Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Duck Soup (1933)
Studio Line: Image Entertainment

The Marx Brothers are at their hilarious best in this insanely satirical comedic romp. Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo set international relations on its ear--and the audience in stitches--with their rapid-fire wit and hijinks. Not to be missed, Duck Soup is one of the Marx Brothers' most popular films.

Director: Leo McCarey
Cast: Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, Zeppo Marx
DVD: Standard 1.33:1; audio English Digital Mono; subtitles none; closed-captioned; single sided - single layered; 16 chapters; rated NR; 68 min.; $14.99; 1/21/98; discontinued.
Supplements: None.
Purchase: DVD | The Marx Brothers Boxed Set | Monkey Business: The Lives and Legends of the Marx Brothers - Simon Louvish

Picture/Sound/Extras: C-/D/F

When I was younger, my Dad sometimes tried to convince me how terrific all the old-time movies were. (Actually, he still attempts to force his views on me.) As I age, I must admit that I see more merit in his arguments; I'll never be as fond of this material as he is, but I've come to enjoy more than a few older films.

Not that I always disagreed with his contentions, as there were some movies that we both seemed to like. Foremost among these were the works of the Marx Brothers. Other "old-time" comedians like Laurel and Hardy, W.C. Fields, and Charlie Chaplin did nothing for me, but I rather enjoyed the Marx boys, mainly due to the presence of Groucho. Chico and Harpo I could live without, but Groucho's clever one-liners seemed like pretty sharp stuff.

I hadn't seen any Marx material in quite some time before I checked out 1933's Duck Soup; in fact, I'd guess my most recent Marx experiences came with reruns of You Bet Your Life, the game show Groucho hosted in the Fifties.

Despite the fact I hadn't seen any Marx films in quite some time, I can't say anything about Duck Soup surprised me. All of the expected elements were there. As Rufus T. Firefly, newly-appointed dictator of foundering Freedonia, Groucho supplies all of the quips that are fit to spout, while Chico and Harpo work as freelance spies for neighboring enemy Sylvania and provide their usual kinds of shtick.

I found the movie to be intermittently entertaining but inconsistent. Really, it functioned more like a collection of skits than a cohesive movie; the film attempts to maintain a consistent plot about the sillier aspects of politics and warfare, but most of the time it simply provides tangentially-related gags.

And they're fairly good gags, without a doubt, but I felt like the movie needed something more to make it genuinely worthwhile. The pacing seemed haphazard and events flitted about at random. Many fans appear to like what they call the "anarchic" tone of the film, but I didn't care for it; perhaps this progression was meant to serve the movie's spirit, but I thought it simply made it look sloppy.

Frankly, I thought Duck Soup reminded me a lot of "throw everything against the wall and see what sticks" movies like Airplane!. From some folks that might be a compliment, but not from me; I couldn't stand Airplane! and I dislike that kind of desperate-for-a-laugh style. Duck Soup clearly maintains a greater level of sophistication and intelligence than the sub-moronic Airplane!, but I felt the similarities existed; gags flew fast and furious in both, but I don't think that "more: necessarily equals "better".

This doesn't mean I didn't like the film, as I thought it had enough going for it to make it worthwhile. Groucho's one-liners and quips remain solid, and the other brothers remained fairly inoffensive. I guess I could never be a real Marx Brothers fan just because I don't much care for Harpo and Chico. For me, Groucho's the only appeal; the other two have some decent moments but too much of their work appears fairly inane to me.

When I think of Harpo, I simply can't expunge the sight of his pretentious harp playing. Ooh - he's not just a comic goofball, he's an artiste! Yeah, whatever. Add to this the fact my most dominant mental image of Harpo comes from his harp-plucking appearance on I Love Lucy - the show I feel is the most over-rated in the history of TV - and my reasons for disliking his shtick may seem more clear.

I'm not completely against physical comedy, as it clearly has its place, but I'll always prefer verbal humor. I suppose that means I should like Chico, since he used that style, but I've always found his bizarre Italian stereotyped character odd. Frankly, I don't get it. I can't say I find his act offensive, but I simply don't understand its purpose. Granted, I don't really get the point of Harpo's mute moron routine either, but the whole ethnic aspect of Chico's bit makes it more puzzling to me.

Which puts me back right where I started: I like Groucho. Without him, I'd have absolutely no interest in the Marx Brothers. With him, I wasn't completely enchanted by Duck Soup, but his presence made it much more entertaining. Do I think it's one of the all-time great comedies? Nope, but I found it moderately enjoyable and witty.

The DVD:

Duck Soup appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.33:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. The DVD offers a rather erratic picture that occasionally looked decent but usually seemed somewhat problematic.

Sharpness sometimes came across as clear and crisp, but usually it appeared a bit fuzzy. Softness intruded upon large portions of the film, and much of the image looked fairly hazy and indistinct. Moiré effects and jagged edges did not demonstrate many concerns, but print flaws were a major distraction. Much of the film seemed grainy, and lots of white speckles and black grit appeared. Less consistent but also present at varying times were instances of scratches, nicks, frame jumps, streaks, blotches and thin vertical lines. The number of defects didn't reach a level terribly surprising for a film of this vintage, but they caused problems nonetheless.

Oddly, the second half of Duck Soup looked considerably cleaner than the first half. I still saw lots of flaws, but the movie actually went for semi-lengthy stretches without significant defects during its final 30 minutes or so.

Black levels tended to appear somewhat gray and bland. Much of the movie appeared too bright, and contrast seemed rather weak. Shadow detail looked similarly washed out and excessively light. As I mentioned, the image wasn't terrible based on its age, and it actually escaped a "D" rating due to the relative cleanliness of the movie's second half, but I still think it could use some serious work to improve the picture.

Much worse was the monaural soundtrack of Duck Soup. The audio displayed a variety of problems that made it unlistenable at times. Dialogue remained intelligible for the most part, but it never seemed even remotely natural or crisp; speech always featured at least moderate distortion and it could become rather edgy at times. Effects seemed a little cleaner, though during the war sequence at the end, the explosions and gunfire were very rough.

Worst of the bunch was the film's score. The music appeared muddled and indistinct at best, and it often sounded extremely harsh and shrill. Whenever the songs involved singing, the poor quality declined even more which resulted in terribly distorted and grating audio. This is a shame, because the weak quality almost ruined any potential humor in the tunes; it's hard to be amused by the words when you can't understand them. (It doesn't help that the DVD includes no subtitles.) I recognize that Duck Soup came out only five years after the advent of sound films, but even so, the audio seemed very poor.

Still, the soundtrack tops the supplements found on this DVD, because there aren't any! In fact, this disc doesn't even have a main menu page; it launches into a chapter listings section and that's it. Well, since the DVD retails for only $14.99, I guess the price is right at least.

Although I think the Marx Brothers were a decent comedy team, I must admit I really only like one-third of the group: Groucho. He makes Duck Soup fairly entertaining, but I didn't think it ever rose above that level; it's a pretty good movie that I didn't think ever threatened to become great just because it's too disjointed and incoherent. The DVD provides adequate though flawed picture with genuinely terrible sound and absolutely no extras. While the movie itself is okay, the quality of the DVD is fairly weak. As such, it should probably be avoided.

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