Let’s talk about Duck Soup. As a comedy afficionado, I always felt a bit incredulous never having watched one of the most brilliant and iconic comedy films in history. That all changed recently, when I finally was able to say that I have seen the absolute insanity of the Marx Brothers in undeniably their best film, Duck Soup. At only just over an hour long, it is a fast-paced and enjoyable little comedy, but one that it pains me to say is deeply flawed at points.
First of all, Groucho Marx is a god of comedy. In this film, everytime he opens his mouth, something absolutely brilliant comes out. Groucho is definitely amongst the greatest comedy stars of all time, and while others in that category – namely Robin Williams (the greatest comedic performer in history), Peter Sellers and Charlie Chaplin, Groucho was able to do something very odd for a era where slapstick, silent comedy was the major audience-draw – he was capable of just using his own personality and his own wit to create huge laughs. I don’t need to give a history of Groucho Marx here – everyone should know who he is, and if you don’t, you’re missing out on one of the most genius comedic minds in history. His performance as Rufus T. Firefly is absolutely flawless, and his wit is razor-sharp, and I could watch him riff off others for hours on end.
However, something has to be said for Chico and Harpo, who play Pinky and Chicolini, the useless spies in this film. Just like how Groucho uses wit to elicit laughs, Harpo uses his own brand of slapstick comedy to create a distinct and iconic comedic persona. Unlike Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, who even at their most clumsy, still retained some element of grace, Harpo is all over the place, and his performance is very much one that needs a lot more nuance and training. Added to that he doesn’t say a word in this film (or any of the Marx Brothers films) and you have a kind of performer that today is very hard to find – and one that one of my heroes, Teller, has created his entire career on. Chico doesn’t have a “draw” like Groucho’s quick wit or Harpo’s incredible physical comedy – yet he is just an invaluable as both of them. These three are amazing performers, and deserve their place as comedy icons, and I can sadly and proudly confirm we will never see anyone quite like these three brothers ever again.
In Duck Soup, the three brothers are great. The film itself is fantastic. I would be very safe in calling it the greatest comedy film of all time…except there are two problems – Some Like It Hot exists, and Duck Soup has flaws. Some Like It Hot does not have a single flaw, and Duck Soup has several. First of all, why in the world did Zeppo Marx have to be in this film? His performance here is probably the most useless performance I’ve ever seen – he does absolutely nothing, but then at the end jumps in and tries to play an important role. Its tacky, silly and makes no sense. I am sure Zeppo was a funny guy, but he truly did ruin the dynamic between Groucho, Chico and Harpo. I don’t blame him for skipping the rest of the Marx Brothers films, because he did less than nothing here.
The film could have happily ended after the first fifty minutes. However, it didn’t and that broke my heart, because a great satire was ruined by a terrible music number. If I was alive in the 1930s, I would personally beg the Marx Brothers to stick to comedy and refrain from musical numbers. The last fifteen minutes or so were a dreadful mess, and came close to ruining the goodwill I had for the film. So why didn’t it? Because the very last moment of the film was absolutely genius, and stands with Some Like It Hot as my favorite ending of a film ever.
Duck Soup is a tremendous film. It was firmly ahead of its time, and today is still very relevant and very funny. The jokes are edgy, the comedy is beautifully done, and even though the film has a very tacky climax, it is still a wonderful film and one that I will most likely revisit, if only for the brilliant one-liners and the wonderfully witty and unique energy. A great film