Duck Soup (U.S., Leo McCarey)
The nation of Fredonia is nearing bankruptcy – again. The nation’s richest woman, Mrs. Teasdale, has bailed out the treasury once before, but she is less willing to fork over the money this time without radical changes to the government. She wants Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) appointed Prime Minister, but the ministers are outraged: he is a loose cannon, a radical, etc. That, she tells them, is the point. They need bold leadership and Firefly is the only man who can save Fredonia. So Firefly is appointed and he leaps out of bed to take power singing: “The last guy nearly ruined this place/ He didn’t know what to do with it/ If you think this country’s bad off now/ just wait ‘til I get through with it.” He doesn’t pretend he’s going to fix everything and no one seems to care. They are just glad they have someone new.
This is a pretty good rough outline of how most fascist governments come into power. A crisis catapults a charismatic personality into leadership who is always very specific on who to blame, though less so on what to do. Without taking a Marx Brother’s movie too seriously we immediately understand that Groucho’s Rufus T. Firefly is mocking Europe’s fascist leaders like Benito Mussolini, a figure history would regard as a buffoon had he not had Hitler’s Germany with which to ally.
While Groucho is having fun poking fun at the conceits of power, Chico and Harpo enter the scene as spies hired by Ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern) of Fredonia’s rival Sylvania. They spend more time selling peanuts and annoying a neighboring lemonade salesman (Edgar Kennedy) than doing any “spy stuff.” Groucho, attracted by Chico’s bellows from the street, offers him a job in his cabinet, a clever send up of how totalitarian governments are subject to personal whim rather than sound policy. Meanwhile, Firefly and Trentino are competing for the romantic attentions of Mrs. Teasdale wonderfully played, as always, by Marx Brother’s regular Margaret Dumont. This personal rivalry leads to diplomatic complications between their two nations, something with which Firefly is blissfully unconcerned.
Duck Soup has been criticized for not having much of a plot, but I think that is one of its strengths. There are so many witty lines, double entendres, and classic sight gags, like the mirror routine, that we don’t much care about the flimsy plot. Plus the fluid narrative allows the Marx Brothers free rein to subvert our expectations at every turn. The raucous and unpredictable structure of the movie mirrors the fascist governments they were lampooning; the incredible irony about fascism is though it purports to be about law and order, the regimes depend on illegal and unethical actions to stay in power, or, in the absurdist worldview of the Marx Brothers, they are ridiculous people who grab power by flaunting their insincerity and intellectual dishonesty as strengths to a populace eager for simple answers. This dichotomy made fascism a perfect ideology for the Marx Brothers to satirize: they always relished the opportunity to expose the cracks of hypocrisy in culture and society and there is nothing more hypocritical than fascism.
Perhaps this explains the movie’s disappointing box office in 1933 and its mixed critical reaction: Americans were not ready to take on Mussolini or, beginning in 1933, Hitler in such a lighthearted manner. No one knew what these dictators were going to do and faced with that kind of uncertainty many must have found it hard to laugh. Luckily time has reclaimed Duck Soup as a classic of U.S. comedy and one of – if not the – best of the Marx Brothers movies. And for those looking for something more substantial, it can also be read as a biting satire of political fascism, well ahead of Charlie Chaplin’s tackling of the same material in The Great Dictator.