Time was when I was growing up in the fifties you could see a Marx Brothers movie on TV almost any week. Nowadays, local stations don't show many films, network stations run just recent hits or made-for-television fare, and cable has only a few, isolated, American Movie Classics-type outlets for older material. So, thank goodness for video tape and now DVD for giving us the chance to see and own great movies from the distant past. Everyone familiar with the Marx Brothers has his or her own favorite films; mine are "A Night at the Opera" and "Animal Crackers," with "Duck Soup" running close behind.
"Duck Soup" was the fifth of the Brothers' films for Paramount before they were let go and moved on to even bigger productions at MGM ("A Night at the Opera" being their first film there, in 1935). Many critics praise the first five films as the Brothers' best work, with "Duck Soup" their crowning achievement in zaniness. I can't argue with that. It's as wacky and wonderful a comedy as you're likely to find. Groucho's barbs, Harpo's clowning, and Chico's puns were never funnier. The jokes fly fast and furiously. It was also their last film with brother Zeppo, ever the straight man of the family.
In "Duck Soup" Groucho plays Rufus T. Firefly, the newly-appointed head of the little country of Freedonia. Zeppo is Groucho's secretary, and Chico and Harpo play spies for the neighboring state of Sylvania. Louis Calhern plays a political rival; Edgar Kennedy (of the slow burn) is yet another antagonist; and the redoubtable Margaret Dumont plays her customary role as a wealthy society matron.
Like most of the Brothers' work, the film's plot is little more than a line to hang their gags on. Declaring war on Sylvania gives the boys a chance to poke fun at politics, government, high society, Hollywood musicals, pompousness, pretension, and, of course, war. It's all quite zany and delightful, a mixture of clever wit, low humor, and outright anarchy that the world appears to have outgrown or maybe just lost sight of somewhere along the road to high-tech sophistication.
Interestingly, the film failed at the box office when it first appeared and picked up its following years later, thanks largely to television.
Video and Audio:
So, why buy an ancient, black-and-white, monaural movie on so advanced a medium as DVD? Simply because it is the best possible way of viewing it; because it is no small pleasure to watch the film in its best shape ever on TV. Not only is the DVD picture quality better than it is on video tape, clearer and more sharply defined, with beautiful, deep contrasts in the black-and-white images, but the digitally-remastered mono sound is also cleaner than ever before. Evidently, Image Entertainment were able to obtain a very good print of the film for their duplication to be this good. But there are inescapable drawbacks. As good as the picture quality and sonics are, one has to remember that the source material was still 1933 film stock. I was surprised at how good it looks and sounds, but don't expect miracles.
Furthermore, the film is only sixty-eight minutes long, and the folks at Image do not provide any bonus items, other than a scene index. Better value would have been to include two such older films on a single disc. For instance, I also watched Image's DVD of "Animal Crackers," notable for Groucho's hilarious "Captain Spaulding" speech. It was originally made a couple of years earlier than "Duck Soup" and is not quite so good a print; but it, too, is superior to its video tape counterpart. Having both films on one disc might have been a convenient selling point, but I suppose we should be glad for what we've got.
Image Entertainment have now made available all five of the Marx Brothers' earliest films on DVD: "The Cocoanuts" (1929), "Animal Crackers" (1930), "Monkey Business" (1931), "Horse Feathers" (1932), and "Duck Soup" (1933). The collector will want to have them all, but if you're only marginally familiar with the Brothers, you ought really to begin with "Animals Crackers" and "Duck Soup." Be warned, though: Once you're hooked, you will want the rest.