When pressed, most select Duck Soup as the best of the Marx Brothers' films, and it's easy to see why. The 1933 film is an outlier in the Marx oeuvre, mostly in ways that relate to its epic scale. If Duck Soup is about anything, it's about the abuse of power and the absurdity of war. In casual terms, it has all the trappings we associate with a Marx Brothers picture: Groucho leering at Margaret Dumont, Chico's dimwitted doubletalk, Harpo's mischevious clowning, and musical numbers. But Groucho plays an uninformed, wanton tinpot tyrant; Chico goes on trial for treason; Harpo goes after not only the film's ostensible villain, Ambassador Trentino, but also Edgar Kennedy's slow-burning but essentially innocent lemonade vendor; and there's no room for a romance or piano or harp solos. In short, for all its wild comic abandon, Duck Soup has darker implications than the usual Marx Brothers comedy and, as such, feels the most relevant and sharp in its satire.
Grouho plays Rufus T. Firefly, newly installed leader of the land of Freedonia. His benefactress, the millionaire dowager Gloria Teasdale (Dumont), describes him as "a progressive, fearless fighter," but he could just as well be described as a reckless, merry despot, out for himself and disinterested in anything else. Zeppo plays Firefly's secretary Bob Roland, and Chico and Harpo play spies Chicolini (with his dog Pastrami) and Pinky. Duck Soup contains some of the choicest of Groucho's anti-romantic overtures toward Dumont, from his Cheshire-cat-grinning go-to line "Can't you see what I'm trying to tell you? I love you" to the more truthful "Will you marry me? Did he leave you any money? Answer the second question first."
When Freedonia inevitably goes to war with neighboring Sylvania, the film escalates and elevates to a full-fledged irreverent anti-war satire on the order of Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Suddenly we're in a comedy with bombs decimating houses and the comic hero gunning down his own men (and shrugging it off) in a friendly-fire incident. In its day, a line like Groucho's crack "And remember, while you're out there risking life and limb through shot and shell, we'll be in here thinking what a sucker you are" had to be divisive, and the whole context (or pretext) of the film's war points to its pointlessness and the fragility of peace when governments hinge on human ego (further underlining the absurdity is Chico's switching sides willy-nilly, before and after facing his kangaroo-court treason trial).
Duck Soup is also distinguished by its director, Leo McCarey (The Awful Truth, An Affair to Remember), who makes good use of camera movement and montage to support the Marxes' humor and bolster the film's epic scope. The musical numbers—"When the Clock on the Wall Strikes 10," "Freedonia National Anthem," "Just Wait 'Til I Get Through With It," and "This Country's Going to War"—are bright and funny. The last song becomes increasingly, gloriously surreal, a big production that passes through chorus number, gospel song, and hootenany (complete with four banjos) on its way to the four brothers playing a line of soldier's helmets like a xylophone.
The Marx Brothers' films have been collectively influential, but Duck Soup most of all. It's easy to trace directly from here to Bugs Bunny cartoons (Ambassador Trentino's huffy "This means war!" and Groucho's entire demeanor), the famous silent "mirror" sequence—done before on film but perfected here—has been repeatedly replicated (including by Harpo on I Love Lucy), and it's the Marx Brothers film Woody Allen chose to visually quote, in Hannah and Her Sisters, as the ultimate antidepressant. I couldn't agree more: even at its most disturbing, Duck Soup is a sublime satire overflowing with wit, sight gags, and the joy of making people laugh—perhaps the greatest comedy Hollywood ever gave us.
Universal has gifted fans with The Marx Brothers' Blu-ray debut in the three-disc The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection Restored Blu-ray Edition . The main review page linked here details the set's bonus features and link to reviews of the other films.
Though the results of hi-def restoration are not as dramatic for Duck Soup as for some of the other films in the set, this 83-year-old film returns to home video in glorious, well-calibrated black and white, and with improved resolution and detail, despite appearing a little softer than some of the earlier films look at their best. Sound comes in a clean and clear lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track that's an authentic presentation of the original mono sound.
Duck Soup also gets one film-specific bonus feature, a scholarly feature commentary with film critic/historian Leonard Maltin and Marx Bros. historian/author Robert S. Bader. Kudos to Universal for springing for these commentaries, which do a great job of contextualizing each film in the Marx Brothers' career, addressing the film's specific development and production and reception, and providing biographical information about the cast and crew of each film.
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