Released 17 November 1933, Duck Soup was the final Paramount Marx Brothers’ film, and their final film with the gorgeous, underappreciated Zeppo. All their MGM films featured a pseudo-Zeppo (the best being Allan Jones), and as Fate would have it, the pseudo-Zeppos got way more screentime than the real Zeppo ever did!
Though the film wasn’t such a wild success when it was released, it wasn’t a box office bomb, as urban legend claims. It was the sixth-highest grossing film of 1933. Regardless, it wasn’t received very well by critics, and didn’t make enough money for Paramount. Duck Soup only became a classic in the Sixties.
Mrs. Gloria Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) is sick and tired of loaning her riches to the beleaguered, bankrupt nation of Freedonia, but after the authorities wheedle enough, she relents one last time. There’s only one condition—Rufus T. Firefly must become Freedonia’s new leader.
An ambassador from neighbouring nation Sylvania, Trentino (Louis Calhern), immediately begins making plans to overthrow Rufus, with help from Vera Marcal (Raquel Torres).
Firefly then lays out his wacky rules for governing, in “Just Wait ‘Til I Get Through with It.” This is the film’s second song, after “When the Clock on the Wall Strikes Ten.”
Trentino has enlisted two spies, Chicolini and Pinky (Chico and Harpo), to dig up dirt on Firefly. It’s obvious from the jump they’re incompetent dopes, which drives Trentino up the wall with frustration and exasperation.
We now see Firefly by a meeting of the Chamber of Deputies, who are also overcome with exasperation and frustration. Rufus isn’t exactly the kind of leader anyone wants!
The next scene is one of the film’s most famous, featuring slow burn comedic character actor Edgar Kennedy as a lemonade stand vendor. He has the misfortune to be next to Chicolini’s peanut stand, and nothing goes right after he crosses paths with Pinky and Chicolini.
Rufus offers Chicolini the position of Secretary of War, in spite of his utter incompetence and chutzpah. Pinky also comes into Firefly’s office, and shows off a bunch of tattoos.
Firefly’s secretary, Bob Roland (Zeppo), has developed suspicions about Trentino’s intentions, and suggests a plan to get rid of him. Firefly will insult Trentino, and goad him into a slap. However, the plan backfires, and Firefly ends up slapping Trentino instead.
More mayhem follows between Pinky and the lemonade stand owner.
Mrs. Teasdale invites Firefly over, which delights him. He uses the opportunity to put the moves on Mrs. Teasdale. This seduction is interrupted by Trentino. Mrs. Teasdale begs them to put aside their differences, which doesn’t exactly go according to plan. Firefly is insulted and enraged anew, and turns Trentino into even more of an enemy.
Trentino begs Vera to find war plans in Mrs. Teasdale’s safe. This scheme is complicated by the presence of Firefly, who’s spending the night. Things get even more complicated when Vera sneaks Chicolini and Pinky inside.
Pinky and Chicolini impersonate Firefly to try to fool Mrs. Teasdale and get the plans. This night of double-crossing includes the famous mirror scene, which was first used in the Harold Lloyd short The Marathon (1919), and again in the Max Linder feature Seven Years Bad Luck (1921).
It demonstrates how sound can be used selectively without a film losing anything. So many early talkies were just that, talky, with barely any breathing room. Not everything needs constant dialogue to be understood or deeply felt!
Chicolini is put on trial for treason, and naturally acts like a total nitwit on the witness stand. During the proceedings, Mrs. Teasdale comes to beg Firefly one final time not to go to war. Firefly initially cheerfully agrees to meet Trentino and make peace, but soon is overcome with rage about what might happen. Trentino gets another slap, and war is officially declared.
The film’s final song, “This Country’s Going to War,” is performed. Needless to say, the trial is over.
The remainder of the film is more trademark Marxian anarchy, freewheeling comic mayhem, and chaos. These aren’t films one watches for carefully-plotted storylines!