How I’ve managed to neglect viewing any works from The Marx Brothers so far is beyond me. As ever, I find myself diving head first into filmmakers that were crucial to the history of film. I know little about the four Marx brothers, other than that they orchestrated some of the most memorable and acclaimed films of their day, Duck Soup being one of their most popular endeavours in the field of early comedy. Blending light moments of slapstick with one-liners and snappy dialogue, it’s easy to see why The Marx Brothers are credited as such strong comics, with Duck Soup being the perfect entry into their work.
Much of the film is condensed into fleeting moments of enjoyably brash humour. The Marx Brothers do not provide us with likeable characters, but they play their roles with such jovial conviction that it’s hard not to be whisked away as we look at their various, corner-cutting characters. I’ve never felt so bad for one popcorn maker. The reoccurring jokes throughout are completely irrelevant to the story are farcical and a real treat. Harpo Marx steals the show in this one, his silent performance stands leagues above that of the more vocal performers he shares the screen with. That aforementioned popcorn maker shares the more memorable moments of the film with Harpo, a real testament to how great timing is crucial to comedy.
With older comedies, you always run the risk of finding that jokes just haven’t aged well, or that they don’t make sense thanks to advancements within culture or filmmaking. Duck Soup is a timeless piece, with its short length stitching together some of the funniest moments from this golden age era of Hollywood. There isn’t a moment where a contemporary reference feels shoehorned in or plastered on to appease producers looking for an edge in with the younger audience. Bona fide, heartfelt writing constructs such an incredibly engaging movie. Like all good comedies, the plot is a strong one but mere background fodder to the humour on display.
Groucho Marx’s leading performance is certainly an entertaining one, his role as the newly appointed ruler of the bankrupt country Freedonia sees some light jabs at political struggles, but nothing too on the nose so as to make it a satire. Duck Soup is far too free-flowing and consistent in its character chemistry to ever delve any further into expanding upon its premise. A crutch for the comedy, meaningless exposition never makes its way into the film, and it feels like director Leo McCarey understood that the easiest way to direct this would be to sit back and let the script speak for itself.
A brilliant example of how great an endeavour the world of 1930s comedies can be, Duck Soup has all the essential ingredients for an endlessly watchable comedy. Great performances from the Marx Brothers, a supporting cast whose straight-faced response to the antics of these leading characters makes it all the better, coupled with a tremendously witty script. It’s a fine mixture of all the right measurements and knowing when to lay the humour on thick is crucial to the success of this satisfying comedy classic.