It’s not only that the laughs-per-minute ratio is way off compared to the other Marx Brothers productions I’ve seen. The problem I have with Duck Soup – revered as it may be in the brothers’ canon – is that it’s a glaring example of the element of their comedy that’s always bothered me: the reliance on insults and cruelty.
Insult humor is a storied tradition, and certainly there is a place for it (especially in satire). But here – in what is a political satire in only the thinnest of ways – the deriding one-liners and aggressive antics aren’t aimed at any sort of deserving target, political or otherwise. They’re simply shots fired in random directions in the belief that being insulting or antagonizing alone is hysterically funny.
Groucho stars as Rufus T. Firefly, the hastily appointed leader of the bankrupt country of Freedonia. Chico and Harpo are spies sent by neighboring Sylvania, which hopes to goad Firefly into taking his nation to war.
In its defense, Duck Soup does have one truly inspired bit. Disguised as Firefly in his sleeping gown, Harpo comes face to face with Firefly in a spot that used to hold a wall mirror. Hoping to evade suspicion, Harpo matches Firefly’s every move in an ingeniously choreographed dance of ridiculousness. (The ruse comes apart when Chico shows up, also dressed as Firefly.)
…a glaring example of the element of their comedy that’s always bothered me: the reliance on insults and cruelty.
But that’s pretty much it. Considering the movie only runs 68 minutes, Duck Soup takes quite a while to get going, and when it does, the wordplay is even staler than usual. Groucho: “How would you like a job in the mint?” Chico: “Mint? No, no. What other flavors you got.” Would it help if I add a HONK!
To each his own, especially with comedy, I know. Yet when most of the jokes are also insults, it’s harder to leave it at that. The brothers’ long-suffering straight woman, Margaret Dumont, makes yet another appearance here as Mrs. Teasdale, a Freedonian society lady with romantic designs on Firefly. Despite frequent jabs, she seems oblivious to his derision, which only makes it more distasteful. (One sample: “Say,” Groucho tells her, “you cover a lot of ground yourself. You better beat it. I hear they’re going to tear you down and put up an office building where you’re standing.”)
Or take the sequence in which Harpo and Chico make a comic assault on the proprietor of a lemonade stand. Nothing really prompts it; they pretty much provoke him to violence by kicking him, cutting up his clothes and stealing his hat. Such anarchy works better when the brothers are simultaneously deflating something, such as the propriety of a snooty house party in Animal Crackers or the upper-class elitism of a luxury cruise liner in Monkey Business. Here, watching this poor guy being messed with for no reason, you simply feel sorry for him.
I’ll let the brothers ultimately make my case, for their final act in the film is representative of how most of Duck Soup operates. A hasty war having concluded (without much in the way of laughs), Groucho, Chico, Harpo and the little-used Zeppo cheer in jubilation. And how do they celebrate as the credits roll? By turning on Dumont and pelting her with fruit.