If you think the country's bad off now, just wait till I get through with it!"
Duck Soup was the Marx Brothers' fifth film and, in the eyes of the public, in tough competition with A Night at the Opera as the best film they ever made. Directed by Leo McCarey and released in 1933, it was also their final film for Paramount Pictures. It was one of the first films to openly mock the rising fascism in Europe.
The story begins in the vaguely European country of Freedonia, which is nearly bankrupt due to national mismanagement. Wealthy dowager Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) agrees to loan the country $20 million, but only if Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) is appointed ruler. Unfortunately, Ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern) of the neighboring nation of Sylvania plots to take over Freedonia, and sends his best spies Chicolini (Chico Marx) and Pinky (Harpo Marx) to do his dirty work. But between Firefly's womanizing antics, Firefly's incompetent policies, and Firefly's wanton insults to the Ambassador, Freedonia is soon on the fast track to war with Sylvania. Naturally, Hilarity Ensues throughout all of this.
In the Marx Brothers' repertoire, this movie is notable for being Zeppo Marx's final appearance with the act.
"Of course you know, this means tropes":
- Aerith and Bob: The Marx brothers play Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho), Chicolini (Chico), Pinky (Harpo)... and Firefly's Secretary, Bob Roland (Zeppo).
- Animated Tattoo: Harpo shows a tattoo of a doghouse - and a live-action dog sticks his head out of it and barks.
- Anti-Hero: Rufus T. Firefly, as summed up with the song lyrics included at the top of the page.
- Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: Confirmed capital crimes in Firefly's Freedonia include high treason, graft (unless he gets his share), and not being your wife's favorite.
- Awesome Mc Coolname: Rufus T. Firefly.
- Bedmate Reveal: Harpo is in bed with a woman...and a horse.
- Behind the Black: Harpo hides in an ordinary bathtub... from the man who's bathing in it.
- Berserk Button: President Rufus T. Firefly is prepared to go to war over Ambassador Trentino calling him an "upstart." Later Firefly has calmed down and he and Trentino patch things up, realizing that neither of them can remember the word that set things off. Trentino jokingly tries several possibilities, and unfortunately hits on the right one, which starts the war all over again.
- Big Bad: Trentino, Sylvania's ambassador who tries to start a war with Freedonia and succeeds when Firefly gets so worked up over being called an upstart, he refuses Trentino's apology.
- Black Comedy: The film skirts with this a bit, most notably in Freedonia using a musical number to declare war.
- Bread, Eggs, Breaded Eggs: The war sequence drops a reference to Paul Revere with the "one if by land, two if by sea" lantern signal. The result? Three lights!Firefly: They double-crossed me! They're coming by land and sea.
- Butt-Monkey: The lemonade vendor, whose only crime was to have the misfortune of having his cart next to Chicolini's roasted peanuts cart.
- The Caligula: What do you get when Groucho Marx becomes the uncontested leader of your country? You get a Deadpan Snarker who's late to his own inauguration (granted, not for lack of trying), fires and hires you at the drop of a hat, proclaims on his first day that he'll outlaw various leisurely activities (while doing half of them) and declares war over an insult. If he was anyone other than Groucho Marx, it would be terrifying.
- Changing Clothes Is a Free Action: In the climactic battle scene, Rufus' uniform changes almost every time the camera switches, to a variety of increasingly improbable outfits.
- Cool Sidecar: His Excellency's "car". After being twice left behind by Harpo in the detached sidecar, Groucho insists that this time he's driving. Cue Harpo driving off in the sidecar, leaving Groucho on the immobile motorcycle.
- Couldn't Find a Lighter/Mundane Utility: Harpo uses a blowtorch to light a cigar.
- Crowd Song: "To war, to war, to war we gotta go!" It eventually devolves into a minstrel show. (No Blackface, though.)
- Courtroom Antic: Chicolini's trial. The Marx Brothers are performing courtroom antics not to prevent/assure convictions, but simply because their characters are...well...who they are. Cases in point: offering the witness bets on whether there's a conviction; objecting on the grounds of "I couldn't think of anything else to say"; sustaining objections on the grounds of "I couldn't think of anything else to say either"; and a pun or two. Also, Firefly can't seem to decide whether he's prosecuting or defending Chicolini.
