No matter what party is in office or how long they've been there, somebody somewhere is calling the head decision-maker of their country a buffoon -- or a more vulgar variation. It's been going on for as long as rulers have lorded over lands and people, where political cartoons can be found that mock their moves to exaggerated detail over their period of influence. The Marx Brothers' Duck Soup can, essentially, be perceived as an enduring, in-motion version of one of these political cartoons, broadly satirizing the nonsensical ways that the unfocused, devil-may-care ruler Rufus T. Firefly makes decisions about budget and warfare when he's not talking his constituents and colleagues in double-entendre circles. Yet amazingly, even for its age and with the way the climate has changed since the mid-'30s, this slapstick-driven anarchistic lampoon remains excruciatingly funny, sending up the political rat-race in a way nonspecific and accessible enough to fit the mold of ... well, pretty much any government's infrastructure.
Firefly (Groucho Marx) has been chosen by wealthy stateswoman Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) to serve as president of Freedonia -- an insignificantly-sized stretch of land with very little resources and capital -- as a condition to her financial rescue. The neighboring country of Sylvania, however, wants to take control of the small country at the opportune time; one of the country's bigwigs, Ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern), entices Mrs. Teasdale with romance and talks of marriage, a clear motion to garner her interest for a union between the countries, while also employing a pair of spies -- the verbose Chicolini (Chico Marx), and the silent Pinky (Harpo Marx) -- for political espionage and reporting on Firefly's activities. It's a good thing that Rufus T. Firefly is so adept and shrewd in the political arena -- oh, who am I kidding? It's unknown exactly how the he got tossed in this high-profile mess, seeing as how he's a wise-crackin', uninterested chap who redirects his chatty zingers just enough to hold onto his position in office. Hell, even his declarations of war are fickle.
Duck Soup is a deceptive comedy from the Marx Brothers, in that they play blithely with the constructs of both political and economic machines under the guise of lighthearted slapstick and situational gags. Groucho Marx triumphantly spins his rapid speechifying as Firefly, poking fun at the discussion of old and new business in political roundtables, borrowing money for the state's benefit, and bribing people to keep their mouths shut under damning circumstances. While operating within the side-splitting dialogue that's clearly meant for surface-level laughs, though, he's also loosely reminding the audience of how the situations resemble real-life versions of the same scenario -- and how preposterous or slimy they appear. The angles that the Marx Brothers take against only scratch the surface with light, unspecific thematic pokes and prods, yet the faint farcical jabs they deliver preserve its accidental wisdom, making them ageless and, oddly, involuntarily relevant to the modern era.
Really, though, the Marx Brothers just want to make their audience laugh with their signature level of comedic abandon, and Duck Soup doesn't even come close to tapping the breaks during its zesty seventy-minute frolic. In between the brisk back-and-forth dialogue that typically permeates the boys' more heavily-lauded efforts, which is in full-force in the Presidential one-upmanship environment, the slapstick humor generates plenty of energy on its own. Some of it delivers common, albeit perfectly-telegraphed laughter that offers little to the story, such as the assorted sequences involving Harpo and Chico around the lemonade stand. Watching a war of hats, peanuts, horns and squirting fluid becomes hysterical, while faultlessly incorporating comedic actor Edgar Kennedy's facial and body-language disdain as the lemonade vendor. If people can't dig into the kitschy, flip dialogue, they can still get their jollies from the physical comedy.
The best bits in Duck Soup, however, come when the situational humor anchors to the story. This is especially spot on in the Marx Brothers' take on the "mirror" gag, an oft-repeated setup that originated in the silent era of cinema. Groucho and Harpo match their movements where a mirror should be while dressed in a black mustache and night cap, showing an uncanny awareness of their synchronization. Little, precise elements -- like the look in one's eye as they see a black hat where a white one should be on the other side -- exemplify that the brothers' responsiveness to one another means even more to the timing than the writing itself, as well as their inherent desire to play with their audience's observation in their vaudeville-style manner. When they eventually cross the faux-mirror threshold that separates them and continue their gag, they're also toying with the way the whole bizarre situation is perceived, one where we're still scrambling to figure out why Firefly's the head of a country.
Once Duck Soup descends into warfare, filled with costume changes and exploding walls while Firefly continues his verbal runaround, the Marx Brothers find a rhythm of clever physical and verbal humor that mesmerizes with its zany irreverence. Though, as one might expect, the jocular tone didn't strike a chord with audiences of that era in the same fashion as the troop's previous successes, such as Animal Crackers or Horse Feathers. While not an out-and-out fiscal failure, the mixed reviews and critical reception seemed uneasy with the picture's mocking tone, possibly because of the time period's perception of war and economical strife. There's a reason, though, that this particular Marx Brothers film endures now, after a surge of appreciation, and regularly shoots up the ranks of the strongest comedy films ever created: the humor it concocts has not only withstood the test of time, but easily molds to the modern era's outlook on its subject and still makes us laugh -- a whole lot.
Video and Audio:
Duck Soup arrives from Universal in a lackluster but otherwise workable 1.33:1 transfer, one that I'd bet mirrors the visual treatment of the Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection released in 2004. Print damage is evident throughout, with unstable frames here and there, while the detail consistently appears fuzzier than expected for the age of the film. Even considering that, the contrast levels do offer a pleasing adeptness within the mid-level range, rendering a few satisfying details within gray-shadowed content. It's a decent enough transfer, but a more ample clean-up job would certainly be beneficial.
Audio comes in a rather thin, raspy mono channel presentation that doesn't wear the age well at all. Vocal delivery is strained, though never to the degree where the dialogue can't be at least moderately discerned. The musical numbers display moderate congestion in the track, while a metallic twang coats the entirety of the sound design. Much like the visual transfer, it's workable enough; however, it could certainly benefit from a restoration as well. English and Spanish language tracks are available, along with optional English, English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Aside from a Trailer, there's nothing else here.
I'm of the mind that everyone should see Duck Soup. It's a superb comedy of both the slapstick and situational variety, yet the way it plays with politics and economy in its topic also eerily meshes with the current era to stay fairly relevant. Everything here from the Marx Brothers -- from their physical timing to their verbal parlays -- easily stands out as some of their best work, containing a slew of iconic moments within its fluid seventy-minute time-frame. Now, this DVD from Universal needs some work, sporting next-to-nothing in the supplemental department and rough audiovisual merits, but owning the film in itself still merits a Recommendation for this bare-boned effort.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site