The Marx Brothers' masterpiece returns to cinemas in all its madcap glory
Featuring the kind of disruption to the cinematic status quo which couldn't be outdone by a feathered friend in a flap, 1933's Duck Soup was the fifth film fronted by the Marx Brothers and the last to feature straight-man Zeppo. Directed by Leo McCarey (The Awful Truth) it takes aim at high society, politics and war-movie heroics, resulting in a comedy classic that boasts some of Groucho's prickliest zingers and the pinnacle of Harpo's mirthful mischief.
It begins with the guardians of the destitute Freedonia trying to extract a loan from wealthy widow Mrs Teasdale (regular foil Margaret Dumont, an exemplar of dignity in the face of escalating absurdity). She's sweet on one Rufus T Firefly (Groucho Marx) and a condition of the loan is that he's immediately installed as leader. Anarchy ensues, especially when Harpo and Chico show up as spies sent from neighbouring nation Sylvania.
Duck Soup has all the razzle-dazzle of a Golden Age studio picture - spectacular costumes, grand sets and impeccably choreographed musical numbers - but, as wonderful as all the traditional dressing is, there's significant satisfaction in the Marx Brothers reducing the rulebook to shreds, while their manic energy effectively counters the era's straight-jacketed visuals. And the film delivers more than just a shot in the arm to the Hollywood machine; released during the Great Depression, its exuberantly irreverent satire of an economic crisis was right on the nose. Watching it even now we're reminded that great comedy often transgresses.
Beloved by Woody Allen, who cites it as a reason for living in Hannah and Her Sisters and paid tribute to it with the similarly themed Bananas, Duck Soup is jam-packed with memorable lines and scenes. Most enduring are the mirror sequence where Harpo uncannily imitates Groucho, Harpo's feud with a street vendor and, when told of her husband's death, Groucho tells Mrs Teasdale, 'I bet he's just using that as an excuse'. Clowning around has seldom been done better.
Selected reissue from Fri 16 Jan.