- Culture Police: Firefly, as the newly installed ruler of Freedonia, lays down the law in a jaunty tune:No one's allowed to smoke — Or tell a dirty joke — And whistling is forbidden!
If chewing gum is chewed — The chewer is pursued — And in the hoosegow hidden!
If any form of pleasure is exhibited,
Report to me and it will be prohibited!
I'll put my foot down
So shall it be-e-e...
This is the land of the free!
- Cute Mute: Harpo, although this is one of the films that does address the fact that he is mute by choice and used to talk. (Chicolini can't understand why he won't talk to him.)
- Deadly Euphemism/Disproportionate Retribution: Played for Laughs:If anyone's caught taking graft - and I don't get my share,
We stand him up against the wall and Pop! goes the weasel!
- Ding-Dong-Ditch Distraction: Discussed.Bob Roland: Trentino is trying to undermine you. What're you going to do about it?
Firefly: I've a good mind to ring his doorbell and run!
- Distracted by the Sexy: Firefly sends Pinky out to warn the country that the Sylvanians are coming, which he does, in a Paul Revere-esque manner, until... he sees a woman about to take a bath. And yet he prefers to share her bed with his horse.
- Drawing Straws: Chicolini decides who will join the battle with a variant of "Eeny meeny miny moe":"Rrrrrrrinspot! One-sa, two-sa, zig-zag-zav, poptie, gimmega, tin-lie, tav, harem, scarem, moychan, tarem, tare, tore... [points to himself] I did it wrong"
- Easily Forgiven: Chicolini, the Sylvanian spy who enlists his services with Freedonia.
- Fiction 500: Mrs. Teasdale is rich enough to solve a nation's debt, even a small one, and declare who is to lead itnote .
- Fictional Country: Freedonia and Sylvania.
- For the Funnyz: Pretty much the only reason for anything Firefly, Chicolini, or Pinky did.
- Gold Digger: A running gag throughout the movie is that Firefly wants to marry Miss Teasdale for her money despite finding her unattractive, starting with this exchange:Firefly: "Not that I care, but where is your husband?
Teasdale: "Why he's dead."
Firefly: "I'll bet he's just using that as an excuse."
Teasdale: "I stayed with him till the very end."
Firefly: "Hmm, no wonder he passed away."
Teasdale: "I held him in my arms and kissed him."
Firefly: "Oh I see, then it was murder. Will you marry me? Did he leave you any money? Answer the second question first."
Teasdale: "He left me his entire fortune."
Firefly: "Is that so? Can't you see what I'm trying to tell you, I love you!"
- Gondor Calls for Aid: All seems lost! Luckily, Rufus T. Firefly can call in the reserves! (Cue a crowning moment of Stock Footage.)
- Go, Ye Heroes, Go and Die: An intentional version as Pinky is "volunteered" to break through enemy lines in the final battle between Freedonia and Sylvania:Rufus T. Firefly: You're a brave man. Go and break through the lines. And remember, while you're out there risking your life and limb through shot and shell, we'll be in here thinking what a sucker you are.
- Grande Dame: Mrs. Teasdale.
- Gratuitous Yiddish: When Chicolini plays a variant of "eeny meeny miney moe" to determine who will go out to the battlefield:Chicolini: Rrrrrr-rinspot! One-sa, two-sa, zig-zag-zav, poptie, gimmega, tin-lie, tav, harem, scarem, moychan, tarem, tare, tore... [points to himself] I did it wrong.
- Hail to the Thief: Firefly sings a song at the beginning, outlining Freedonia's new administration:Firefly: The last man nearly ruined this place he didn't know what to do with it;
If you think this country's bad off now, just wait till I get through with it! [Firefly does a sailor's hornpipe dance]
The country's taxes must be fixed, and I know what to do with it;
If you think you're paying too much now, just wait till I get through with it! [Firefly plays a flute]
I will not stand for anything that's crooked or unfair,
I'm strictly on the up-and-up, so everyone beware.
If anyone's caught taking graft... and I don't get my share,
We stand him up against the wall and... *Pop* goes the weasel!
