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Now Screening at the Monmouth Cinema Club: Duck Soup

WEST LONG BRANCH, NJ– There are movies that make you smile because of their charm, craft, and cleverness. They’re lighter than air and you can’t wait

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to return to them, to re-experience the magic that the film made you feel when you first saw it.
And then there’s Duck Soup.
A film that is as anachronistic as its title, Duck Soup has to be one of the funniest movies of the Golden Age Studio System, if not of all time. The film is a textbook of all the types of humor you could possibly think of. Wordplay (“I got an uncle who lives there–Dollars, Taxes!”), insults (“I can see you bending over a hot stove–but the problem is, I can’t see the stove.”), slapstick (anything with Harpo), innuendo (Madame Teasedale), outright sex jokes (“All I can offer you is a Rufus over your head.”) and everything in between. If you went to the IMDb quotes page for this movie, you’d probably find the entire script–every line is a gem.
The film is basically about everything and nothing. It has a plot, but there’s no point, except to serve up the satire. Groucho plays a dictator, Rufus T. Firefly, who takes over the land of Freedonia after the previous ruler dies. The government of Slyvania doesn’t like Firefly and employs two spies, played by Chico and Harpo Marx, to dig up something that can be used to overthrow the government of Freedonia; as if Firefly can’t do that himself. There’s a peanut stand, a declaration of war, defection, political commentary: no true direction, yet the destination is perfection.
Duck Soup has the advantage of being released in 1933. This is the year Hitler came to power, which the film lampoons indirectly with Groucho playing a ridiculous dictator, and was also the year before the Hays Production code took over Hollywood film grammar: no cussing, no sex, no suicide, no adultery; a sanitizer for movies post-1934. Both factors combine to create a ridiculous farce that’s both shockingly outrageous and also kind of subtle, when you think about the context it was released in.
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The film is rife with political satire, using dictator Rufus T. Firefly as its vehicle.  He is known for rolling back lunch hours, taking everyone’s money away, waging useless war, and abusing his cabinet: “If any form of pleasure is exhibited…report to me and it will be prohibited.”  However, that’s all for the best of the film. It jokes about taxes, working hours and war with a lightness typical of Marx brother films, but with a darker and very subtle subtext that isn’t normally mentioned unless you’re looking for it.
But why care at all of the satire? It’s there, it’s very clever, it’s important to the theme of the film, but we go to a film like this because it’s just so funny. It is one gag after another, one witticism and joke on top of the other. It’s pointless trying to quote the film’s many gags and one-liners because the situations, the set-ups, and the execution are all so vital to making us laugh, to even attempt to capture it on page is a certain crime against the film.
Duck Soup in its initial release was not well recieved by critics or at the box office, forcing the Marx Brothers to move to MGM studios with boy wonder producer, Irving Thalberg. Under Thalberg’s supervision, the Marx Brothers’ films became tamer, and emphasized the plot a great deal more than in their previous Paramount films. Before Thalberg’s untimely death he produced A Night at the Opera, one of the Marx Brothers’ best loved films; however, it’s a much more conventional comedy than Duck Soup.  It was also the first time the Marx Brothers made a film without their brother Zeppo, and Duck Soup was his final onscreen performance.
If Duck Soup gave Woody Allen’s character in Hannah and Her Sisters motivation to live, it means you should probably see this movie.