Saturday, May 30, 2015

AFI Top 100: #60 "Duck Soup"

Zeppo, Groucho, Chico, & Harpo Marx in Duck Soup (1933)

The last of the Marx Brothers oeuvre to be featured on the AFI Top 100 list, the last film to feature "brother #4", Zeppo Marx, Duck Soup, clocks in at #60. A political satire combined with classic screwball tropes, this movie is likely the true litmus test for your love or hatred for this brand of riotous comedy. You will undoubtedly sway one way or another on the spectrum.

The film's plot centers around the bankrupt country of Freedonia, whose richest citizen, Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont), demands the government appoint Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) the new dictator-like President in exchange for a large portion of her wealth. Firefly is an inexperienced fool, and the neighboring country of Sylvania enlists private investigators, Chicolini (Chico Marx) and Pinky (Harpo Marx), to discover Firefly's plans with the hope of avoiding war. Firefly, against the wishes of his personal assistant, Bob Roland (straight-man Zeppo Marx), declares war anyways to defend what he thinks is Mrs. Teasdale's honor, and naturally, insane hilarity ensues for a surprisingly succinct 68 minutes of run time.

The majority of the film plays not unlike a middle school skit about bumbling good guys who accidentally thwart the bad guys. Your definition of "good" and "bad" is likely not too applicable here, either. Winning a war is as easy as dropping a bag of beans on the top of the enemy's head, knocking them unconscious as you declare victory through a zesty song and dance number. Duck Soup has as loose a plot as one could ever fear to expect. That it was supposedly a tongue-in-cheek criticism of the fascist dictator, Mussolini, was likely not lost on audiences in 1933... but it would surely by lost on many audiences now.

A Night at the Opera which I had a myriad of problems with, at least had levels, ups and downs and quiet moments where we catch a glimpse of these men as actual people. But they're not supposed to be real people, are they? They're caricatures and puppets, invented personas to elicit a good chuckle. Some laughs are effortless, but most are either very forced or never come at all. This movie features the bit that the Brothers might be best known for: the Mirror Scene. Paid homage endlessly from Looney Tunes to I Love Lucy (my first introduction to Harpo Marx as a kid!), it is an undeniable piece of comedy history that I could never overlook. It is, I believe, the scene that solidified their longevity in comedy and film historyand it had nothing to do with the plot of this movie. If someone didn't know the Brothers, they still know this scene.

When I'm being critical, I always have to remember that taste plays a huge part in opinion. And much as I'd like to persuade myself otherwise, my tastes just don't align with the Marx Brothers or their films. I find myself wishing for more of Groucho's scathing wit and lamenting when I have to endure full sequences of Chico's linguistic confusions or Harpo's inconsiderate skull-bashing. But when you sit down to watch a film like Duck Soup, you're signing up for just that: variety. Variety in comedic stylings, and a less than important story line to experience them.

Rating:  ★★ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © Paramount Pictures]

Check back next week for #59 on the list, Nashville — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

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