Best Pictures of 1933 (#4) – Duck Soup

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.

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5 Comments

Filed under 1933, Yearly Best Pictures

5 responses to “Best Pictures of 1933 (#4) – Duck Soup

  1. Robert Coover published a short story in the July issue of Harper’s that retold Duck Soup from Ambassador Trentino’s point-of-view and tapped into the unreasonableness of the Firefly regime that is arguably the film’s strongest comment on the rise of fascism. Meanwhile, the situation in 1933 was worse yet than you describe, as many Americans seriously considered the necessity of dictatorship in their own land and looked to Mussolini as a model rather than an object of satire. It may have been the film’s mockery of widespread yearning for a strong leader that alienated the original audience. Fortunately, its comedy has proven timeless.

    This is a terrific list so far, including the previous two entries. I like to think I know my 1933, but your countdown is proving quite suspenseful and entertaining. Bring on the top three.

    • Samuel, I wasn’t aware of the Coover story. I am intrigued now and will definitely pick up a copy. Thanks for pointing it out.

      Also, great point about the dangers of dictatorship in 1933. I am a U.S. historian and I didn’t even think about the allure of dictatorship in the U.S. of the depression. You’re absolutely right that many Americans may have been put off precisely because they admired Mussolini. Granted I study nineteenth century history, but come on! I should have picked up on that.

      Thanks for your support! I really appreciate your keeping track here. The next three are tough for me; I keep juggling their order because I love them so much, but I think I have them in the right order now. I would be curious to see what your favorites are or if you think I missed any (or if I am flat out wrong to include one). Thanks again.

  2. Obviously, this is one of the greatest comedies in the American cinema, it’s anarchic purpetrator’s most celebrated film (HORSE FEATHERS and A NIGHT AT THE OPERA comprised their Top 3) and one that provides a comic blueprint of fascist aggression. Some of the best one-liners and sight gags are present here and the boys are at the peak of their powers in every sense. Interestingly enough, as you mention THE GREAT DICTATOR, I will be seeing that for the umteeth time over the weekend at the Chaplin Festival, and will remember your apt point of comparison.

    In any case, any roundup of 1930’s American cinema should rightfully have this near the top, a position you have confirmed here. Excellent and engaging piece here.

    • Well I toyed with putting it AT the top for 1933 and, though I would have no problem seeing it there, I am convinced there are two better movies this year. Who knows though, in ten years if I revisit these lists Duck Soup may well end up at the top. Have fun at The Great Dictator, another wonderful movie!

  3. Ray

    Thanks for the great review!
    Your readers might also like to see my comments on the anti-Fascist aspects of A Night at the Opera (1934) at
    http://www.cine-phile.com/marx-brothers-tackle-fascism-and-mussolini/

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