mrs. Teasdale: I held him in my arms and kissed him.

Rufus T. Firefly: Oh, I see, then it was murder. Will you marry me? Did he leave you any money? Answer the second question first.

Mrs. Teasdale: He left me his entire fortune!

Rufus T. Firefly: Is that so? Can’t you see what I’m trying to tell you, I love you!

Mrs. Teasdale: Oh, Your Excellency!

Rufus T. Firefly: You’re not so bad yourself.

Thoughts:

I recently put on Duck Soup for my nine-year-old cousin while the rest of the family chatted. His eyes never left the screen, and the adults in the room ended up watching it too; despite trying hard to have a conversation, they were too distracted by Harpo’s antics.

I realised then that the success of the Marxes is due to the fact that their films remain ‘go-to’ films for all generations. Considering the films are all nearing 80 years old, that is an incredible achievement. The plot of Duck Soup is utterly nonsensical, and some of the lines are slightly dated (and occasionally offensive…), but the majority of the Marxes’ verbal and physical gags haven’t aged one bit. If anything, the brothers improve with age, due to the fact they don’t make ’em like that anymore.

M’colleague and I decided not to choose the Mirror Scene as our chosen scene, as it is incredibly well-known and we wanted to give some other elements of the film a bit of an airing, so to speak. However, we both advise that if you want to see an impeccably executed piece of visual comedy, watch the Mirror Scene! (Perhaps even on youtube. ~ Ally)

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One Comment leave one →
  1. August 25, 2011 5:38 pm

    Glad to know there are others like me on the web. I hope the 1001 community continues to grow.

    P.S. I’m on board with you on Duck Soup. A classic!

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