- Handshake Refusal: Rufus T. Firefly imagines Ambassador Trentino won't shake his hand, and builds up resentment towards him so much that as soon as Trentino enters, Firefly Glove Slaps him for the refusal which hadn't actually happened.Firefly: I'd be only too happy to meet with Ambassador Trentino, and offer him on behalf of my country the right hand of good fellowship. And I feel sure he will accept this gesture in the spirit of which it is offered. But suppose he doesn't. A fine thing that'll be. I hold out my hand and he refuses to accept. That'll add a lot to my prestige, won't it? Me, the head of a country, snubbed by a foreign ambassador. Who does he think he is, that he can come here, and make a sap of me in front of all my people? Think of it - I hold out my hand and that hyena refuses to accept. Why, the cheap four-flushing swine, he'll never get away with it I tell you, he'll never get away with it!
Firefly: So, you refuse to shake hands with me, eh?" *SLAP!*
- Have We Met?:Ambassador Trentino: Have we met each other before, sir?
Rufus T. Firefly: I don't think so. In fact, I'm not sure I'm seeing you now; it must be something I ate.
- Hilarity Ensues: It's the Marx Brothers. You could make them fill out taxes and still get this.Chico: Hey, I got an uncle lives in Taxes!
Government Minister: No, I'm talking about taxes. Money. Dollars.
Chico: Dollars! That's where my uncle lives! Dollars, Taxes!
- The Hilarity of Hats: There is a scene in the movie where Harpo and Chico mess with a lemonade stand owner by knocking his hat off and then swapping it around with their hats when he tries to pick it up and put it back on.
- Hurricane of Puns: Chicolini's trial. The above quote is just the tip of the iceberg.
- Hypocritical Humor: A staple for Firefly.
- Firefly's secretary Bob Roland (played by Zeppo) whispers to him a story that he'd told to Vera Marcal, which caused her and Ambassador Trentino to slap him. Firefly immediately slaps Zeppo.Firefly: You ought to be ashamed of yourself! Where'd you hear that story?
Roland: Why, you told it to me.
Firefly: Oh yes, I remember. I should have slapped Mrs. Teasdale's face when she told it to me.
- In his first number, Firefly declares that "Whistling is forbidden" and then starts whistling. He also declares that chewing gum would be forbidden, and is seen visibly chewing gum.
- Firefly caps a long Motor Mouthed monologue with "Do you know you haven't stopped talking since I got here? You must have been vaccinated with a phonograph needle."
- Firefly's secretary Bob Roland (played by Zeppo) whispers to him a story that he'd told to Vera Marcal, which caused her and Ambassador Trentino to slap him. Firefly immediately slaps Zeppo.
- Implausible Deniability: "Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?"
- Incessant Chorus: The Freedonian national anthem.
- Informed Attribute: Rufus T. Firefly was given the position of Leader of Freedonia on the request of Mrs. Teasdale because he apparently is the perfect man for the job, waxing on about how he has the right mental and moral fortitude to lead Freedonia. Keep in mind that this is Groucho Marx she's talking about. He is formally introduced coming late to his inauguration after everyone says that one of the things he's known for is his punctuality (to his credit, not for lack of trying, as he's got his alarm clock set for 10:00 and quickly enters through a back road upon realizing he's running a bit later than usual), and for the rest of the film he is shown to be somewhere between indifferent and insane to the otherwise serious nature of his profession. Though considering he declared war on a allied nation over flimsy context after becoming leader of a financially unstable country and won, perhaps there is something we're not seeing.
- Insult to Rocks: After calling the Sylvanian ambassador a baboon, Firefly apologizes, saying "That isn't fair to the rest of the baboons."
- Ironic Nursery Tune: Newly installed President Firefly lays down the law in a peppy tune:I will not stand for anything that's crooked or unfair,
I'm strictly on the up-and-up, so everyone beware!
If anyone's caught taking graft - and I don't get my share,
We stand him up against the wall and Pop Goes the Weasel!
- I Take Offense to That Last One!: "That's right, 'upstart'!"
