Duck Soup (1933)
★★ / ★★★★
Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) agrees to rescue Freedonia from bankruptcy under one condition: if Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx), the man she is interested in romantically, is named president of the failing nation. Ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern), from the neighboring country of Sylvania, is in love with Mrs. Teasdale. His plan involves outing Firefly as a complete joke of a leader. He hires two spies, Chicolini (Chico Marx) and Pinky (Harpo Marx), to dig up dirt on his rival.
Written by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, “Duck Soup” is an uneven casserole of political satire and slapstick humor. The best scene in the film is found within the first ten minutes. Unapologetically late to his inauguration, when Firefly finally arrives and after insulting everyone he has met, he has the bravado to sing about how he plans to use his new powers for no good. It is most amusing because the people who hear the song actually cheer for him after the performance.
That scene packs a punch because it is not at all dissimilar from real-life politicians who target specific groups of people during their speeches, classifications ranging from skin color to the amount of money in their bank accounts, and blame them for the ailments of the country. Their supporters, deaf to the subtler messages, in turn, hail their leader with fervor.
What did not work for me are the buffoons who are supposed to be spies. Stationed outside Firefly’s building, Pinky and Chicolini pose as popcorn vendors. There is a man who sells lemonade next to their cart with whom the duo cannot help but annoy by stealing his hat. Those scenes tested my patience greatly because, firstly, the gags are not especially inspired or funny and, secondly, they take away focus from Firefly and Trentino’s rivalry. The two are supposed to be Trentino’s most trusted spies, but what is so trustworthy about them?
They’re clowns. But perhaps that is the point. When someone asks them for a lighter, Pinky takes out a blowtorch; when they are asked not to make a noise, every object in the room that can make noise do. I waited for them to prove their worth, to surprise me in the most minute way, but the waiting proves for naught. It is predictable and I grew very frustrated with every second the two are front and center. I wanted the filmmakers to return in treating nationalism and international relations as punching bags.
“Duck Soup,” directed by Leo McCarey, is equipped with scathing insults left and right. Racism and sexism are apparent but for a reason. (It shows that it is a product of its time.) If anything, the filmmakers have confidence in the material because they are willing to take risks by allowing the actors to go wild. But like a good stew, a movie with too many ingredients, more than a handful subpar or completely unnecessary, can mask specific combination of flavors that are supposed to be relished. “Duck Soup” has one ingredient too many.