Citizen Kane, Vertigo, City Lights. Classics. Or are they?
I think it is so easy to take some list at their word when they say a film is a classic. I want ask the question, why?
Today’s film: the 1933 Marx Brothers ‘classic’ Duck Soup.
Duck Soup follows the bankrupt State of Freedonia. Mrs. Teasdale, wants to support the country financially, but only if Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) becomes the leader. He becomes the leader, and becomes infatuated with Mrs. Teasdale. At the same time, Ambassador Trentino, from the nearby country of Slyvania, wants to take over Freedonia and woo Mrs. Teasdale. So he sends his incompetent spies, Chicolini (Chico) and Pinky (Harpo), to gain Firefly’s trust and Vera Marcal to seduce him. Comedy ensues.
Duck Soup was the 5th Marx brothers film released with Paramount Pictures.
The Marx Brothers, who were actually brothers, made a name for themselves on the vaudeville circuit, eventually transitioning into Broadway plays which their first 2 films, The Coconuts and Animal Crackers, were based on.
There were 4 Marx brothers in these films.
While they were on stage they developed different personas which were:
Chico (real name: Leonard Marx)-A fake Italian, piano player always a con man.
Harpo (Arthur Marx)-A mute harp playing associate of Chico.
Groucho (Julius Marx)-A fast talking, quick witted man with a painted on mustache.
Zeppo (Herbert Marx)- The youngest, a good looking straight man often romantic lead.
(left to right Chico, Zeppo, Groucho, Harpo)
Duck Soup was the last film where all 4 starred together, and also their last for Paramount Pictures. It is not based on one of their stage plays.
Duck Soup has influenced many films from the 1963 The Pink Panther to 2012’s The Dictator.
It is interesting that critics of the time thought it was dated and not as good as some of the Marx Brothers previous films.
Retrospectively, many critics think it is one of the best comedies ever made.
In recent years, Duck Soup has been placed on many best of lists including #5 on AFI (American Film Institute), 100 hundred funniest movies of all time, and #60 on on AFI best 100 American movies of all time.
Modern critics describe Duck Soup as an anarchic masterpiece; a take down of the dictatorship of the time in reference to Mussolini, Stalin, and Hitler or as Groucho supposedly put it, “just four Jews trying to get a laugh.”
Roger Ebert explained how the film and it’s comedy have stayed relevant saying,
“Dated as Duck Soup inevitably is in some respects, it has moments that seem startlingly modern, as when Groucho calls for help during the closing battle sequence, and the response is stock footage edited together out of newsreel shots of fire engines, elephants, motorcycles, you name it. There is an odd moment when Harpo shows Groucho a doghouse tattooed on his stomach, and in a special effect a real dog emerges and barks at him. The brothers broke the classical structure of movie comedy and glued it back again haphazardly, and nothing was ever the same.”
I found it interesting in my research that the infamous mirror gag was not originated by the Marx Brothers, as it appeared in several movies before (Charlie Chaplin’s The Floorwalker 1916) but the Marx Brothers popularized it in Duck Soup. Check it out below.
It has been repeated/referenced many times. Most notably, with Harpo Marx in the TV show I Love Lucy and in The Pink Panther (1963).
The brothers broke the classical structure of movie comedy and glued it back again haphazardly, and nothing was ever the same.
I grew up with the Marx Brothers and I love all the Marx brothers movies. I remember in my high school drama class, doing a monologue from Chico in A Night at the Opera. He has a brilliant speech in which he tries to disguise his identity by describing how he got to America.
So all that being said, I think Duck Soup is a Classic.
A big reason I love Duck Soup and all the Marx Brothers movies is because I can watch them with my parents and my grandparents, and we can all laugh together. The fact that it’s a black and white film and made in the 1930’s, doesn’t matter.
It’s as if their comedy has transcended time.
All that I know is that it makes me laugh.
I think the comedy and the themes of using the weapon of comedy against dictators/ those who oppress us can be a powerful one.
So. I’ve made my case.
What do you think?
Is Duck Soup a Classic?