- It Won't Turn Off: At Mrs. Teasdale's manor, Pinky mistakes a radio for a safe, which plays a very loud and energetic rendition of "Stars And Stripes Forever". He tries to muffle the radio with pillows, to no effect. He then throws it on the floor and smashes it to pieces; again, the radio continues to play. Pinky has to settle for throwing what's left of the radio out the window.
- It's Probably Nothing: After all this, Firefly dismisses the sudden noise by saying "Sounds to me like mice!"Mrs. Teasdale: Mice?! Mice can't play music!
Firefly: No? Haven't you heard of the old Mice-stro?
- "Join the Army," They Said: And see the Navy.
- Joker Jury: Played for laughs, when Chicolini, the spy for the rival country of Sylvania, is put on trial by the Freedonian courts, with Firefly even volunteering to be Chicolini's attorney, and Chicolini's testimony consisting of a Hurricane of Puns throughout the trial.
- Just a Stupid Accent: Parodied when Chicolini (Chico) has disguised himself as Firefly (Groucho), and when Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) asks why he's talking like that, he replies, "Well, I think maybe sometime I go to Italy, and I'm practicing the language." Impressed, Mrs. Teasdale gushes, "Your dialect is perfect."
- Lame Pun Reaction: Chicolini's suggestion that Freedonia maintain a standing army, "because then we save money on chairs", provokes Firefly to give him the bum's rush from the room (and apparently worse, judging by the Offscreen Crash that follows). This is a pun so bad that Groucho, the man who once took pictures of the native girls and was waiting for them to develop, felt it necessary to chase Chico.
- Lampshaded Double Entendre: "Can't you see what I'm trying to tell you? I love you." Spoken by Firefly twice when propositioning Mrs. Teasdale.
- Literal-Minded:Lemonade Vendor: I'll teach you to hit me!
Chico: You don't have to teach me, I know how!
- Mathematician's Answer:Prosecutor: Chicolini, when were you born?Chico: I don't remember. I was just a little baby.
- Earlier in the movie:Lemonade Stand Owner: I'll teach you to hit me!
Chico: You don't have to teach me, I know how! (hits him again)
- Earlier in the movie:
- Malaproper:Prosecutor: Something must be done! War would mean a prohibitive increase in our taxes.
Chicolini: Hey, I got an uncle lives in Taxes.
Prosecutor: No, I'm talking about taxes — money, dollars!
Chicolini: Dollars! There's-a where my uncle lives! Dollars, Taxes!
- Meaningful Titles: Played with.Groucho: "Take two turkeys, one goose, four cabbages, but no duck, and mix them together. After one taste, you'll duck soup the rest of your life."
- Mirror Routine: One of the most famous and best-executed examples in the history of cinema.
- National Anthem: Hail! Hail Freedonia! Land of the brave! And! Free!
- Noodle Incident: Bob Roland (Zeppo) tells Firefly a joke that gets him slapped in the face; we never find out what the joke was:Bob Roland: Why, I said something to Vera Marcal in his presence once, and he slapped my face.
Firefly: Why didn't Vera slap your face?
Roland: She did.
Firefly: What'd you say to her? [Roland whispers the joke in Firefly's ear, and gets slapped by Firefly] You ought to be ashamed of yourself. Where'd you hear that story?
Roland: Why, you told it to me.
Firefly: Oh yes, I remember. I should have slapped Mrs. Teasdale's face when she told it to me.
- Not Helping Your Case: At the start of Chicolini's trial, Firefly places the odds of Chicolini being convicted at 8 to 1; he increases the odds to 20 to 1 when Chicolini admits to selling "a code and two pairs of plans".
- Official Presidential Transport: "His Excellency's Car" is a motorcycle with a sidecar. Twice the motorcycle takes off without the sidecar, which has President Firefly. The third time the President gets on the motorcycle and has his driver get in the sidecar, which then drives off without the motorcycle.
- Offscreen Crash:Chicolini: I think we should have a standing army.
Firefly: Oh? Why's that?
Chicolini: We save money on chairs.
[Firefly thunders into him, pushes him out the door, and CRASH!]
- On Second Thought: "I could dance with you until the cows come home. On second thought, I'd rather dance with the cows until you came home."
- Only One Name: Chicolini and Pinky.
- Pick a Card: Parodied and subverted.Rufus T. Firefly: Take a card.
