Trying to form screenwriting and filmmaking criticism regarding strict comedies presents an interesting challenge. A film like Duck Soup makes no pretensions towards crafting a complex or interesting story. Its sole priority is to entertain. There’s no shortage of nobility in that, but since I’m a writer rather than a comedian, it leaves me less qualified than usual to really get into what works or doesn’t work about this movie. The only thing I can say that means anything is that Duck Soup is really, really funny.
Duck Soup is ostensibly about the petty disputes of some world leaders escalating all the way to war. But that doesn’t matter. The film presents the Marx Brothers at their vaudevillian best. Groucho, Harpo, and Chico are so hilarious they don’t even care whether they have the audience’s sympathy or not. Unlike Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin, they can’t really be characterized as loveable scamps or downtrodden underdogs. They’re malevolent agents of chaos, who value nothing and victimize indiscriminately. They ridicule and tear down even those who would seem to be on their side. Groucho’s exploitation of the inexplicably supportive Mrs Teasdale is needlessly cruel: he insults her and berates her when it suits him, or compliments and manipulates her when he desires something. Harpo and Chico are similarly merciless with their initial employer Ambassador Trentino, destroying his clothes and covering his rear with glue when he tries to give them some instructions. A lemonade salesman doesn’t have much luck with them either, ending up with multiple destroyed hats and a business in shambles.
If the Marx Brothers bothered with a plot, such brutality wouldn’t fly. But they don’t ask for sympathy or affection beyond any preexisting relationship the audience has to them. They’re here to entertain. Pathos is irrelevant, and punchlines come a mile a minute. If ones doesn’t land, another is upon you instantaneously before you even the chance to dwell.
Duck Soup may not have an once of pretension, but that doesn’t preclude it from being wildly ambitious. Massive song and dance numbers pepper the film at seemingly arbitrary intervals. They’re performed with such eagerness to please that they amuse despite their superfluousness. Even the forgotten Marx Brother Zeppo gets in on the action for ‘This Country’s Going To War!’, his nearly irrelevant Bob Roland suddenly and conspicuously side by side with the principals despite his utter forgetability. But who cares whether he’s important to the story or not if he can wring a smile from you?
Duck Soup doesn’t bother to challenge, enlighten, or enrich. Regardless, it’s obviously a tremendous success, and has contributed countless classic moments of comedy to our cultural cannon. But can something that’s such an obvious trifle still be an important landmark of film? Of course it can. Film is a flexible medium, and there are countless ways to make a great movie. The more interesting question is if the movie would have benefited from a little bit more attention payed to plot or structure? Would Duck Soup be more memorable if we could more easily get behind the Marx Brothers and genuinely root for their triumph?
Unfortunately for us aspiring dramatic writers out there, I doubt it. The reality is what little plot there is in this movie is basically a waste of time as is. Any more would just dilute the fast-paced laughs further. Consequently, Duck Soup is a unique and inimitable masterpiece that can’t really teach you a single thing about screenwriting. Maybe you can gleam how to frame a joke or gag, but no amount of work or analysis can really help you to grasp the ineffable brilliance of the movie and apply it to you’re own work. When you get right down to it, you’re either as funny as the Marx Brothers, or you aren’t. Obviously, that leaves me out of luck. But that’s fine. Not everything has to be a learning experience. A laugh is a lot more fun, anyway.