Mrs. Teasdale: [takes one] Card? What will I do with the card?
Rufus T. Firefly: You can keep it. I've got fifty-one left.
- Please Select New City Name: The city of Fredonia, NY complained about the name "Freedonia," worrying that it might negatively affect them. Groucho, of course, replied, "Change the name of your town. It is hurting our picture."
- Premature Aggravation: Used to provide the page quote.
- Pretty in Mink: Mrs. Teasdale wears a couple, given she's rich enough to bail out a bankrupt country.
- Pretext for War: Essentially just bankruptcy and personal slights. Some of which were hypothetical slights that didn't actually happen, at that.
- Produce Pelting: Firefly and company do this to Trentino at the end of the movie. Then they do this to Mrs. Teasdale when she insists on singing the Freedonian national anthem again.
- Pungeon Master: Firefly is full of them, though Chicolini isn't far behind. See Hilarity Ensues.
- Rapid-Fire Comedy: And how! After the short introduction it's hard to find a single moment in the film that's devoid of gags. This was one of the group's trademarks, of course.
- Rejected Apology:Trentino: I'm sorry we lost our tempers. I'm willing to forget if you are.Firefly: Forget? You ask me to forget... Why, my ancestors would rise from their graves... and I'd only have to bury them again... A Firefly never forgets.Trentino: I am willing to apologize... I'm willing to do anything to prevent this war.Firefly: Nothing doing!! I've taken a lease on the battlefield. I'd lose my deposit, besides, I've already ordered the ammunition.Vera: Oh, Your Excellency, isn't there something I can do?Firefly: Yes, but I'll talk to you about that when we're alone.Mrs. Teasdale: Oh, won't you reconsider.Firefly: Well, maybe I am a little headstrong... But, you know, it's awfully hard to forget what he called me.Trentino: What I called you... Why, what did I call you?Firefly: I don't remember.Trentino: (With a little chuckle) Oh — you mean... worm?Firefly: No, that wasn't it...Trenitno: Was it — swine?Firefly: No... it was a seven letter word.Trentino: (Thinking, then with a broad smile) Oh yes! — UPSTART!Firefly: That's it...Takes gloves from Trentino's breast pocket and socks him across the face, and puts them in his own breast pocket. Trentino becomes apoplecticTrentino: Why - er - Mrs. Teasdale - this is an outrage! This man is impossible... My course is clear... this means war!
- Rejection Projection: Played for Laughs, of course. Firefly imagines Ambassador Trentino rejecting his handshake and is so worked up about it that when Trentino arrives, he slaps him before he's even said a word.
- Right on the Tick: Firefly is supposed to turn up when the clock strikes 10. Subverted for laughs: he sneaks in from the back. By fire pole, no less.
- Romancing the Widow: Both Firefly and Ambassador Trentino do this with Mrs. Teasdale.Mrs. Teasdale: I was with [my late husband] to the very end.
Rufus T. Firefly: No wonder he passed away.
Mrs. Teasdale: I held him in my arms and kissed him.
Rufus T. Firefly: Oh, I see, then it was murder! Will you marry me? Did he leave you any money? Answer the second question first.
- Rousing Speech: Parodied (naturally) by Groucho: "And remember, while you're out there risking your life and limb through shot and shell, we'll be in here thinking what a sucker you are!"
- Rule of Funny: The plot makes absolutely no sense if you think about it for more than a minute, but you'll probably be laughing too hard to care. How is one rich heiress powerful enough to decide the leader of an entire country by herself? How does a fast-talking huckster with no political experience get appointed the leader of a country? Why is said country identical to 1930's America? How did a frizzy-haired mute and a guy with an incomprehensible Italian accent get jobs as spies? Just go with it.
- Rule of Three: The motorcycle gag. Also, Firefly slapping Trentino.
- Running Gag:
Groucho: This is the fifth trip I've taken today, and I haven't been anywhere yet.
- Harpo pulls up in a motorcycle, Groucho gets into the sidecar, Harpo drives off. Invariably, Groucho is left behind.
- Later subverted as Groucho gets clever and insists on riding on the motorcycle portion. Cue Harpo driving off in the sidecar.Groucho: This is the only way to travel.
- Groucho's changing uniforms during the actual war sequence.
- Harpo's half-kleptomania, where he steals half-items by snipping them off with scissors.
- Ruritania: Freedonia, land of the brave and free! In a clear-cut case of Western Imperialism, the wealthy Mrs. Teasdale insists running dog Rufus T. Firefly be appointed President in return for half her husband's fortune to avoid an impending liberation by neighboring Sylvania. (It's not clear whether this is the same Sylvania portrayed in the 1929 film The Love Parade, in which Maurice Chevalier plays a Rich Idiot With No Day Job who becomes prince consort to Sylvania's Queen Louise.)
- Russian Reversal:"Why, I could dance with you 'til the cows come home! On second thought, I'd rather dance with the cows 'til you come home!"
- Senseless Violins: Firefly does this in the climactic battle sequence. Naturally, he's shooting in the wrong direction.
- Shoo Out the Clowns: Firefly temporarily dismisses Chicolini as Secretary of War for the following pun:Firefly: Now that you're Secretary of War, what kind of an army do you think we ought to have?
Chicolini: Well, I tell you what I think, I think we should have a standing army.
Firefly: Why should we have a standing army?
Chicolini: Because then we save money on chairs.
- Silence Is Golden: The Mirror Routine is performed entirely without sound.
- Silly Reason for War: The war between Freedonia and Sylvania begins because Rufus T. Firefly took offense at getting called an "upstart".
- Spontaneous Skeet Shooting: When Trentino asks Pinky to show him his past record, he takes out a phonograph record, prompting the angry dictator to toss it up. Pinky shoots it in mid-air with a pistol, and Chicolini rewards him with a cigar.
- Spot the Impostor: During the Mirror Routine, the jig is up for Chicolini as soon as Firefly sees a second impostor (Pinky) on the other side of the doorway.
- Squick: Invoked by Pinky. After the lemonade vendor overturns the peanut stand, Pinky takes off his shoes and socks and jogs in place in the lemonade tank.
- Stock Footage: Played for laughs... played for rolling-on-the-floor laughs when Rufus T. Firefly calls in the reserves!
- Strange Salute: The soldiers of Freedonia salute by placing their arm horizontally, with a down-facing open palm, across their chest.
- That Was Objectionable: During the treason trial; Judge Firefly even sustains it.Prosecutor (Zeppo): I object.Judge (Groucho): Even I object.Defendant (Chico): And I object, too!Second Judge: You're on trial, you can't object!
- This Means War!: Not the trope creator, but possibly the Trope Namer. Firefly declares war after insulting himself and blaming it on the other country's ambassador. And then there's a big musical number about it.
- Transforming Vehicle: Firefly has as his personal vehicle a motorcycle (driven by Harpo) with a sidecar. The first two times Firefly gets in the sidecar, Harpo drives off without him. The third time Firefly gets on the bike and has Harpo get in the sidecar. Harpo drives off in the sidecar, leaving Firefly on the motorcycle.
- Villain Protagonist: Let's face it: Rufus T. Firefly isn't exactly the most noble of rulers.
- Wacky Americans Have Wacky Names: Rufus T. Firefly. Wacky? Check (played by Groucho). American? Check, probably. Wacky name? It fits!
- What Happened to the Mouse?: After sneaking Chicolini and Pinky into Mrs. Teasdale's manor, Trentino's accomplice Vera Marcal just sort of disappears from the film without explanation (despite actress Raquel Torres being credited second in the supporting cast, after Margaret Dumont and before Louis Calhern [Trentino]).
- When the Clock Strikes Twelve: The musical number "When the Clock on the Wall Strikes Ten" is about how Firefly will make his entrance when...well see the title.
- Whole Plot Reference: Animaniacs in one of their most popular episodes, King Yakko.
- You Are Fat: Margaret Dumont is not fat, especially not by 1933's standards, but that doesn't keep Firefly from saying this of Mrs. Teasdale:"I can see you now in the kitchen, bending over a hot stove. But I can't see the stove!"
- You Fool!: The Sylvanian ambassador uses a few lines in response to the insults from Groucho. The one that sets off the slap is "You upstart".